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Creating learning opportunities
A business plan that could potentially help children around the world learn a second language was formed over a bottle of wine and a chat with a friend.
Founded in 2012, ALLiN Technologies is a Singapore-based edutech company that believes in giving every child a lifelong foundation for learning.
Neo Gim Kian and Jason Ng - co-founders of ALLiN Technologies - met when they were both working at NTUC. Both men were tasked to manage the childcare business, and they have been in this sector ever since.
After leaving NTUC to embark on a new career path in their mid-40s, they set up ALLiN Technologies.
The firm's product, Jnrlink, is an edutech programme based on cognitive development. It makes use of technology and science-based pedagogies to help children build a foundation for learning.
Starting in mid-2018, children in over 300 kindergartens in Guizhou and Xinjiang villages will have the chance to build a foundation for learning by being taught English as a second language using Jnrlink.
Jnrlink was founded based on studies such as the Cambridge Young Learners English, where there is a recommended list of words that children within that age range should know.
Mr Neo said: "Jnrlink is a learning system. The teachers continue to play an important role in classroom facilitation and support children's learning through the use of the product. For example, in many parts of rural China, many of the teachers are volunteers and do not speak good English, let alone teach the language. Jnrlink recognises that, and was developed to allow the teachers to learn together with the children. That is what makes our system so unique."
He adds that the teaching materials include activities such as pretend-play, art and craft and multi-sensorial learning.
The company has partnered a Harvard post-doctoral research fellow on the project in Guizhou to look at impact of the programme. The researcher had conducted a research study to look at how the programme impacted the cognitive development of the child in terms of memory, attention, linguistic ability and how it reinforces the mother tongue language.
"The first round of research study was conducted about two months ago, which gave us a benchmark. The next round of research will be done in the May-June period after which a report will be compiled . . . I think we will learn a lot from this research, and will further improve our programme to make it better for the children."
Curriculum director Elaine Chia said: "When we first started, as with every curriculum, we must look at the scalability and needs of the children. The teachers in the villages in China are all volunteers. They are not early childhood trained teachers. We had to look at how to scale it such that we still have that consistency and quality for the children."
She added that besides a scripted lesson plan that the teachers can follow, natural resources such as twigs and sand were used to teach the children.
The team visits the schools once every few months to ensure that lessons are running smoothly, and Ms Chia - an associate lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in early childhood education and a trained Montessori directress - conducts seminars twice a year with the volunteer teachers there.
The teachers are connected through an in-house created mobile app - which is patented and part of Jnrlink to ensure quality assurance - where they can send pictures and pose questions.
Ms Chia said: "This creates a community where the teachers can encourage one another. This kind of collaboration is important as one volunteer teacher could be managing a class of 60 students from ages four to six."
She added that with the China government's focus on alleviating poverty through education via its "one village, one school" campaign, the timing seems right to expand Jnrlink - which is patent pending - to kindergartens in other villages.
Marketing director Mabel Heng said that going to Guizhou and experiencing first-hand how classes were conducted was an eye-opener.
"We don't realise how fortunate we are (in Singapore). The incident that impacted me most was when the training was conducted in a run-down school that was about to be demolished. The electricity went out, and we had to change location last minute. However, everyone was still in high spirits and were still very enthusiastic to learn."
Mr Neo concurred and said: "Singapore has a successful bilingual system, and we felt that others could benefit from the success of this system. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), and to be given the opportunity to work with them in their Village Early Education Centre (VEEC) project, together with the Guizhou's local education bureau."
CDRF is a foundation set up by the China Development and Research Centre under the China State Council.
Mr Neo introduced Jnrlink to CDRF in late 2016, and trial runs were held in Xinjiang and Guizhou in late 2016 and early 2017, respectively, despite some initial apprehension about the system and the workload for the teachers.
"But after one month of trials, we did an assessment and found out from the teachers that the system was easy to use, and that children were able to pick up between 40 and 50 words."
After that, the learning system officially rolled out in September 2017 to more than 100 kindergartens.
"Being the first Singaporean firm to be involved in a such a project in China, we certainly hope that more will join us and together we can do more, not only for the disadvantaged children in China, but also the rest of the world."
Phase 2 will see the programme introduced to about 180 kindergartens in March 18.
ALLiN Technologies also sells its products commercially, and Mr Neo said there are business opportunities especially with One Belt One Road, as more countries would want to learn Mandarin.
"Doing good is an important pillar of the company but we also do have the commercial part of the business . . . However, if it is for charity, we just recover the costs of the learning materials to ensure sustainability."
In the future, the company hopes to do more in Singapore, and is looking to continue to expand in countries including Indonesia, East Timor and Cambodia.
Mr Neo said that brain research showed that learning a second language at a young age can help a child develop not only linguistic abilities, but improve his/her learning ability, focus and concentration.
"Our vision is to help every child build a lifelong foundation for learning. We want every child to fulfil his/her potential, and learning is key to make sure that no child will be left behind."
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