Technology and Democratizing Education: Najelaa Shihab of Sekolah.mu
IndoTekno Podcast, 9 June 2020
Greetings everyone and a warm welcome to our third instalment of Indo Tekno. Indo Tekno is a weekly podcast in which we invite a guest in to discuss all matters Indonesia and technology-related. The podcast will be hosted in English with a subsequent transcript made available in Bahasa Indonesia. Kami akan memberikan transkrip podcast Bahasa Indonesia di situs web kami. My name is Alan Hellawell. I'm the host of Indo Tekno, and I'm also the Founder of Gizmo Advisors in addition to serving as Venture Partner at Alpha JWC Ventures. Nelson Mandela once said, "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
Indeed, education has literally become front and centre in most of our lives during the COVID-19 period. With many of us parents watching our children follow their teachers online from their bedrooms or studies. Some of us have even reactivated the teacher in ourselves to undertake homeschooling. EduTech now stands as one of the fastest growing areas of investment in the venture capital world, along with FinTech and Healthcare. I could not be any prouder or more privileged to have Najelaa Shihab, Founder of Sekolah.mu, as our guest today to discuss the educational sector in Indonesia, and how she is leveraging technology to improve its reach and efficacy. Najelaa, thank you so much for joining today.
Hi Alan. Thank you. It's great to be here. I'm sure we will have a very interesting conversation today.
We'd love first to know more about your background. Can you introduce yourself, Elaa?
Yes, I'm an educator. I've been doing this in Indonesia for more than 20 years now. I started as a lecturer. My background is in educational and child psychology but I founded "Cikal". It's a private school with a network of 10 schools all over Indonesia. I also founded a teacher college, "Kampus Guru Cikal", which is working in more than 200 cities in Indonesia. I've worked with children from the youngest classes, which at "Cikal" is for six months old. And I've worked with teacher from the different backgrounds, from very high fee private schools and International in big cities up to very small schools with limited capacities in the farthest islands of Indonesia. And it's been an incredible journey as an educator. And now starting doing Sekolah.mu, leveraging education technology has been another learning journey for me, Alan, and it's, you know, it's like starting all over again, in a way, because you know, there's so many things to learn, to understand about when you're talking about pedagogy in combination with technology, but all those experiences and the networks that we've been building in the past 20 years come as really useful in refining our strategy.
Elaa, Sekolah.mu seems to have an extremely wide range of solutions from kindergarten to retired people, as you just mentioned. Is there a particular focus that you have right now?
Yes, actually our biggest user right now is the "Karier.mu" programme. So when you're talking about "Sekolah.mu", we we're collaboration platform, that that that helps any educational institution, whether it's a preschool or up to university to build a competency based programme that can be personalised for each user's needs. And the "Karier.mu" programme is a specific branch of our programme that focuses on educational programmes from vocational schools or companies and industries. And they offer their programme for secondary school students and university students, that's the biggest user of our platform, currently. So in terms of the age range, we're focusing on 15 up to 22 years old. That's the biggest age range. Another growing segment especially during this pandemic is at the lower end of the spectrum, the users of our preschool programme up to the early grades. Primary 123 has also been growing quite fast during the past three months.
I'd like to talk about some of the challenges today. Indonesia is ranked number 65 out of 73 participant countries in the PISA math, science and reading ranking. Only 24% of Indonesian students pass the level two or above in math. This compares to 86% in Vietnam and 92% in Singapore. Simple question: where do we begin to tackle this problem?
I've been a very strong and loud advocate as an educator on this issue Alan, you know, that our education is in a state of emergency. It has been a regular part of my talks everywhere. It's just I think we need to begin tackling this problem by understanding the sense of urgency because even that, I don't think it's something that apparent within the ecosystem. Most of the stakeholders, you know - governments, teachers, parents, everyone that needs to be part of this reform - are quite happy with the fact that the children are at school, even though they're not actually learning. And if you're looking into the data, it's not only the PISA scores, that actually shows how, how far behind our education results and students' achievements compared to other countries. Even our national examination data, the competency assessments that have been done regularly within the system shows that in the basic foundational skills, our students are basically not achieving what the system is trying to achieve. So Indonesia is the biggest example of schooling without learning. So having the sense of urgency is urgent because we really need to accelerate reform. And I always believe that the best way to do an intervention is start with the one who's actually in the battlefield, the teachers, increasing their competencies, ensuring that they understand how to teach at the right level. Plan the lessons that fit to the students needs, do a regular assessment, give a consistent feedback loop to the students about their performance and set the right targets based on the student's ability. And that's where technology can really help students and the teachers to do that in the most efficient way.
That's fascinating. Elaa, you mentioned that there's a widespread satisfaction that nearly all of Indonesia's children are in school. So people are pleased with the inputs. I think you're very much focused on the outputs. I recently read that. Indonesia has a net enrolment rate for schooling of 93%. But only 55% of Indonesians who complete school are functionally literate. And I think that this is another way to phrase one of the main challenges you're trying to tackle. Is that correct?
