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The 5 Biggest Problems in Education that Southeast Asian Edtech Should be Solving

The 5 Biggest Problems in Education that Southeast Asian Edtech Should be Solving


It’s an exciting time to be in the edtech ecosystem in Southeast Asia — some have called it the “golden era” for tech in the region, and for edtech in particular. This is due to the combined conditions of:

  • one of the world’s fastest growing internet markets, where e-commerce revenue is slated to show an annual growth rate (CAGR 2021-2025) of 10.28%, resulting in a projected market volume of over US$100 billion by 2025;

  • continued increase in mobile handset adoption and digital payment systems;

  • A population of 210 million people under the age of 30;

  • increasing investment in the region’s edtech industry (US$480m over the past 5 years);

  • increasing maturity in the ecosystem for the industry with better sharing of knowledge across ASEAN countries; and

  • acceleration of remote learning and increasing educator familiarity with edtech due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, in the rush to grab a share of the business opportunities, there are several large underlying problems we should be collaborating with education stakeholders to solve. If we don’t, we run the risk of entrenching existing problems, but if we do, we have the opportunity to make a difference to educational experience and attainment not just in the region, but to the world at large.

Problem 1: Equity

The disparities in educational quality and achievement remain a perennial problem in Southeast Asia. A 2020 UNICEF study reports that the percentage of children achieving basic literacy and numeracy can be as low as 2% in some Southeast Asian countries, and while some parents are able to pay for private education to get kids out of underfunded public schools, others have few options. For instance, only 67% of Cambodians and 77% of Laotians get to the final year of secondary education.

Equity is an issue even in an educationally high-achieving country like Singapore, where the former Education Minister, Ong Ye Kung, remarked that “meritocracy … seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness”, where well-off students are more likely to get to elite schools within the public system.

Edtech companies in Southeast Asia like Ruangguru (Indonesia) and XSeed (Singapore) for example, have been able to make content and teaching accessible to anyone with a stable internet connection, and also provide personalized tracking of progress in attainment metrics. This means that children are afforded a more level playing field in terms of curricula and monitoring, which goes a long way in providing consistent educational access.

However, the history of edtech tells us that tech’s success at moving the needle on equity has been patchy at best. MIT professor Justin Reich’s research shows that edtech innovations such as MOOCs, autograders, computerized “intelligent tutors” and other online learning tools—even if they are made free to learners—still benefit wealthier students with more stable home environments and resources far more than those from lower social classes. A look at other metrics such as the completion rates of rural versus urban kids, and also girls versus boys, also suggest that edtech’s “disruptive” ability is more hype than real when it comes to equity.

This comports with the findings in the longstanding studies into the “hidden curriculum” in education by researchers like Jean Anyon, Basil Bernstein, Pierre Bourdieu and Michael Apple, which have shown consistently how the school system still assumes that advantaged students are somehow more deserving of knowledge and skills that lead to social leadership (and are therefore encouraged to be creative and critical), while working class students are instead channeled towards more vocational studies and rewarded for compliance and obedience (Anyon J., 1980).

Making data, tracking and pre-existing curricular content more accessible, therefore, is insufficient, and may ironically entrench prevailing disparities more efficiently. We also need to be as focused on helping learners complete their studies and providing them with the type of curricula and teaching that give all children the possibility of becoming leaders in the 21st Century. Edtech companies like Yola (Vietnam), for example, are exploring online-offline models, where content delivery and data-tracking are complemented by the building of the kinds of trusting relationships and spaces that research has shown have helped disadvantaged communities.

Problem 2: The Inner Lives of Children

Children’s lives have changed significantly over the past 20 years. 98% of children in Southeast Asia use mobile devices, with 41% spending more than 1 hour per sitting. In one study, Southeast Asian kids were even found to spend 20% more time on their mobile devices than their American counterparts.

Add to that the omnipresence of social media (despite platforms’ half-hearted attempts to impose age restrictions) and you have a highly distracted youth population chasing ephemeral goals such as ‘likes’, leading to maladies such as depression and suicide.

Teachers and parents are now competing with not just TV and video games for kids’ attention, but also TikTok and whatever comes after it. The impact on the inner lives of children is a serious issue that edtech has to incorporate into its considerations. We can’t just be repackaging old content in glitzier game shells and delivering them faster. The curricular content itself has to change to care more for the well-being of kids, and to be much more culturally relevant to students’ lives. This requires collaboration with content creators, teachers and schools. We should be the tech that kids engage with because they can more fully enjoy learning, and not serve merely as substitutes for teachers, tutors or babysitters.

