The Business Times
Asean Business logo

Is edtech Southeast Asia’s largest untapped opportunity?

Published Mon, Apr 12, 2021 · 12:14 PM
Share this article.

Southeast Asia is home to a population of 700 million, of which 26 per cent falls within the school-attending age group. Yet access to quality education is often limited and unevenly spread across the region, with literacy rates as low as 58 per cent in Laos, 74 per cent in Cambodia and 76 per cent in Myanmar, according to United Nations research.

This gap can largely be attributed to the region’s sizeable rural population, often inadequate infrastructure as well as a lack of trained educators and funding. 

In contrast, Southeast Asia’s internet economy continues to grow at a staggering pace, as consumer trends over the last few years and disruption brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have massively accelerated internet penetration rates and a long-term shift to digital. Latest research shows Southeast Asia saw 400M new internet users in 2020 alone, and 90 per cent of new internet users plan to continue online consumption moving forward. 

While digitisation has driven the transformation of many industries – from e-commerce, finance to insurance – its potential to democratise education and support the delivery of quality education to traditionally underserved communities is tremendous, and still largely untapped. Governments and societies must look to leverage technology and digitisation to equalise access to quality education – or risk large segments of the region’s population being left behind in the future economy.

Technology a key lever for reaching the underserved

While investment in edtech has been gaining traction in the last few years, reaching US$18.66 billion in 2019, Covid-19 dramatically accelerated demand for edtech capabilities – from e-learning apps to language and conferencing tools. Top virtual learning apps in the region saw more than a three-fold increase in installations from 6 million in 2019 to 20 million in 2020 alone, as education systems across the globe were faced with school closures. Without home-based learning, it is estimated that 135M school children across the region would have lost access to education – with significant implications for long-term development and access to economic opportunities. 

Friday, 8.30 am
Asean Business

Business insights centering on South-east Asia's fast-growing economies.

Looking beyond the pandemic, a more widespread uptake of edtech will be needed alongside in-person delivery methods, to enable the sector to remain effective in an increasingly agile economy. Deploying digital platforms will play a key role in this new normal, helping to connect students from all ages and backgrounds with trained educators, enhancing efficiency and flexibility in the delivery of curricula, and importantly, helping to lower costs traditionally associated with in-person teaching to ensure educational programmes can also be delivered to those who need it most. 

Improving accessibility 

Indonesia for example is spread out over more than 17,000 islands, making the delivery of quality, affordable education through physical means challenging from a logistical standpoint. Despite having the world’s fourth largest education system and one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world (95 per cent of Indonesians access the internet through smartphones with mobile data), it is one of the lowest performing in terms of literacy, highlighting the opportunity for greater technological integration to play a role in enhancing the delivery of education, in addition to traditional in-person methods. 

This is not without its challenges. Reliable internet access, as well as access to basic digital equipment will be needed to sustain the viability of e-learning over the long-term. Support and collaboration between governments, companies and educators will be critical in helping to ensure that basic infrastructure and digital tools are in place to support the mass shift to agile learning, and underserved communities are included in this shift. In 2020, telco brands including Celcom, Digi and Maxis Telecom provided users with 1GB of data daily to support e-learning and productivity initiatives. Through a concerted collaboration approach, governments, businesses and educators can help channel the necessary resources to ensure disadvantaged communities are not left behind. 

Unlocking personalised learning journeys and gamification 

In addition to helping to bring accessibility of educational programmes to the masses, edtech also presents a tremendous opportunity to democratise access to personalised learning in a way that cannot be achieved through in-person teaching alone, due to affordability barriers and a lack of trained educators in the region. In five out of six Southeast Asian nations, children in Grade 5 were taught by 1 generalist teacher for all or most of their subjects in 2019. This makes it challenging for teachers to holistically manage a child’s learning journey and pinpoint targeted concerns or growth areas solely through in-person delivery. 

This is where leveraging technology will be a real game changer in complementing existing face-to-face learning methods. It makes real-time engagement and personalisation possible, and provides a valuable source of robust, actionable data on a child’s learning journey, aptitude, and skills in a cost-effective manner. These benefits have traditionally only been possible in intimate class settings, and a privilege available to wealthier segments of the population. 

Leveraging technology also unlocks the potential to apply digital gamification to educational programmes – helping to deliver more targeted and immersive learning experiences to engage children from diverse backgrounds at different stages in their learning journeys. Creative Galileo, for example has introduced character-based learning journeys, leveraging popular vernacular cartoon characters such as Little Singham to amplify learning outcomes for children through an interactive character-based universe. As children’s needs continue to evolve in today’s digital-first, agile economy, personalisation and gamification are the two biggest trends set to transform education for the long-term. 

Powering the next phase of growth for the region 

From these perspectives, technology and the uptake of digital tools have a crucial role to play in transforming the education system of the future to be an inclusive one, and powering the next phase of sustainable growth for the region. Bridging the divide in education is particularly critical following the onset of Covid-19 where we have seen many thrust back into poverty. 

With $480 million in venture capital funding allocated to Southeast Asian edtechs in the last 5 years, this huge unlocked potential is starting to be realised – but much more needs to be done. Continued investment to drive digital integration in the sector, as well as a concerted approach by governments, businesses and educators to address accessibility, infrastructure and resources will be key to getting the region back on track in the long run.


The writer is the founder of Creative Galileo.

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to



Get the latest coverage and full access to all BT premium content.


Browse corporate subscription here