Yeah. So we need a different proxy of quality, Alan. For years for 10's of years, we've been using the national examination, the university level exams as an indicator of quality. We use that one single indicator as the one and only assessment where we label students' achievement where we label a school's achievement or even a parent's achievement, while it's been a wrong proxy since the very beginning, Why? Because it's mainly content-based. You don't really teach someone to be literate, when you give them information to acquire. When you're talking about literacy in the modern world, in the knowledge academy, you really need to move much higher than just acquisition of information. But if the system focuses on the wrong thing... Education is a backward design. So, if you focus on one thing as a result or as an output indicator, then all the processes of teaching or be teaching to the test. All the processes of the planning will be coverage of the content. And I'm very happy that one of the biggest policies of reform that has been introduced at the end of last year was to reform the whole assessment system. So hopefully it will drive a more well-rounded approach in teaching and shift the paradigm of success that has been inhibiting a lot of innovation to happen in Indonesia and the education ecosystem
In order to reform this assessment system, how long do you think that will take?
Actually, I'm part of an independent nonprofit foundation who's working closely with government in developing this reform as well. And I think the the timeline is to start piloting at the end of this year and hopefully there will be a lot of changes that are happening. We can clearly see in the next academic year.
Elaa, what specific role can technology play in offering more equal access to high quality teaching across Indonesia?
Well, technology can scale and actually enhance the quality. I really want to be careful if you're using the term scalability with pedagogy or, any other terms in education. Because then you will fall into the trap of using technology, but actually scaling the wrong practice. You're merely scaling all practices, you're merely scaling, the 19th century practice that hasn't been changed and doesn't actually help students to gain well-rounded competencies. So, I think the first thing that we need to prove as someone who's doing education technology, is that whatever we scale, the way we work, the way we actually help teachers to be better at their job, students to learn better, etc., that we scale the right method. The variety of choices and the resources that you can access through our platforms are basically unlimited. Instead of just using the resources that are usually available in one school, with a platform that encourages you to collaborate, you can actually share resources. You can adapt certain best practice. You can give more flexibility and choices for students to learn in a way that's really personalised. Because even the best schools (I run schools so I know this) with the highest resources, the one like "Cikal", which has been doing a very rigorous process in selecting the teachers, we cannot cater to thousands of different needs that our students have. So technology can really help schools to do their job better and to meet the students' need better. I truly believe that all the transparency that technology brings, the feedback loop from students, then becomes a very important part of the learning. Usually this basic feedback loop is something that's not happening in the classroom. Students are stuck with certain teachers. Teachers, even with their best intentions, if they don't get feedback on what works and what doesn't work, if they don't get real time feedback on what the students actually need, they cannot become better teachers. And that's where I believe technology's role can really transform education.
Elaa, you have mentioned a few times outcomes. Are there any specific outcomes that you are proudest of, with your first batches, at "Sekolah.mu"? Any results that you can share with us that give you confidence that you're on the right path?
Yes, we've been getting very positive feedback from the students who have been joining our "Karier.mu" programme. The "Karier.mu" programme is a very broad set of programmes that are run by companies and vocational schools. Most of our programmes are blended programmes. For students, it's truly a life changing experience. They get to be exposed to professionals in the field who don't usually have the opportunity to come to schools. Even if they come to schools, then it will be very limited to certain numbers of students, instead of serving thousands of students in different schools at the same time. So, you can join the programme, for example, in multinational companies. You can join in small & medium companies who focus on the creative industries. All those experiences that in the past have been limited to certain students with certain networks or going to certain private schools, have now been democratised. Everyone has the opportunity to have that link between schools and industries. Seeing that as part of my day-to-day work, talking to the students who never thought that they would have such an opportunity, and talking to the professionals from different companies who actually find internal rewards in contributing to education, nurturing young talent, it's been priceless. Alan,
Elaa, do you feel that there are limits to monetizing in education in the private sector? Is there a sensitivity about how aggressively the service providers can charge for their services?
I think if you're looking into public and private partnership schemes in Indonesia, then there are a lot of questions about which parts supposedly have to be a government job, and which ones that you can monetize or capitalise in that sense. In terms of regulation, there are a lot of things that need to be fixed on that front. But I think if you're if you're talking about education, one thing that I really believe is that it's not a matter of public and private. It's actually a common good. It's a right that, everyone need to have access to quality education. Because that's basically something that will escalate your life, escalate society to the next level. I think my main concern, if you're talking about monetization, is what the government money is actually spent on, because one of the basic problems in Indonesia's education is inequality. I think one of the major issues is that the ones that actually need the most help, that need affirmative action; they have been exposed to double inequality, because they're the ones who have been getting services from very low-capacity private schools or a not-so-high quality education. If you're looking into the structure of our government schools, our public schools, the one that's been getting subsidised is actually the one who's able to pay more. I think there needs to be a different strategy around which part of the government's effort needs to be addressed to tackle this inequality issue. The private sector can contribute and serve a population that can, and should be able to, pay for service that's needed beyond the basic requirement.
