Why I don’t have a FB page

Today, someone asked me why I don’t have a Facebook page.

I do. In fact, I have more FB pages than most people:

These are the projects and companies in which I play an active role, so I consider their Facebook pages to be mine as well.

Of course, I understand what she was actually asking: why don’t I have a personal Facebook page?

The answer is simple: I value privacy and tranquility in my personal life. I do not miss much by not being on Facebook: anything on Facebook worth reading I will still hear about, either through my friends or my wife. The rest I do not bother.

The purpose of education is to develop complete human beings

In any education discourse, one should start with the basic question:

What is the purpose of education?

This fundamental question draws different answers from different people, depending on one’s worldview, upbringing, agenda, ideology or any combination thereof.

For example, an economist might view education as a tool for economic development. To them, the measure of the educational attainment of a country is closely related to the economic numbers, such as the GDP growth or productivity growth.

An industrialist, perhaps agreeing with the economist, would see education as a necessary process to supply the workforce.

A politician sees education as a propaganda tool. Was it Che Guevara or someone else who said that — and I am paraphrasing — give me the education of the youths, and I will capture the whole country?

The way we view the world affects the way we see education, and how we answer the fundamental question above. Furthermore, this worldview will impact how we think of how the education system should be.

A tech worker would push for more hard skills and digital competencies to be taught at the school level, while someone with a civil service background would prefer more emphasis on civic studies and nationhood in the curriculum.

All of these views are valid.

Our society is made of people from different backgrounds, all coming together to build a nation. A police officer, a wildlife conservationist, a computer programmer, a politician, and a gamelan performer, all have stakes in the nation-building agenda.

The purpose of education is to serve everyone in society.

The purpose of education is not just to impart literacy and numeracy, or to create the future workforce; it is to develop people into complete human beings. Human beings with different physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, economic and psychological needs. Human beings whose choice of life to live is practically unlimited. Imagine two diametrically opposite members of society. For example, imagine a rice farmer who spent his whole life toiling in the paddy fields, and a corporate head honcho working in her C-suite office in the Golden Triangle.

Education should serve them both, and everyone else.

What does it mean to be a complete human being? A complete human being, at a minimum, should be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good member of society and a productive member of the workforce.

So how to educate people towards this goal, as their needs are different? We cannot cater to every student individually with tailor-made education, unless a student comes from a rich family and can afford personal tutors, like the princes of European royal houses in the 18th century. The rest of us have to go to school. The school has a system, which is supposed to approximate the ideal education system to develop complete human beings.

Students should be taught Language (which includes the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric). Mathematics and Science, to prepare them for economic and scientific activities in the modern world. Literature, History, Geography — to learn about the world around us through different prisms. Home Economics and Commerce to function as human beings. Moral or Religious Studies to develop positive values. Civics to learn how society — and the institutions that govern it — function. These are basic subjects that all students around the world learn at school.

In other words, the subjects we already have in school is a close approximation to the ideal education system. That is why people have been teaching the exact same subjects for centuries.

I never really buy the argument that the choices of subjects are obsolete, that this type of education system was designed during the industrial revolution to cater to the employment needs at the time (factory workers need literature and geography?).

No, even back then the education system was created to approximate the ideal education system, which purpose (I believe) is to develop complete human beings. It was not created mainly to churn out uncritical people so they can be put on the assembly line. This is somewhat of a modern education meme, but its veracity is not supported by historical facts (as a matter of fact, classical education thrived the most during the Industrial Revolution).

There’s a reason why schools the world over teach roughly the same set of subjects at the primary and secondary levels. It has been proven to work. It has created the modern world as it is. It is a close approximation of the ideal education system which caters to members of society with different needs.

And I am suspicious of any effort to radically change the curriculum away from the existing system and into a “modern” curriculum with an emphasis on technology. Either these efforts are driven by Big Tech (who wants to sell “education solutions” to schools and parents), or driven by misguided tech cheerleaders who know very little about the actual education system, but want to force their worldview on the education system using tech buzzwords like IR4.0 and Digital Economy. Alain de Botton called this type of thinking boosterism.

Let us get back to basics, leave the good parts of education alone, tweak the ones that do not work, and let us not radically change the system under the banner of technological boosterism.

The purpose of education is to develop complete human beings, not automatons.

The Pandai App Story: Part II

In Part I, I told the story of how the four of us (the founders of Aidan, our first startup which we founded in 2007), came to venture into the edutech space.


Business Ideas in Edutech

Edutech is a large area. There are various business ideas that one can pursue in edutech, such as:

  • Innovation in education administration — e.g., solution for school management using a centralized database, which integrates several school functions such as taking attendance, recording grades, accepting payments (cashless system), loaning books in the school library, etc. Some products cater to a specific type of educational institution, such as tuition centers, universities, and kindergartens.
  • Innovation in education delivery — e.g., online classroom, online tutoring (1 to 1, or 1 to many), multimedia (videos, interactive applets, games), and various types of assessment tools;
  • Content — products that deliver educational content such as exam prep, learning app, questions bank, or niche education content like e.g., calligraphy or music lessons, that takes place via various platforms (web or mobile);
  • General technologies that are adapted for used in education — artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, adaptive systems, etc.;
  • Hardware solutions — smartboards, tablets, interactive classroom systems and other devices.

So how do we decide what to do with Pandai?

