In a Class of Her Own
Former computer engineer Janine Teo has used her problem-solving skills to give disadvantaged children access to quality education via a fun mobile app.
BY DESIREE KOH
anine Teo first encountered inequality when she was working overseas in the hospitality industry.
In places such as Mumbai and Jakarta, close to the glitzy hotels where she provided training, she witnessed children selling cigarettes and sweets in the streets. Watching them work instead of attending school deeply affected her.
“Spending months in India, rural China, Turkey and the United States, I was widely exposed to different education systems and the impact they can have on citizens,” says the widely travelled Singaporean. “It was hard to go through that journey without wondering what I could do to bring more equitable opportunities to the world.”
Then Teo met venture capitalist and philanthropist Peng Ong, who urged her to rethink her purpose in life. Both dreamt of eradicating the world’s most pressing issues such as poverty and terrorism, and zeroed in on the lack of quality education as one of their main causes.
According to a 2017 UNESCO report, 264 million children globally do not go to school. “We concluded that education will help fix most issues, but what are the challenges faced by education today? How do we leave nobody behind?” says Teo.
KNOWLEDGE WITHIN GRASP
Teo and Ong, a fellow Singaporean, then set off to find out why education in underprivileged areas across the region remains far from perfect, despite decades of NGO intervention.
They found that although many more schools have been built and teachers trained, universal access to schooling remains elusive and students may not necessarily receive quality lessons.
The two, who are trained computer engineers, then discovered a proliferation of lower-end, Android-operated mobile phones in Third World countries, and identified this as their golden opportunity to put education in the hands of their beneficiaries – literally. By the end of 2015, the duo’s research and brainstorming resulted in Solve Education, a non-profit organisation that uses technology to provide quality education to children.
One of Teo’s key challenges was getting Solve Education off the ground.
“I spent more than a year meeting people from all over the world to assemble the industry’s most successful game developers and designers, educators and business executives,” she says.
Eventually, her efforts paid off, and Teo managed to form a multinational team, including Indonesian scholars and a game producer from Seattle. Many core team members are based in Indonesia, where more than 70 per cent of Solve’s beneficiaries reside.
The global team works with a cloud-based set of proprietary team-collaboration tools and services such as real-time messaging, screen sharing and app integrations, plus project management software.
For a start, the team spent a year on the ground interacting with street children. What they found was that many, even those who fared well academically, were saddled with work responsibilities to help support their families. Even those who attended school did not receive a quality education.
With that in mind, Teo and her team developed Dawn of Civilization (DOC), a mobile phone app that facilitates learning on the go. The engaging educational game teaches both hard skills (literacy and numerical reasoning) and soft skills (discipline and diligence).
Students can also challenge each other’s scores and access a portal that links their success in DOC with employment opportunities and internships at tech companies, thanks to Solve’s partnerships.
Besides engaging in micro-tasks such as indexing, labelling and transcription, the students can also be hired as customer service representatives, virtual assistants and more.
A GLOBAL VISION
Launched in 2017, DOC now has more than 8,000 learners from countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, who have clocked 5,000 learning hours. All this, thanks to the hard work of her global team.
Collaborating across nationalities has been a learning experience for team members. These include Faisal Putra, Solve’s lead software developer. He says he and his fellow Indonesian teammates have gained new perspectives on different education systems through interactions with global partners like Magic Bus, which operates in the UK, the US, Germany, Bangladesh and Nepal. These insights have in turn been integrated into their Indonesian curriculum.
“Exposure to people from other countries and fields – from ed-tech to non-profits – has inspired me to create a society where we can grow together to survive in the 21st century. Equality has become an attainable goal,” he says.
For Teo, having prior experience working overseas has given her the cultural sensitivity required to communicate effectively with her team. “In Indonesia, the Batak people tend to express disagreements directly, while the Javanese tend to be more passive. By immersing myself in my colleagues’ different cultures, I can better understand how they think and can thus get the best feedback,” she explains.
In order to keep attracting new students, Teo has adapted Solve’s outreach tactics to suit varying cultural attitudes.
In Indonesia, for instance, where human interaction remains crucial, implementing a friend-referral system and game challenges have resulted in a sharp increase in sign-ups in a Bandung slum. Here, they bloomed from an initial 17 skeptical young mothers to more than 100 within two months, thanks to the game’s viral nature.
Compared to traditional schools, where student engagement isn’t measured, DOC has a 30-day retention rate of 50 per cent – compared to an average of 10 per cent for top game apps in the same time frame.
For now, Teo is confident in her vision of helping her beneficiaries not just survive but thrive in the workforce of the future.
“I believe that the world will be a much better place if everybody puts his or her talent to good use,” she concludes.
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