Chee says that in Vietnam, you could potentially double your income if you're able to speak in English.
Sunago's friendly interface: It's also a social media platform as learners can interact on it, says Chee

Teaching English online - effectively

Though online learning is very popular, it is said to have an 80% dropout rate

The startup plans to move into artificial intelligence to build a 'robot teacher'

by
Chee Jo-Ey

A lmost every form of service is taking the digitisation path these days and education is no exception. Universities, corporate training departments and other educational institutions are increasingly relying on online platforms such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) when imparting knowledge.

E-learning is being hailed as the future of education. In fact, by 2025, the global e-learning market is expected to reach US$300 bil (RM1.252 tril), according to US-based Global Market Insights Inc. One of the main growth areas in e-learning is teaching English online.

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik says e-learning will be used to elevate national school students' English language proficiency and provide them with access to the best English Language teachers.

Maszlee's announcement bodes well for one local startup which has jumped on the bandwagon by conducting English language lessons.

Sunago Education Sdn Bhd, an English language e-learning service provider, offers live English lessons online with instructors from all over the world. The company's mission is to improve proficiency in the language across Asean3.

"Improved English language proficiency can help grow your business by 21%, according to research by a global English language company," says Sunago Education Group CEO Sean Chee.

A gap to fill

English proficiency is often pointed out by employers as one of the missing skills in Malaysian graduates.

"We started Sunago because we saw how poor command of English is stopping students from getting into universities and also employees from advancing in their careers. In Vietnam, you could double your income if you're able to speak English. So, we're talking about enabling a livelihood change with English language education," he adds.

He points out that while many companies have to wait until they have a critical mass to organise training for their staff, this need not be so as individual employees can be signed up immediately with Sunago. Plus, online learning costs less, he claims.

According to Chee, Sunago's corporate clients make up half of its business. The four-year old company's training programmes are also recognised by the Human Resource Development Fund.

With the industry booming and with the growing number of e-learning platforms, what makes Sunago Education stand out from the rest of the pack?

"Our portal, while it's a social learning platform, it is also a social media that creates a sense of community," says Chee. "People can make friends, share posts and even comment on each other's work on our platform. Of course, this is facilitated by our teachers."

At the start, when Sunago was running trials as part of its research and development, it worked with the Education Ministry in teaching SPM English essay writing online for free, he points out.

Almost 20,000 students come under this programme every year, with an 80% completion rate.

"A general rule of thumb with online learning is that there is an 80% dropout rate. But we have flipped it because of community building," says Chee. "We build a community online and students love to come back and harness this energy to learn."

The company's name is a Greek word which means to "lead together."

"We realised that what made people complete their programmes was doing it together with people they know in a community versus going online individually and learning alone which is what most online platforms and self-guided learning are about," Chee explains.

Cradle-funded startup

Starting a business venture came naturally to Chee, displaying his entrepreneurial streak even during his university days.

He studied Business and Information Technology in New Zealand, later winning a scholarship from the university to do a Masters in International Business.

During the master's programme, he was in a team that was runner-up in a startup pitching competition.

The NZ$100,000 (RM267,479) prize was used to start a company that taught kids about entrepreneurship, creating an online portal to teach them how to set up their own venture - lemonade stand or car wash - and how to calculate the profit.

Chee's background is in education, particularly English language and is also director of group strategy and alliances at ELS Language Centres Malaysia.

"I saw a potential in scaling up English language teaching using technology and hence came Sunago," he recalls. "We don't have many players in Malaysia so we're hoping to capitalise on that as well."

Chee obtained RM300,000 in grant from Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd and part of it went to building the technology. "We get access to a lot of networks, advice and mentorship as well," he says.

"People are realising that technology can bring the best teachers to your doorstep whenever you want. Education isn't really a progressive sector. We're still learning the same way in classrooms as we did centuries ago. There are not many education technology companies."

Not resting on its laurel

"Currently, we are teaching about 8,000 students online in Malaysia. We're looking at expanding to developing countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Vietnam has the youngest workforce in Southeast Asia and the most hungry, with half of the English learners doing so for career advancement," says Chee.

Sunago is negotiating to provide English language services in Tokyo, especially with the 2020 Olympics in mind, as many Japanese would need to learn to speak English.

Another venture Chee is working on is using artificial intelligence to build a robot teacher with automated essay marking that can provide feedback on writing and speaking skills. "Everything is mobile these days so it will be an app and web-based. Already, most of our visitors to our website are mobile," he adds.

"Once we grow to a certain size, we can start looking at different avenues of using the data in our hands. We can gauge user behaviour from the data and understand our students better. For example, we can provide career recommendations to school students.

"We have a course called 'Designing your future' that allows students to understand their strengths, weaknesses and interests. So, we can plot their career objectives and suggest the courses they can take to realise these objectives," says Chee. FocusM