Business Times: Offering access to education and a ticket to a better life — RUANGGURU co-founder Iman Usman is a firm believer that access to education is a ticket to improving one’s quality of life. Hailing from Padang, a small city in West Sumatra far from Indonesia’s capital, Usman is the youngest of six children and the first in his family to graduate from college.

“There is a significant gap in terms of access and opportunities, especially between those who live in urban and rural (areas) and those who are more privileged and less privileged,” said Usman.

“I personally witnessed how different or how significant the gap was… and the number of people who will get the opportunity to receive an education in the capital is very limited.”

That experience prompted him and his best friend Belva Devara to start an online marketplace for tutors in 2014, while they were in university.

Through the Ruangguru web or mobile app, students can select subjects they need help with and Ruangguru will match the students with the most suitable tutors based on algorithms. After the session, students and teachers are able to rate and review each other.

“We leverage the use of data to personalise the experience of every single student so that their learning can be much more effective and efficient,” said Usman.

Students can also view a tutor’s educational background, certifications as well as reviews. And the platform hosts a wealth of learning tools and teaching methodologies such as animations and graphics.

Since then, Ruangguru has expanded and its main offerings are now technology-based education services for K-12 and lifelong learning, including subscription-based video, live teaching, learning management system for schools, online soft skills training and corporate-based training application. (see amendment note)

Ruangguru has also grown into one of South-east Asia’s largest tech-enabled education providers. It has expanded to Vietnam and Thailand, and now serves more than 20 million users.

Its flagship product, RuangKelas, is a freemium Learning Management System (LMS) that helps students prepare for exams using content tailored to the national curriculum, and helps teachers to crowdsource and distribute educational content.

Such tools would not have been available in a traditional classroom set-up. “What we essentially do is create high quality content with high quality teachers,” said Usman.

Sustainable development

Quality education is one of the pillars in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Educational inequality is a global issue, and school closures amid the pandemic have further disrupted learning opportunities for children.

Edtech is widely seen as a solution as online learning platforms can reach a large audience at scale.

Case in point: Indonesia has the fourth largest education system in the world, with over 50 million students and 4 million teachers. But it lags several of its Asian counterparts in global education rankings.

The absence rate of teachers is high in Indonesia’s primary education system, at 23.5 per cent according to World Bank data. Teacher scores in the subjects of the Indonesian language, maths and pedagogy are also very low.

Usman said that among Ruangguru’s users, 70 per cent had never gotten access to tuition prior to their use of the platform. And 80 per cent of its Indonesian users reside outside of Jakarta, many in second- and third-tier cities.

“Without Ruangguru they would not have the chance or an opportunity to level up their playing field, and be able to compete with people who are much more fortunate in bigger cities like Jakarta or Java.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted physical school attendance, it accelerated the the adoption of online learning and teaching.

During the virus outbreak, Ruangguru’s online products were vital for students in Indonesia to continue their curriculum-based learning when schools were shut.

Ruangguru also set up a free online school, which was accessed by over 10 million children. And its teachers’ training content was made available free of charge to some 200,000 educators.

Usman said he has noticed a shift in attitudes among parents, who typically take a longer time to warm up to the notion of online learning.

Role of startups

Usman believes startups have as much a role to play in achieving sustainable development goals and solving pressing global issues as the larger corporates do.

At Ruangguru, generating impact is deeply ingrained in the company’s business. “We believe that when we drive growth… impact comes naturally to our processes”, said Usman, adding that the startup is at no disadvantage compared with bigger corporations when it comes to making a mark.

“Being a startup, we have the flexibility, we have that agility to move fast and to experiment. These are some of the privileges I would say that the large companies might not have.”

On top of improving the quality of education available to many students across South-east Asia, Usman said Ruangguru is making an impact in several other ways.

For instance, Ruangguru produces educational content on topics such as environmental sustainability and human rights. The content is available for free, and the company hopes that this can help impart essential values for the safeguarding of the planet.

“We realised that there are a lot of these issues that are important but are not being taught structurally in schools,” said Usman.

Also, resources available elsewhere might not necessarily be suitable for the younger generation.

The flexible and on-demand nature of online learning also reduces emissions from travel.

Attracting attention, funding

Whether for the impact they make or the profits they can generate, the edtech sector has undoubtedly gained significant traction in recent years – with billions of dollars ploughed into the sector globally.

The rise of unicorns – startups valued above a billion dollars – in the edtech industry has given investors more confidence to back the sector.

Ruangguru has bagged over US$205 million in funding so far, according to Usman.

In April it secured US$50 million from investment firm Tiger Global Management, in a deal that VC Insights said values the startup at US$827.9 million.

Usman said Ruangguru is selective when it comes to bringing investors or partners on board.

“We have been very transparent and upfront with all our investors… that we care a lot about impact and we are looking for like minded investors to partner with us,” he said.

Investors who are too focused on profit might not necessarily be the right fit for the company, he added.

“This guides us in terms of selecting which partner that we want to work with and I think so far it’s been great.”

Among Ruangguru’s investors is UOB Venture Management, which led a Series B round in 2017.

Said Seah Kian Wee, chief executive of UOB Venture Management: “Many students, especially those in lower-tier cities, have seen an improvement in their school results after learning on the platform. University admission rates have also risen.

“Ruangguru’s revenue has grown by more than 300 times since our investment in 2017, demonstrating that impact and financial growth can be mutually reinforcing.”

The future of learning

While there has been widespread adoption of online learning in recent years, Usman is not writing off the relevance of physical classrooms and face-to-face learning.

“At the end of the day, we still believe in the importance of offline learning because (while) there are a lot of things that can be done online, a lot of things are sometimes done better offline,” said Usman.

He therefore reckons that flipped classrooms will gain more traction in the future.

The flipped classroom approach is a blended learning concept where content is introduced at home – usually via technology – while practice work is being done in school, as opposed to the more common practice of introducing concepts in school and assigning work to be completed at home.

Meanwhile, there has been an increasing focus on employability, which has resulted in new models of online learning to facilitate upskilling, reskilling as well as professional training.

Bite-sized educational content via social media platforms such as TikTok will also continue to change the ways of learning, said Usman.

For Ruangguru, it is looking to tap technology such as artificial intelligence to make learning more personalised and innovative.

Usman cited Netflix’s interactive choose-your-adventure film Bandersnatch as an example, where viewers get to make decisions for characters in the film and have a say in how the story pans out.

Using the same concept in online learning, a student’s path in learning should be decided by themselves, said Usman. This will give students “much more autonomy and independence” to determine what matters to them, he said.

New ways to gamify learning could also help boost interactivity and engagement among students, he added.

To tap a wider range of users, Ruangguru invested significantly in professional training and lifelong learning. Another area it plans to look into is early childhood education.

“I think this is an often overlooked sector… which is important for the development of individuals and kids.”