I'm not sure if this is an overly sensitive question, but Elaa, do you feel like a lot of the high profile edtech platforms are really more focused on making those students with resources and strong base education even more advantaged? Or do you see a number of platforms that are really pursuing the mission of offering a more easily accessible education to more people across Indonesia?
Well, the "digital divide" is real. Different degrees of access to technology increase the achievement and opportunity gap. It's something real, Alan. It's not a made-up story. It's not things that only happen in Indonesia. So I think, you need to have that understanding that if you do education, then you are an educator. If you start at an education technology company, then you need to think of each and every single student. And you need to be really careful about the message that you're amplifying in the ecosystem. You need to be really careful about which practice that you scale, and which population that you serve. I've always believed that there needs to be a balance in the way you run your business, because it's education, it's never merely a business. This is what I keep telling my partners and my investors. I'm in the field to do good. I'm in the field to offer the best quality education that a child can get. So if you don't believe in your product, if you can't find a way to reach as many students, and to give the biggest impact as you can, then you're in the wrong field.
In the realm of current events, how successful has distance learning been in Indonesia during the COVID-19 era?
I think the COVID-19 era has actually shown the inequality issues more clearly than before COVID. For certain students, learning from home, using all the digital resources that are provided for free by education technology companies (some you need to pay a certain amount of money to get it) has been probably a better situation than before COVID, when they were stuck in the classroom facing certain very rigid learning hours, or subjected to classes where they don't actually have a choice. So the education technology companies have worked really well in helping certain classes of the population. But the access to that education technology or any learning platform has been an issue in many parts of the country, Alan, so far a lot of our students, this COVID learning-from-home period has basically been a "long holiday." And we will have a lot of challenge when we're back for the new normal in trying to assess students' level, the learning gap and achievement gap. We need to do a lot of catching up after the schools are back to normal. If we're not successful in changing that attitude, in making the teachers less anxious about technology, in giving the best experience to our students through digital learning in COVID 19, then we won't be able to retain any believers of education technology after the new normal period. Everyone will just go back to their usual practices, doing all this offline learning and not integrating enough technology. So I think the past three months was a great opportunity for education technology to prove our values, to give significant contribution. The next three months will be another stage where we still need to engage all those stakeholders in adopting this approach, and hopefully it will stay for years and years to come.
Let's go back to a big picture question. Where do you think the private sector should step in, Elaa, and where should the government step in, given all the challenges you've outlined?
I truly believe that if you talk about innovation, then the innovation needs to come from the private sector. This comes from having personal experience working at the policy level as well. The bureaucracy is a very difficult ground to do innovation. There are there are so many regulations, there are too many blockers within the ecosystem to give you enough room to experiment, to do things in a new way, etc. So I think we need to count on the private sector to do a lot of innovation. But we also need a government that is ready to embrace the examples of best practice and scale it all over the country, because the reality is, if you're talking about around 300,000 schools, 4 million teachers, more than 50 million students, then none of the private companies will be able to do that scale. There needs to be a collaboration between the private sector and the government to be able to tackle this huge, huge problem in our nation's education ecosystem,
A topic that's near and dear to a lot of our listeners' hearts, whether they're entrepreneurs or venture capitalists: What progress have we made in improving STEM instruction (science, technology, engineering and math) in Indonesia?
If you're talking about STEM instruction, we really need to be careful in not only talking about a technical side of STEM. Doing coding or lab sciences etc is really important, but I think the role of basic literacy and numeracy, the ability to solve problems, to think critically and creatively; that's all actually the basic competencies that will that will lead to a higher competencies in STEM to any kind of profession in the related STEM fields. So I'm really excited in seeing more and more reform in terms of curriculum where basic science will be introduced. The structural and systemic thinking will be a big part of the new curriculum. More and more training of teachers on learning how to learn, learning how to think and actually be able to scale this, and do meaningful conversation, and develop inquiry based approach in the classroom; all those changes in curriculum will be able to accelerate our effort in graduating more and more STEM graduates from the ecosystem.
Well, this concludes our third instalment of IndoTekno. Thanks so much for joining us today, Elaa. We hope you, the listener, have enjoyed the episode and welcome any and all other feedback on the show. My email is Alan@gizmo-advisors.com. Please do visit our website at Indo-Teko.com if you would like to be put on our mailing list for new episodes. If you enjoyed the podcast overall, we would also deeply appreciate any feedback you can furnish on Apple Podcasts. The podcast was translated from English to Bahasa Indonesia by Alpha JWC Ventures.
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