Final Reflections on EdTechAsia 2016 #etasummit2016

EdTech: Contrasting Views

To kick off the conference, Tuan Pham, Founder and CEO at TOPICA, argued for the promise of EdTech. And what an optimistic picture it was. Technology was painted as the ultimate enabler that would help us overcome current barriers of time and distance, as well as provide access to quality education for all. He argued that:

EdTech meant access to great teachers was no longer the domain of the privileged few.

EdTech would shrink distance and time between students and teachers, removing the barriers of travel and scheduling. This would enable more people to become teachers and more students access to quality instruction.

EdTech promised to change the entire teaching profession. Teaching would no longer be perceived as “noble, but limited pay”. To make this point, he highlighted the case of Cha Kil-Jong, an online math tutor in South Korea, who had amassed millions.

EdTech, particularly TOPICA’s brand of EdTech, promises to remove the ‘chores’ around teaching: support, exams, quizzes and even make teaching fun through simulation and gamification.

Thus, a optimistic vision of EdTech characterized by access to more quality, cheaper and better learning instruction is offered. A cornerstone of this argument is for education’s “internet moment” – that education could and should, with few exceptions, be ‘mostly online’.

He even provides statistics suggesting that 71% of Chief Academic Officers at US Colleges believed that online courses were as good or superior to traditional courses (although I’d love to see the actual raw data / questions behind this statistic).

In contrast to the key note, other speakers who felt technology had not quite lived up to its promise, painted a more cautious picture, touting the importance of human factors, particularly teachers and that unless the focus was on student outcomes, technology would simply be another distraction.

Panelists in the first session: “The Digital Transformation of EdTech” collectively argued for a more nuanced picture. That technology had its limitations. That while digital is transformative for education, there are certain essential characteristics of this sector that distinguish it clearly from tech.

While technology had potential to accelerate learning and enable great access, Dr. David Klett, of Klett Group, argued that the computer was not living up to its promise. What’s crucial, he argues, is that it’s not about the computer, but the teacher. Tawan Dheva-Aksorn, Aksorn CharoenTaT CEO, argued that in Thailand, teachers had been absent from the policy making process. Both argued that with all their shortcomings, teachers must not be ignored.

Thus the message is clear EdTech is fundamentally different from the consumer-facing Startup world.

EdTech is fundamentally human.

Anip Sharma from Parthenon-EY argued that technology, in education, is less revolutionary and more evolutionary. In fact, we’ve had a long history of overhyping just how much technology would change how we approach education.

So what are we to believe? Is EdTech the ultimate enabler that will accelerate learning, augment teaching and broaden access? Is EdTech, for better or worse, still fundamentally human? As with all (false?) dichotomies, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Of course, the EdTech marketplace is extremely diverse. It’s likely that your specific market (i.e., early years, K-12, higher education, corporate training, etc.) will dictate what vision you ultimately buy into.

The Emergence of Adaptive Learning

As Anip Sharma traced the evolution of technology in education, he suggested that we were moving into the third wave – marked by efficacy and quality of education – where the key driver would be Adaptive Learning.

Adaptive Learning holds great excitement for leading technologists in the field. David Klett stated that while adaptive learning had yet to reach it’s potential, there was excitement for how adaptive learning could be used to help students become producer/makers.

Even investors are excited about adaptive learning – one of the key trends suggested byYidan Prize manager, Clive Lee, was ‘quality, personalized’ education.

By the end of the day, several startup pitches had woven in adaptive learning of some form (i.e., deep learning and artificial intelligence) in their pitches.

ELSA – English Language Speech Assistant (Virtual Pronunciation Coach)

Nevertheless, the jury is still out as to who will succeed in truly implementing adaptive learning into their product.


It’s instructive to see where money flows and in EdTech (particularly China and key Southeast Asian markets), the largest revenue growth across most markets appear to be in Early Years and English Language Training.

What’s curious is how, with the exception of Career Advancement and Corporate Training market, education often ends at “Higher Education”. Thus the market for Adult Learning and Education appears largely unexplored. With Asia, as a whole, trending towards an explosion of aging populations, I’d expect to see more clearly defined post-higher education markets in the future.

There are several opportunities for adult education beyond higher education as we know it today, including: career shifts, upward mobility in organizations, second and third careers, post-retirement learning, parental education and learning for an older population (e.g., one example is the Old People Play Young – a learning center in Thailand established to help older people get caught up with technology).

 Social Impact

Of course, I’d be remise without mentioning the panel I had the pleasure of moderating. When taking a bird’s eye view of the education ecosystem that includes students, teachers, parents and school administrators, it’s often tempting to view each group as one homogenous entity.

As the panelists of this session revealed, when examining students, particularly marginalized students, there are so many distinct groups that could be better served with technology and investment money including:

  • Young women
  • Disabled students
  • Child solders
  • Students from Low Resourced Areas

Each of these groups have particular challenges that instructional and learning designers could tailor their learning solutions.

When considering social impact measurement, Kris Oswalt explained how metrics are moving from cross-country to more localized measurement that is co-created with communities on the ground. Of course, there is tension between the kind of progress impact investors expectation and the reality of education investments that take years to bear fruit, particularly when social outcomes are also considered.

Nadia Wong argued that much of the social impact of EdTech is about mindset change and metrics to measure qualitative traits (i.e., resilience, grit, growth-mindset) are just as important as learning outcomes (i.e., academic scores). I suspect that EdTech’s true potential will be realized when long-term measurement begins to pair learning outcomes (i.e., student motivation, academic performance, resilience and intentions to remain in school) with social outcomes (i.e., teenage pregnancy rates, substance abuse in schools).

Implications for Product Development

Here are some take-aways from a product development perspective:

  • Education may be headed online, but ignore Teachers at your own risk.
  • What happens when A.I. fully changes the Teachers’ role to that of facilitator, what would education look like? How can EdTech entrepreneurs begin preparing for that reality now?
  • (I realize the above two bullet points are contradictory. It’s this tension that makes EdTech such an exciting field)
  • Really disentangle Adaptive Learning from related terms like Personalized Learning.
  • Technology is really a means. The end is Student Outcome – learning and social.

Congratulations to the EdTech Asia team for hosting a wonderful conference! I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.