#Asia It’ll be 15 years before computers can replace teachers: Topica CEO


The Southeast Asian edtech firm is tackling online degrees, speech tutoring, app development and founder training. How do they juggle it all? Pham Minh Tuan gives us an in depth look

Topica Founder and CEO Pham Minh Tuan

Topica Founder and CEO Pham Minh Tuan

The global edtech market will reach US$59.9 billion by 2018, but the real nugget of opportunity for education technology lies in Asia.

According to these slides made up by edtech investor Fresco Capital, Asia is home to 600 million K-12 students where a whopping 60-96 per cent of secondary school students receive outside tutoring. Families in the region also spend 40 per cent of their income on education.

That’s the current state of the Asian edtech market today, but it was Coursera’s 2012 launch that really paved the way for companies in this space. It was the year that online learning was truly validated and anyone keen on professional development could tap into MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) as an additional learning resource. Online education marketplaces like Udemy have also done well, with over seven million students enrolled in their user-generated courses.

While e-learning continues to solidify its position as a viable career accelerator, there’s one company in Asia that’s become a multi-faceted force in the edtech space.

Topica EdTech Group, unlike other companies that push just one successful product, has an ambitious number of offerings that they’re working on simultaneously. These programmes run the gamut of online degrees, speech tutoring, app development and entrepreneurship training.

Also Read: Edtech giant Topica acquires Hanoi co-working space Hub.IT

The seven-year-old company was started by scholar and serial entrepreneur Pham Minh Tuan in his hometown Hanoi, after years of work and study in Europe and the US. Although Topica was built out of Vietnam, they’ve since expanded into three Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines) and are currently setting up their regional headquarters in Singapore.

Bringing affordable education to millions

Topica’s online bachelor’s degree programs, which partners with eight top-tier universities around Southeast Asia, is one of the company’s proven products. Students can learn from 1,000 managers and professionals on the web and tuition is set at local pricing.

“Our explicit mission is to offer world-class quality programs while keeping tuition levels affordable. We’re able to do that because our support staff and developers are all local and we partner with local universities,” said Founder and CEO Pham Minh Tuan.

“Many people are bringing in western education but at high prices, so only a handful of people can afford it. We believe in bringing education to millions.”

Among the 2,600 graduated from ‘Topica Uni’ programmes, 97 per cent are employed, 34 per cent have found better jobs and overall salaries increased over 16 per cent after just one year. Based on these numbers, it would seem that Pham is well on his way to realising his vision.

Online degrees aside, Topica also runs practical English study programmes. With ‘Topica Native,’ students in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam can practice their English with hundreds of teachers from the US, Europe and Australia at any hour of the day. On top of being coached by speech tutors, students can also tap into learning modules for self-study.

Pioneering technologies for education

Topica was also first to build a Google Glass app for speech tutoring in a program called ‘TopMito.’ Of course, Glass eventually died a slow death but Topica’s experiments with the Google headset was just the beginning.

Topica then launched an edtech lab in 2015 to house such experiments. Modelled after MIT’s Media Lab, the facilities will harness Vietnam’s engineering talent to build apps for display technology like Oculus Rift, Hololens or smartwatches and smartphones.

Also Read: How Topica Founder Institute is helping shape Vietnam’s startup scene

According to Pham, they’re a part of Topica’s plans to develop experimental apps to let users access educational material on the next generation of devices.

Topica team demos apps for Oculus Rift at Echelon Thailand

Topica team demos apps for Oculus Rift at Echelon Thailand

He said there are three themes Topica is currently building up within the lab. The first is aligned with the goal to help students “absorb information at a broader bandwidth compared to eyes and ears,” and they’ll use Oculus and Hololens to do this.

The second theme aims to make learning more natural by breaking it down into bite-sized chunks.

“Take a smartwatch app for example, which can quiz you on a new word every ten minutes. Compared with the last generation of learning where you have to sit for one hour at a time using mobile devices where you study for a few minutes per session, you can now study for a few seconds per session,” said Pham. “Which is more natural, much more immersive and blends easily into your life.”

The third theme is focused on mobility which will enlist the help of telepresence robots in courses where instructors are teaching remotely. The bots lend a hand by ensuring students stay engaged.

According to Pham, it’ll be another 15 years before computers are advanced enough to replace teachers. And when that day comes, he believes that computers and teachers will work hand in hand in the classroom.

“For certain hard skills, teachers will still be needed but not for teaching basic math, language and classes that teach facts. This is not replacing teachers but freeing up their time to engage students, to teach critical thinking and provide a higher degree of teaching and learning.”

Giving back to the Asian tech ecosystem

To further their goal as a community builder, Topica is also training the next generation of entrepreneurs by running the Vietnam chapter of Silicon Valley’s Founder Institute network. And the six-month accelerator programme seems to be making an impact, with 34 founders graduated in the past three years who have gone on to start companies with a combined valuation of US$60 million for the top eight startups.

Also Read: Vietnamese developers can now merge hardware with edtech

For entrepreneurs looking for long-term support, Topica runs a “Founders-in-Residence” programme, which grooms entrepreneurs for two to three years and a ‘Future CEO programme,” which provides five years of management training. Becoming an entrepreneur is a life-long learning experience and Topica’s programmes might make the process slightly less rocky.

Tropica Edtech Lab

Topica Edtech Lab


Of course, Topica isn’t the first to offer online degrees or entrepreneurship training and the edtech space is far from a nascent one — AngelList’s database alone shows over 10,000 edtech startups. According to Pham, Topica will be collaborating instead of competing with other edtech companies around the world to tackle the ongoing challenge of making online learning more mainstream. He admits that it’ll be a “long time before [they] start competing” as there are a lot of companies with complementary products.

“We want to join forces to compete against traditional education, that’s more effective. The biggest problem is that people don’t trust online education, so that’s something we can all work together on.”

In the way forward, Topica wants to build out the edtech ecosystem by offering support services to other companies. “It’s a lot like what Amazon is doing for e-commerce companies. We solve their credit, certification, distribution and monetisation problems so startups can focus on what they do best — content,” said Pham.

The post It’ll be 15 years before computers can replace teachers: Topica CEO appeared first on e27.

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