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The Diary of an Edtech Startup: The Good, Bad and Ugly

It was a month after I started Smoocer that I realised it comes under the category of an Edtech startup. Edtech means much more than it appears to be. Its not just about online tools that teachers can use to keep track of their students. Edtech startups range right from technologies that sell to schools, products for MOOC takers to learning tools for individual students and learners.

By working on my Edtech startup and in trying to make sense of this industry, I have discovered a few common experiences faced by several Edtech startups whose founders I’ve interacted with. If you’re looking to venture into this space, or if you are already in this space, here are some things that I consider must knows of the Edtech space:

The GOOD: There are tons of opportunity in the market. No matter where you look in the traditional education space, there is almost always visible scope for technology to swoop in and save the day. It can be in the form of Learning Management Systems for teachers or Massive Open Online Coursewares for learners worldwide. Problems, such as poor communication between teachers and students or low accessibility to quality education are well defined problems that have a well defined audience. And this is what makes Edtech such a vibrant and upcoming industry.

The BAD: Just because the problem is clearly defined and existent, doesn’t mean people are willing to adopt your solution. Remember that the Edtech space is entirely and completely dependent on the education space, which is fairly resistant to new technology. The Education industry comes under the late majority in adopting technology. Many a time, you can talk to your customers, understand their problems and craft a perfect product for them. But getting them used to screens after decades of having used paper is like trying to train a human being to do a headstand. For them, computers and phones equate to distracting games and social media, which is nowhere close to effective learning and good grades. Online tutoring is an ideal example of a product that faces this kind of problem. So in other words, finding your early adopters might be as difficult as finding your soulmate.

The UGLY: Even if you come with an awesome product that people are want to use, it’s hard to get it to them. While the market is well defined, the marketing channels are not. In case of B2B products or services, the bureaucratic hurdles that you may have to jump in educational institutes can really slow you down. In case of B2C products or services, like the kind I’m working on, its difficult to find online platforms and physical places where you can market your product. End users, like professionals taking MOOCs in my case, are scattered across the planet, several MOOC platforms and thousands of Facebook groups. It’s not rare for me to be talking to a user who tells me about a very frustrating problem they’ve been facing, like choosing the right MOOC for themselves, that has already been solved to a large extent by services like Coursetalk and MOOCList. They’re just not aware of the solution yet.

I’m not saying that its harder to operate in the Edtech industry than other industries. Just like any other space, this one has its unique set of problems. But despite these problems, Edtech has been the most exciting space I’ve worked in so far. Its vibrant, moves fast and is far from saturation. And the best part? It feels like a revolution.

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When Education gets Creative with Technology

Reading Tom Wilson’s post on good technology for education got me thinking about some of the popular and prevalent social technology that have been used very creatively in online education, or more specifically, in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Coursewares). I remember being awed by each of these things when I came across them, and if you’re an edtech fan like me, it’s likely that these will blow your mind too:
Twitterbot: MOOCs often have discussions on Twitter, wherein hundreds of people taking the course converse by tweeting to the MOOC’s twitter profile. These discussions can be quite fast paced and are usually more spontaneous than those on course discussion forums. A particularly innovative MOOC I came across, called E-learning and Digital Culture on Coursera created a Twitterbot for themselves which would answer the course takers’ tweets automatically by picking out certain predetermined words. And you thought video lectures were advanced?
TalkAbout: TalkAbout is a tool that helps people taking an online course to schedule google hangouts with other students taking the same course. I haven’t personally used it, but from what I understand, it also provides some add-ons that can be used during the google hangout to guide discussion. The simplicity of the idea and the way it makes use of exisiting technology (i.e. Google Hangouts) is fascinating.
Padlet Walls: Padlet may not be something you have heard of unless you’re a user of online project collaboration tools. Well, that’s basically what it is. It lets you invite people to share a ‘padlet wall’ to which all of you can post documents, pictures, links, etc. A few MOOCs which included a final project to be submitted by the end of the course request their students to post the final projects on a common wall like this one. Apart from enabling students to see each others’ projects, this is a great marketing tactic for the course too since the content on these walls is usually made public by the MOOC provider who can display all the work that has come out of their online course.
Facebook and Google+ Communities: Creating FB and Google+ groups for online course takers to interact with each other on social media isn’t particularly innovative. But its probably the most effective. If moderated well, these social media groups can play a huge role in giving MOOC takers a sense of community and comfort. Also, these mediums seem to be better at maintaining long term relationships amongst MOOC takers since people continue to use FB and Google+ even after their course ends.
Do you have any other cool MOOC technologies you’ve come across? Share them with me if you have, so that I can geek out over them too.

Da Nang

After a 16 hour long train journey, Shivani and I found ourselves in Da Nang, a city in the middle of Vietnam. Da Nang is much smaller than Hanoi. It has less people, less traffic and fewer people speak English.