The founders had a vigorous debate about this, but the decision boiled down to these two factors: our advantages, and the market demand.


Looking at our advantages

What are our advantages? Among others,

  • ArdentEdu had 12 years of experience, organizing more than 500 programs covering every state and territories in Malaysia, so it can be said that we know the education market (at primary and secondary level) in Malaysia quite well;
  • We have a solid tech background, with experience developing large scale systems for government agencies as well as some mobile development cred;
  • We have a good working relationship with the Ministry of Education through various projects we have undertaken in the last decade. The public education sector in Malaysia is highly regulated and centralized, so if we want to penetrate this market, being on a first-name basis with the gatekeeper (so to speak) is a plus;
  • We already had 70,000 annual paying customers for our existing educational offerings under ArdentEdu.

As for the market demands, we found out through our market research that:

  • The majority of the students in Malaysia are students at public schools (5+ million of them, with a steady growth each year reflecting the general population growth).
  • Although there is an increasing trend towards middle-class parents sending children to private schools, the number is negligible compared to the huge majority in the public school system. For one, private schools are very expensive and way beyond the ability of the median income household in Malaysia;
  • Assuming a Gaussian / bell-curve distribution of academic performance, most students belong to the slightly below average, average and slightly above average group (whatever the average and standard deviation might be). So a product catered to the masses cannot take into account only the top students. We have to bear in mind the average ones;
  • Ditto for household income. We should avoid building a product only rich kids can afford. The size of the market is too small. To reach the mass market, pricing has to be right (or better, undercut all competitors severely, which is the classic start-up game);
  • Parents, teachers, students are easily spooked by new things introduced in the education system. Whether it be educational initiatives such as 21st century skills, higher order thinking skills, future-ready education, computational thinking, and school-based assessment, no exams for Year 1 to 3, or a new subject / content / format in the curriculum standard, the introduction of any new thing to schools almost always ends up in confusion, misunderstanding, and distrust towards the educational higher-ups who introduced what they deem as highfalutin ideas with little regard to the reality on the ground;
  • Teachers would like to be left alone to do their teaching jobs, and to complete the never-ending tasks given to them due to previously-introduced educational initiatives (see above). Teachers simply want to teach, and would like less time doing work outside of teaching;
  • Teachers design their teaching to follow the curriculum standards very closely. In the Malaysian education system, the standards are spelled out in the Dokumen Standard Kurikulum dan Pentaksiran (DSKP). Teachers tend to not veer their classroom engagement too far from the content of the standards. They place high importance on following the schedule closely, so they can complete each chapter on time;
  • Students are getting more and more confused with the changes taking place in the education system, with the recent revision of the curriculum, with new topics (e.g., financial mathematics in Form 3), with new subjects (e.g., Asas Sains Komputer for Form 1-3), and with various new educational initiatives and buzzwords being thrown around liberally. Every introduction of a new thing seems to make them even more confused. While change by itself can be good and sometimes necessary, a competent change management process seems to be lacking most of the time;
  • Students are still expected to score well in exams, and yet at the same time be a mini-adult capable to do high-level thinking and have all of these: grit, creativity, flexibility, responsibility, problem-solving skills, 21st century skills, computational thinking, design thinking, IT-savviness, leadership skills, collaborative skills, communication skills, and so on. What happened to let kids be kids? Students feel the pressure to be future-ready graduates in the future in order to work in the future digital economy that is so futuristic that the only way to make themselves future-proof is to subject themselves to impossible standards in school set by those who already left school 25 years ago, back when schools were fun places to learn, play, and generally monkey around with peers.
  • Such are the expectations toward students nowadays, and given the impossible task ahead, teachers and students normally respond by throwing their hands in the air, saying screw all this, and reverting to what they think as the usual way of how a school should be. This means that teachers teaching the students in the traditional way — chalk and talk (with which there is nothing wrong, in my opinion) — and students just wanting to get their exams over with.

That is our finding. The methodology is confidential, but the research involved many teachers. I only share the qualitative part, but we have numbers too. Others might disagree with these findings but that is the situation on the ground that our data tell us.

Bottom line, teachers just want to be left alone to teach whatever is asked of them to teach, and students just want to do well in exams, which is what is expected of them anyway.

Teachers generally think of educational initiatives, including the introduction of technology in the classroom, as unnecessary extra burdens, despite the best intentions of their purveyors (e.g., the Frog VLE system had less than 8% utilization rate by teachers and it was a nationwide project rolled out by the Ministry themselves).

Most teachers revert to the traditional way of education delivery — chalk and talk, one-way communication, homework, buku latihan, worksheets, mid-semester/final exams, and awarding of letter grades — despite the call for more varied assessment and teaching methods.

(Of course, there are exceptional teachers who are really innovative and revolutionary in their approach, but these are not the majority, and it is not practical to expect most teachers to follow in their footsteps.)

And as for the students, generally, they want what students have been wanting since forever, which are good grades. No amount of techno-futuristic talk in school can convince the average student to change their priority. Students live in the here and now. They do not have the lengthy life experience behind them that they can project ahead to see where they will be in the future. They care about surviving school. At the end of the day, what matters are their academic performance in school, of which the most important indicators are their final grades. These are what their parents and other adults will judge them on. With tertiary placement decisions made through SPM results (can a C-average student apply for an overseas scholarship?), like it or not their future paths ARE determined by letter grades.

It was from these findings and assumptions that we decided on the direction of Pandai.