Cover Story: The e-learning acceleration

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 11, 2020 - May 17, 2020.

We have to find the right tools and relinquish the constraints of the classroom concept - Yu

-A +A

There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune … and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures. So says William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. And so it was for Alibaba Group during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, which spurred the adoption of online shopping among Chinese consumers and pushed the company out of relative obscurity.

With the outbreak of Covid-19, the same seems to be happening for e-learning.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the disease a pandemic, people were advised to not gather in crowds and schools across the world started to close. The question of how to deliver quality education online arose. Most schools, which have not actively developed this aspect, have been caught unprepared and the feedback seems to suggest that most teachers are struggling to cope with the new normal.

That is why e-learning proponent Timothy Yu, founder and CEO of Snapask, is sitting pretty.

Snapask is a mobile app that allows students to take a photo of a question and upload it to the app, which then links the student with a tutor within seconds for one-on-one virtual tutoring. The Hong Kong-based company was founded in 2015 and now has more than 350,000 tutors serving over three million students in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Snapask’s Malaysian chapter started in mid-2017. Today, there are about 400,000 students and 20,000 tutors on the platform. The app gained a lot of attention locally in 2018 when one of the tutors shared that she had earned RM1,250 tutoring via the app. At the time, the company received about 120,000 applications but only enlisted 20,000 tutors, says Yu.

Snapask has onboarded more than 1.3 million users over the past 12 months, with a whopping 30% signing up in February and March, on the trail of the Covid-19 pandemic. The two months also coincide with the examination season, says Yu.

“What we see is that the traffic is much higher. If we compare this with the same period last year or the previous years, we can see that the amount of time students spend on the platform has gone up by more than 40% this year,” he adds.

Yu doesn’t think schools have been handling the forced move to online classrooms very well, mainly because the teachers have not been trained to teach virtually and some students may not be getting the attention they need. He believes that schools have proved to be ineffective, especially over the last few months with students and teachers attending online classrooms in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We have to find the right tools and relinquish the constraints of the classroom concept. Teachers can even do one-on-one personalised sessions on their own time,” says Yu.

He believes that schools will cease to exist in the next 10 to 15 years, especially since people are changing the way they learn. Over the last decade, there has been a rise in online learning through YouTube videos and learning platforms such as Coursera. But now, that may not be enough.

How did Yu come to set up Snapask?

He started tutoring in Hong Kong in 2012. It was his last year in college and he wanted to make some money on the side. Over time, however, he found door-to-door tutoring services extremely time-consuming and inefficient.

“I had to go from my house to the student’s house and back to university. Although Hong Kong is small, there was a lot of commuting involved and as a college student, I did not have that much time to spare,” Yu recalls.

So, he set up a tutoring centre, which enabled students to go to him instead. But during his 1½-year stint, he realised that students preferred one-on-one interactions. He tried giving them what they wanted but after a while, he found that his lessons had become too repetitive.

Yu put together a bunch of teaching videos on Facebook, which raked in a couple of thousand views per day. “I figured this would be a good business for me. So, why not ask them to pay to watch my videos? But guess what? No one paid!” he says ruefully.

However, Yu noticed that some students left comments or private messages with questions. So, he decided to charge students for helping them with their questions instead. This business model seemed to work and since then, he has refined the approach to what it is today — a virtual tutoring platform.

 

Retaining quality tutors

At maximum capacity, each tutor can serve up to 100 students. The reason for this ratio is that Snapask wants to maintain the quality of education it provides.

Yu says the company screens tutor applicants based on their university transcripts and how they scored in local public examinations. When they are taken on board, it monitors how well they perform.

“For every student interaction, not only are the students rating the tutors based on their satisfaction but there is also a system for us to vet the tutors’ quality based on how responsive they are, how they pace the entire teaching process, their usage of keywords and so on,” he says.

For example, if one tutor just provides an answer to a student’s question without an explanation while another tutor provides a step-by-step explanation along with additional reading materials, the Snap­ask system picks up on that behaviour and favours the latter. Yu says the system also helps to weed out poor tutors.

“There are so many components for us to determine whether they are good or not, after which we  send more questions to those who are performing,” he explains, adding that the app incorporates artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Yu says Snapask tries to cover as many subjects as it can in local public examinations, but some subjects are more popular than others. In fact, more than 80% of the questions are based on maths and science.

“It is pretty easy to imagine why, because it is black and white with step-by-step solutions. Oftentimes, when students are stuck on a certain step, they just ask someone,” he says.

“Language-related subjects require a bit more time and history to understand where the difficulty is, so it is less popular on Snapask. But we still provide such services to students who need help on these topics.”

There are four payment options available — RM5.90 for one session, RM39.90 for 10 sessions, RM89.90 for 25 sessions and RM169.90 for monthly unlimited sessions. The sessions do not expire every month because they are curated to provide options to students based on their needs, says Yu.

“Usually, new students go for the cheaper package. But once they talk to their parents about it and their parents want more tutorial coverage, they are happy to pay for their children. High school students usually pay for the packages themselves until they get their parents involved,” he adds.

