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E-learning combats Southeast Asia's teacher shortages

Companies from Japan, elsewhere respond to the need with 'edtech'

TOKYO -- Southeast Asia is benefiting from increased adoption of e-learning, as information technology helps compensate for shortages of teachers and study materials.

Filling the gaps

In a wooden school building in San Pablo, on the Philippine island of Luzon, seven high school students were learning how the heart functions by watching an online lecture shown on a monitor in a classroom. Once the female teacher finished explaining, the students put on white robes and dissected a livestock heart. They then moved to a computer lab and tested their knowledge on the subject via online materials.

This service is offered by Quipper, a British education service subsidiary of Japan's Recruit Holdings.

An excited 11th-grader in the class said he switched to the school this year and enjoys the new learning environment, adding that the online study materials are like games.

The Philippines last year began work on reforms to create a 12-year curriculum for elementary through high school, an expansion from the former 10-year system. The student's old school was not ready to teach the new 11th-graders, but his new school teaches the curriculum, with help from the Quipper service.

The British company began offering the Quipper Video service last year. Fees for lectures by professionals accessible via computers, as well as smartphones and tablets, are 3,600 pesos ($72) a year per student. The service also allows their teachers to create homework and manage grades online, helping them keep track of students' progress and weaknesses.

Founded in 2010, Quipper has increased its Asian business since the roughly 5 billion yen ($44.1 million at current rates) acquisition by Recruit in 2015. It fully launched business in Indonesia that year, and in 2016 expanded the sales team to 550 from 40. In Vietnam and Thailand, local-language educational materials are being prepared, with an eye toward a full-fledged business rollout by the end of this year.

This "edtech," which takes advantage of information technology to deliver education services, is gaining traction worldwide. U.K.'s IBIS Capital projects the edtech service market will triple from 2013 levels to $252 billion in 2020. The Asia-Pacific region, with a large school-age population, is seen accounting for 54%, up from 46%.

Line's experiment

Chat-app provider Line chose Indonesia as its first venue for edtech business. The country's 4 million births annually roughly quadruples the number in Japan, where the company is based.

The company officially launched its "Line Academy" service in January in collaboration with local startup Ruangguru. Line has broad recognition in the country, with its app downloads topping 90 million. Ruangguru's educational content will be delivered via the Line vehicle to help students prepare for university admission.

Initially, lectures of roughly three minutes on subjects such as middle- and high-school math and chemistry will be offered for free. But "we are incubating multiple ideas to monetize the service," said a public relations official at Line's Indonesian operation.

Homegrown startups are the main drivers of edtech in Southeast Asia. But Britain's Pearson, like Japan's Recruit, is extending its reach to capture the opportunity. The U.K. educational giant in November announced its involvement in $2.2 million of funding for Indonesian startup HarukaEdu.

Startups themselves are also collaborating among themselves across national borders. Thailand's Taamkru, which focuses on kindergarten education, partnered with Vietnamese edtech startup Kyna this month. Kyna will translate and market Taamkru's content, such as arithmetic drills, for its domestic market. Japanese venture capital backs these two companies.

To all corners of society

Shortages of teachers and educational materials in Southeast Asia provide fertile ground for edtech to flourish. Education funding varies among countries, as does access for those in outlying areas and in differing socioeconomic strata.

That schools and teachers have leeway to exercise discretion -- more so than in countries like Japan -- also helps, a Quipper official said.

Almost all students at a public high school on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, 1,400km from Jakarta, use smartphones and tablets -- and teachers employ edtech in class. The school principal perceives IT as an essential tool to expand possibilities for students.

The Philippines' teacher-student ratio of 35-1 in secondary schools ranks seventh worst among 195 countries and territories, according to the statistics website NationMaster. Myanmar ranks ninth worst.

With teacher quality also uneven, demand is strong for supplemental education materials available online. Just as financial technology booms in Asia to compensate for shortages of bank branches, the region likely will be the testing ground for edtech business models.

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