Problem 3: The Factory Model of Education

There are any number of edtech companies boasting of how they can help kids pass existing tests, by delivering existing curricula faster and in more efficient ways.

But by doing that, these well-meaning companies risk reinforcing what educators have called the “factory model of education” and the notion that students can and should be churned out like assembly-line products, through processes including strict age-segregation; a focus on test scores; and the fragmentation of knowledge instead of integration across disciplines, subjects and fields. The many algorithm-based solutions that claim to deliver “individualized learning” are not enough. We need innovations that promote and scale collaborative learning, peer-to-peer learning, performance assessments on authentic tasks, and creative integration of knowledge across subject areas.

Very few edtech companies are currently in this space in the region, but it is definitely a growth area, as governments across Southeast Asia look for solutions to dismantle the factory model of education and deliver education that actually prepares students for the 21st Century.

Problem 4: Teacher Education

There are many gaps and inconsistencies in teacher education and professional development across Southeast Asia, leading to very uneven educational outcomes. As a result, many edtech products seem to be predicated on bypassing teachers within schools, and servicing teachers outside of schools.

However, teachers are actually front-line troops with whom we need to work if we are to truly transform educational experience and attainment. This is an area where edtech has the opportunity to make a substantial difference by working with universities and governments to provide research-backed best practices for teacher education and professional development, such as growing teachers’ pedagogical and content expertise, mentorship for new teachers and teachers testing out new tech, collaboration across subjects and regions, peer feedback, and learning circles.

Problem 5: Global Citizenship and future-proofing competencies

Our young people need to learn how to participate in our increasingly complex and interconnected ecosystem, as well as appreciate and benefit from cultural differences. Recognizing this, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has included “global competence” as a metric in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the global yardstick for education success. Global competence includes the ability to understand the perspectives of others, to communicate across cultures effectively, to be empathetic towards immigrants—all experiences that are in the everyday lives of Southeast Asians.

The previous four education problems are bound up in various deficits in the region, but global citizenship is one area where Southeast Asia has an advantage, thanks to our diversity of languages and cultures and long history of intermingling and trade. I therefore feel very strongly that we should find ways to scale our multicultural identity and brand through our edtech ventures.

An example is Dim Sum Warriors® from Yumcha Studios (Singapore and Taiwan), a language-learning system that combines apps, livestreaming, comics and leading-edge pedagogical methods. A fundamental part of our process is using edtech to scale the translanguaging practices common to many people in Southeast Asia, so that we learn, say, English and Mandarin as global languages, while remaining rooted in our cultures—a move away from the practice of many traditional foreign language schools, who are focused mainly on getting kids to mimic so-called “native” speakers.


As I write this from my co-working space in Taiwan, a new wave of Covid-19 infections is causing disruptions to life here as well as in Singapore, Malaysia and India — including the way education is conducted.

Tech-facilitated learning will become a permanent part of students’ experience, as some newer malady will inevitably take Covid’s place. The conditions at this moment in the education field are in fact very similar to those of industrialization during the turn of the last century in America, where the railroads and factories transformed how education was organized—turning one-room schoolhouses into factory-like schools, and transforming a looser focus on educational goals into more measurable standards and units of achievement. Yet, we must recognize that many things which were lauded as progress have also brought significant unintended consequences that still bedevil us today.

Before becoming an edtech founder, I spent many years as a professor in the field of education, working in New York, Kabul, Taiwan, China and Singapore. I thus bring to the edtech field a uniquely vertical lens of the history of education transformation, and I strongly believe that the 5 problems I have highlighted above must be tended to if our flawed global education system is to be truly disrupted. It is my sincere hope that we can all work together to bring about real change.

Other References

(Anyon J., 1980) Anyon J. Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. Journal of Education. 1980;162(1):67-92. doi:10.1177/002205748016200106


ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: DR. YEN YEN WOO Dr. Yen Yen Woo is the Founder of Yumcha Studios. Dr. Woo Yen Yen is the founder of Yumcha Studios, and creator of Dim Sum Warriors, a bilingual learning system that fuses great stories with leading-edge pedagogy and tech. Dr. Woo was formerly a tenured professor of education with a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also an award-winning filmmaker.

Yumcha Studios is a part of our Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) Indonesia Program. To know more about our GIA programs, click here.

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