“For younger children, we observe that parents use the app to help them with their homework. So sometimes, they get tutors to explain something to them, so they can explain it to their children.”

The company’s pricing model is benchmarked against the prices offered at local tutorial centres. Yu says a private one-on-one tutor in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan costs about US$40 per hour, with a class running for 2½ hours. The US$100 per class is equivalent to one month of unlimited sessions on Snapask.

“I think there is a fundamental difference, not just how much more efficient we are in terms of cost and time but also the systematic change in how people learn and utilise time in a way that is suitable for them,” he says.

Snapask has a mission of providing tutoring access to students in rural areas. In Indonesia, for example, 70% of students live in rural areas, some of whom now use the app. “We have enabled students from all over the country to get access to the same level of education with just this product. I think it is the most powerful component of the entire business,” says Yu.

“The challenge now is to figure out a way to make it affordable in every part of the country, which is something we are working on. We do encourage people who want to support students in rural areas with quality education to work with us so we can subsidise prices for them.”

 

Growing forward

At end-February, Snapask announced that it had raised US$35 million in Series B funding. The money was earmarked for its Southeast Asian expansion.The funding round was led by Asia Partners and Intervest.

Vorapol Supanusonti, co-founder and managing partner of Asia Partners, says Snapask’s paradigm of student-directed learning has global relevance. In the increasingly challenging global environment, where schools are seeing the impact of preventive measures for safety, including outright closure for weeks or months, the importance of innovative and safe ways of continuing one’s education journey through remote learning has never been clearer, he adds.

“Snapask is uniquely positioned to have a real positive impact on society. Through its online offerings, it allows students to have access to high-quality education, especially when offline tutoring is not a viable option. Much in the same way as SARS forced a change in habit and helped kick-start e-commerce in Asia, the current health crisis could lead to more students and parents adopting online education as a preferred mode of learning,” says Supanusonti.

Snapask is expanding into Vietnam this year and focusing on Southeast Asian countries with a high demand for tutoring and other private education services, says Yu, as he believes the region will see a lot of changes in the education system.

A lot of the existing educational problems can be solved with technology, starting with the uneven distribution of educational resources, he points out. Remote cities are at a disadvantage, especially when it comes to the quality of teaching as most good teachers are whisked off to major cities.

“Students cannot move that easily, which is one of the many reasons education quality is so unevenly distributed. We have seen this in Indonesia and Malaysia, and now in Vietnam,” says Yu.

Before penetrating a new market, the company looks at a country’s mobile and hardware penetration rate for students aged 13 to 17. Next, it looks at the overall demand for private education and its affordability, which is reflected in the prices charged by the local tutorial industry.

“For markets that have shown tremendous growth, you can see a change in the tutorial school. That is the place for us to go to,” says Yu.

The company is setting up its regional headquarters in Singapore. Currently, each market with Snapask’s presence has a local operations team. Its biggest team is in Taipei, where its product and engineering team has been set up for R&D. Yu says Southeast Asia has shown tremendous growth opportunities in the last couple of years.

“Now is the time for us to put more effort and resources into these markets, which is why we are setting up a headquarters in Singapore, for geographical proximity to talent, support and regional policies,” he adds.

As for product development, Snapask is looking at analytics products and video content for its platform. Yu explains that the data collected from students helps the company understand how well students learn. For example, in mathematics, it can show how well a student does with specific disciplines such as trigonometry, calculus and functions.

With this data, Snapask is able to define a student’s learning profile, allowing the company to tailor-make an effective tutoring method for each student. “By doing so, the student can thrive in subjects that they were probably not so good at. As for the subjects they are already doing well in, we can push more advanced content to them,” he says.

But this cannot be done without data. The company is working with teachers to record the students’ performance in school to add to the personalisation and comprehensiveness of their particular profiles.

“If we do not do this in the near future, teachers will still teach all the students in one class in the same way, which is not good for students who have fallen behind because they cannot catch up. What is worse is when students who are performing exceptionally are normalised and their true potential is not met. Personalisation in education can only happen with data and analytics tools,” says Yu.

Teachers from more than 50 schools in Hong Kong and Taiwan are currently working with Snapask. The company is trying to leverage its existing analytics model by providing teachers access to the platform and analytics tools to analyse their students’ examination papers and school results.

“We work with teachers who have a strong drive to use technology to improve how they are teaching. With our tools and services, these teachers can use their time to actually teach and understand their students, instead of doing administrative work, marking homework assignments and so on,” says Yu.

“This helps teachers narrow in on a subject that a student may need to work on. It also helps them to develop their lesson plans. We are trying to launch this model in other markets this year.”

While videos are a good medium for students to learn and understand different things, the style in which a video is delivered determines how well they absorb and digest the information. With that in mind, Snapask has put together a team of talents with television and movie production backgrounds to develop video content that is visually appealing and educational.

The company is also developing content for young professionals and university students, specifically on soft skills, under a new product called Sofasoda. “The kinds of videos we are looking at, for example, are on how to present yourself, how to debate, how to negotiate, how to present ideas and so on,” says Yu.