I really enjoyed being there, because it had a good mix of everything. There were beaches to hang out at, a riverside with lots of hangout spots, some beautiful bridges and it was fun to just walk around the city. We encountered some statues, museums, churches and old buildings.

Da Nang was more spaced out, which is why the roads were wider and there were fewer commercial spots at most places in the city. We noticed a lot of tourists renting and riding motorbikes there. It was rainy and cold most of the time we were there, which was a bit disappointing since we were hoping to meet pleasant weather after Hanoi.

We spent 3 days in Da Nang which turned out to be a perfect duration for us. We spent two days in the main city and by the riverside and one relatively pleasant day at the beach.

Mi Quang, a noodle dish that originates from Da Nang with Thai coconuts! 

A night besides the riverside! At this bar, we met a waitress originally from Ho Chi Minh city who was our age and trying to improve her English before she could get a job on a cruise ship and travel the world. 

A view of the Dragon Bridge that is one of several bridges over Han River. The Dragon Bridge connects one part of the city to another. The two parts are quite different from each other in that one is more city like and the other is filled with hotels, beaches and sea food restaurants. 

Eating Delicious Bahn Xeo (rice crepes with beansprouts and egg) on the popular Hoang Dieu Street. This place was hidden at the end of tiny alley and took us quite a while to find. As soon as we sat down we were served a standard meal which everyone seemed to be eating. Shivani ranks this meal as her best meal in Vietnam!  
On our third day, we got a few hours without rain. It didn’t take us long to figure out what we wanted to do that day. 

There are several cruises along Han river for $5 per person which take you past the several bridges in about an hour or two. 

Hanoi

I spent two weeks of my December break in Vietnam with my best friend from high school. It was pretty fun. For one, this was the first time I got so much time with my best friend. Also, I love Vietnamese food.

I liked the fact that Vietnam is a developing country. Developed countries to me have little sense of risk. Developing countries are different. They’re less organised, peoples’ lives are more interesting and there’s more to learn about them. 
Our flight from Singapore went en-route Ho Chi Minh City (where we were to later return) to Hanoi, one of the northern and capital city of Vietnam. We had a two hour layover in Ho Chi Minh which is a southern city of Vietnam, where we hoped to grab some lunch at the airport. That did not happen. My visa on arrival took far longer than expected. Vietnam requires several country’s citizens to either get a visa before landing in the country OR get an approval letter online which expects your arrival and makes you eligible to get a visa on arrival. I chose the latter option. 
First, I had to queue up to submit my visa application form and approval letter. Then, I had to wait for them to process it and call out my name with my stamped passport. The processing part took quite long, and I had to show them my boarding pass, which indicated that my next flight was boarding in 15 minutes. The authorities were being quite nice to people who had to catch another flight and rushed our applications. 
Once I had my visa, Shivani and I ran from the international to the domestic airport (which were right next to each other) in the rain. We had to check in again and go through security check again, which took some time. But we made it to our next flight, which is all that really matters. 
We reached Hanoi airport around 4:30 PM and took our time to leave the airport. At 5:30 we took a bus from the airport to the city, which is an hour and a half away. The bus was surprisingly cheap. It cost us 2 USD per person (after we figured out that they were trying to overcharge us). By the time we reached the city it was 7 PM. Our original plan was to take a train up to Sapa, a city 8 hours north of Hanoi. But just the night before our flight, we had discovered that train tickets to Sapa weren’t available online. So we decided to spend 2 extra days in Hanoi which made it a total of 4 days. We later discovered that train tickets online sell out because local travel agents buy them and re-sell them. So we probably could have gotten tickets to Sapa had we known. 
Vietnamese Pho (Noodle Soup) on our first night in Hanoi
But 4 days in Hanoi was good too. We ended up doing things all of the 4 days we were there. Hanoi weather was kind of cold. It was ~10-15 degrees celsius. The sun never comes out in the winter there apparently, and it was a bit rainy. Hanoi looks much like an expanded version of a small town of India. It’s very large, has lots of traffic and little shops falling onto the roads selling groceries, clothes, tools or anything else you might need to buy. There were hardly any high rise buildings or malls. There were lots of lakes, which was interesting to me because I’d never been to a city with so many lakes inside of it. This meant lots of nice parks and areas to chill beside lakes. Coffee and tea stalls were popular, so was street food. The street food in Vietnam is safe even for foreigners and quite low on oil. So we could effectively eat street food for all our meals and not fall ill. This is very unlike street food in India which should not be eaten on a regular basis. 
Che (pronounced chay) a popular Vietnamese dessert 
Meals on the street would usually cost less than $5 for both me and Shivani. Coffee was cheap too, but got more expensive in indoor cafes. I really loved Vietnamese coffee. It’s dark coffee with condensed milk. Its pretty heavy, so by the third day I started cutting down on my coffee consumption. 
Vietnamese coffee is traditionally served with condensed milk. The filter (silver cup on top of the glass) is filled with coffee powder and hot water, which drips into the glass.
Photo Credits: Shivani Kalra
Egg Coffee, a specialty of a popular Hanoi cafe. It was possibly the best coffee I’ve had. The foam, which fills half the cup, is made of egg and below it is Vietnamese coffee. 
Coconut Coffee, found at a cafe in Hanoi. I think it was just the cream which was coconut flavoured.
There’s an area called the old quarter of Hanoi which has most of the hotels, hostels, the popular Hoan Kiem Lake, the Hanoi prison, the night market and lots of cafes and popular eating joints. My favourite place was the Hanoi prison, where I learnt a lot about the French acquisition of Vietnam and the Vietnam war. Another attraction is the Water Puppet Theatre which puts up shows of the traditional Vietnamese art of Water puppetry. As the names implies, it is a show of puppets in water. There is live music sung in the background and the puppetry depicts different aspects of Vietnamese traditional life. Personally, I didn’t really enjoy it much and didn’t think it was worth the $5 entry fees. There were no translations, so it was hard to understand what really was going on. 
Shivani poses for me at the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Meeting up with my friend from college Elson and his friend at the bridge across Hoan Kiem Lake
We stayed in the old quarter for the first two nights and couchsurfed for the next two nights at a place a little outside of the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s couchsurfing community is pretty tight, and they have a lot of events and get togethers that we unfortunately didn’t know of until our third night in Hanoi. 
One of the first things I noticed about Hanoi was how laid back it is. People were clearly underemployed and pace of life seemed slow, atleast from an outsiders’ perspective. But I think that plays a major role in making Hanoi such a popular tourist attraction. I thought the hype behind it is a bit much, but I can definitely see where it comes from. It isn’t often that you come across a city with friendly people, convenient transport and cheap food. 

