E-learning startups attract foreign funds

December 19, 2018 | 15:00
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Foreign investors are latching onto the growth of the Vietnamese online education sector, ­fuelled by the country’s growing tech-savvy population and the development of a range of educational tech startups.
e learning startups attract foreign funds
Topica Edtech Group

Online education firm Topica Edtech Group has recently wrapped up a $50 million investment in Series D funding from ­Singapore-based private ­equity firm Northstar Group, marking one of the largest funding rounds received by a Vietnamese tech firm to date.

Topica provides a range of online educational ­products, including live ­tutoring courses led by ­native English speakers from the US, the UK and other ­countries. The company plans to use the fresh overseas fund to develop new products and upgrade its artificial ­intelligence (AI) capabilities.

ELSA, a mobile application whose name stands for “English Language Speech Assistant”, has so far raised $3.2 million for its ­AI-assisted language learning platform that teaches people how to speak English. The funding was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, one of the most respected and longstanding venture capitals in Southeast Asia.

According to Vu Van, co-founder and CEO of ELSA, the startup currently gives access to 1.5 billion English language learners across the globe to increase their speaking fluency.

ELSA will use the fresh injection of capital to seek top-tier talent to develop new AI capabilities, open its voice recognition API, and expand existing speech recognition technology to teach new ­languages.

Previously, Monkey Junior, an English learning ­software model developed for children under six years of age, received $100,000 of support from Google, while online study app 1ASK secured a VND1 billion ($43,500) investment from Facebook.

According to Ralf Matthaes, managing director of Infocus Mekong Research, online education is currently enjoying a boom period in Vietnam for three key reasons.

The first and foremost factor driving this trend is convenience of use.

“Millennials are keen on an experience when using a product, and the convenience found in educational technology is a major pull for today’s students. Sitting behind the laptop in a location of their choosing whilst learning is a much more comfortable experience overall,” Matthaes said. “Secondly, with so many students having been brought up with technology, many are sometimes more comfortable talking to a computer rather than to humans. Last, the cost of online education is typically cheaper than traditional education, as students do not have to pay to cover costs such as classrooms and their teacher’s time.”

“As for negatives, traditional education allows for immediate feedback to questions, creating a better sharing environment for better discourse and discussion. They are some of the elements that online education lacks,” Matthaes added.

Dao Xuan Hoang, CEO of Monkey Junior, noted that the Vietnamese online education market presents huge opportunities as Vietnamese parents are willing to spend big on their children’s education, making the country a fertile land for potential startups in the sector.

However, the industry faces a number of challenges from domestic users who are not willing to pay for online mobile apps. Therefore, the startups need to first prove their value in order to encourage users to spend on additional subscription fees.

Rick Bennett, head of RMIT Vietnam’s School of Communication & Design, said that Vietnam is quickly catching up with regard to online learning. While admitting he is not certain students are ready for online learning like they are in other countries, he said it is an exciting time in the country because the divide in thinking between parents and their children is perhaps bigger than it has ever been before.

Moving forward, Matthaes said the next evolution in teaching will be the virtual classroom, where students will be wearing virtual technology to recreate a classroom environment with students and professors, interacting in real time, via live streams. This is already a norm among some schools globally.

“The smartphone is the nation’s everything device, so it clearly has a role to play in the education system. It just depends on the user’s preference between laptops and desktops or ­smartphones. Ultimately screen size will be the deciding factor,” said Matthaes.

“The Vietnamese are ­incredibly tech savvy, so I am positive there will be more local innovations as well as further adaptation for new online educational ­systems. ­Ultimately the ­confluence of innovation on present ­technology will be a key driver moving forward for the country’s online ­education sector,” he noted.

By Van Phuong

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