Day 4: Angkor Wat


We woke up at 5 am to catch the sunrise at what is often called a wonder of the world, the Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and the sun didn’t show up until around 8 am. The reason that sunrise at Angkor Wat is so hyped is that unlike most monuments, the Angkor Wat is built facing the west, so the sun rises from behind it. The reflection of the Angkor Wat falls on a lake in front of it. The Angkor Wat is not a stand alone temple and is part of the Angkor Thom, a large complex of temples. Many people spend up to 3 full days there. The sad side to that is that Angkor Thom is now private property and charges $20 per day. The complex is so large that you need to either bike or take a tuk tuk to get from one temple to another. There a small route and a larger route depending on how many temples you want to see. Florence and I took the smaller route. 


The temples at Angkor Wat went far beyond the temples I have ever known. They are more like historical ruins, with a few statues of Buddha here and there (though it was originally built for Hindu use). The colour of the walls is beautiful, mainly dark grey with tinges of green moss and the occasional red sandstone colour. There is no functional use of the temples we saw in the religious context. Its mostly a tourist spot where people walk around. Unlike other temples I’ve seen, the temples at Angkor Wat involve a lot of exploring and getting lost, much like you would in an ancient palace. The Angkor Thom is multi storey and very big in itself. After many stairs and galleried floors, you reach the core central area where there are three stone structures resembling stupas/mountains on top. This place is filled with rocks and tourists sitting on them. 

We spent over an hour exploring the Angkor Wat before we moved to the next temples. Most of them were similar in that they all had similar structures and materials with which they were constructed. They varied in size and complexity. Some temples were quite small and didn’t play as much with my sense of direction. There was an element of mystery in many of the temples. Some of them had unknown faces carved, like the Bayon, which was personally my favourite temple. Others were still incomplete for unknown reasons, likely to be the death of the creator. There was reconstruction work going on at every other temple we went to. Other countries’ governments were helping in conservation efforts such as the Indian and Chinese government. 


The Bayon temple was one with multiple mountain like structures with faces carved on them. You could go up to it and see the faces up close. 
Some of the temples in construction were a blend of old and new, not in a nice way. One of temples for example, had white concrete, red sandstone, grey rock and green moss all together, which definitely reduced the beauty and authenticity of it. 




Another interesting temple was one which was such a maze that it was very common for tourists to get lost inside. It also had many trees with roots outside the ground. (I wish I could remember the name of the temple) 


While driving from one temple to another, we came across some great architecture. There were stories told through depictions on walls and statues built on railings, as if welcoming tourists. 


We conversed with our tuk tuk driver for a while. Turns out that he only recently started earning through a tuk tuk, as he was a chef earlier. He worked at an Italian restaurant, but apparently that paid less than driving a tuk tuk and had more work. His salary as a cook was $100 a month. 

By noon, we were both exhausted and ready to go home. We had spent 7 hours walking around temples and the sun was getting to us. After spending a few hours napping, I went to the night market for dinner.   

I ate khmer curry, a coconut based curry with pumpkin, carrots and your choice of meat.
I also tried a cashew milkshake, something that seems fairly popular here. It was interesting, that’s all I can say. I think mine had far too much added sugar for me to enjoy the shake.


I got a $3 back massage after dinner. I almost got a khmer massage but I was told that its similar to a Thai massage in which they beat you to pulp. Later I discovered that it isn’t as brutal as the Thai massage and is more about pressure points on your body. 

I bumped into the night market’s art center, an area selling handicrafts among other types of souvenirs

Day 3: Night Market at Siem Reap

Our bus ride to Siem Reap took 3 hours longer than expected. We were under the impression that Siem Reap is 3-4 hours away, but it took over 7 hours in the end. The bus was pretty comfortable. It was air conditioned and they gave us bottled water, breakfast and wet towels. During the ride, we got to see many villages and rural areas of Cambodia. Apart from abandoned houses and dusty roads in functional villages, houses on stilts above water were a common sight. 

Fish Amok, a traditional Khmer (Cambodian) dish. I was
pleasantly surprised by the perfect spiciness and texture. 

At one point, we stopped to pick up stranded passengers whose bus had broken down an hour ago (apparently, this is quite a frequent thing in Cambodia). What was most interesting was that the bus conductor just pulled out seats in the standing space that runs down the middle of the bus and the new passengers sat on them for the rest of the journey. Since this was the end of the festive season, many of the travellers were families with small kids who kept crying. We got to Siem Reap around 4 pm and took a tuk tuk to our guest house. The owner of it was chinese and Florence was able to use her language skills effectively to help us figure out our plans in  Siem Reap for the cheapest possible prices. 

Night Market Adventures
Our photographer, a friendly old woman pretended that she was
going to run away with our camera just after she took this
photo. 

Our guest house is quite close to the  night market and pub street area, which is super touristy and filled with street sellers, bars, massage parlours and food stalls. Its much safer here than Phnom Penh and we can walk around at night without worrying about safety. But once again, this is probably the most upscale area of Siem Reap. We saw some of the non fancy parts of town on our way to the guest house, and they looked very much representative of a developing country. Even on pub street, prices are quite cheap. Florence and I ate local food just outside of pub street for $3 per person. There are loads of money changers and ATMs. People speak english. 

We enjoyed the night market. We got fish massages, but I refused to put my feet in for more than a few seconds at a time. The fish biting was a strange sensation. 




A Newbie’s Lessons from the Game Industry

I was never a full time gamer, but after watching a talk on game design by Jane Mcgonigal and a few lectures by Kevin Warbach, I started thinking about projecting education through games. People are always talking about how information needs to be converted to a consumable format, and so far that consumable format has been videos. But videos just change the format in which information is presented, it doesn’t change the interaction people have with the content. While I think videos are far more affective than books and texts, I also think that games are far more affective than videos.

The problem is that so far, it hasn’t been done right. Games are still mostly for entertainment, and we still face the challenge of making games educational without losing out either the game element or the educational element. I have been trying to create a game on cultures and have learnt several things about the game industry in the process, with the help of mentors and experienced professionals:

a) No money: The game industry is facing the problem of how to monazite games in the face of competition from free games. Some of the best games have had to be made free of cost, because people aren’t willing to pay. Game designers are encouraged to incorporate the monetization in their game early on and not leave it for later. At the same time, the audience for video games is increasing as more people use electronic devices and the nature of games diversify.

b) Competitive and high failure rate: There is a 95% failure rate among games that are produced and the competition is severe. The number of games on the IOS and Android market are testiments.

c) Easy to produce: Producing a game isn’t so hard any more. There are several softwares that are available for non coders. Some good ones I have come across are Unity, Game Maker Studio, Adventure Studios and Game Salad.

d) Making games vs thinking of them: Thinking of game ideas is easy, and it may be appealing in your head. But when you actually start making the game, your ideas suddenly aren’t as fun as they were in your head. So its a good idea to start prototyping asap. (This may sound obvious to any entrepreneur or businessman, but I think it applies even more so for games than anything else I’ve come across so far)

e) Prototyping: From my experience so far, some prototypes don’t even make it to the customers, because you notice problems and change it before its fully complete. (This may not be a good idea though, since you could be overly self critical) Prototyping video games has been very different from other kinds of prototyping I’ve seen or done. It can be anything from drawing on paper to actually coding the game.

f) B2B educational games: A lot of educational games are sold to institutions like schools or businesses who need very specific type of information to be taught to their students or employees.

So far, the game makers I’ve contacted have been very approachable and friendly. They have been willing to fix meetings without knowing me directly or indirectly. This may be a characteristic of the gaming industry or Singapore, I’m not sure, but either way I have been very lucky with regards to talking to the right people.