While Singapore has a reputation for outstanding education outcomes, the private education sector has a reputation for exorbitant fees, and, are largely unaffordable as ‘expat benefits’ have generally become a thing of the past. We chat with EdTech, Geniebook Co-Founders Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong on why they think there’s still a place for private tuition in Singapore.
By Joanne Leila Smith
After graduating from university with finance degrees, Geniebook Co-Founders Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong pooled their money and talent into a tuition centre. Within the first year of their business, they drew a meagre SGD 1,000 monthly salary while friends around them climbed the corporate ladder. 15 years later, the duo have transformed their network of brick ‘n mortar tuition centres into one online educational platform, Genibook, and say it now enjoys a fivefold increase in revenue monthly.
Despite this success, the 36-year-olds say they struggled to maintain a balance, providing their families with an adequate amount of time and attention, while running an expanding business – now with 120 staff members under their wing, up from 30 in 2019. By turning the problem of physicality into a competitive advantage, Geniebook says its student numbers increased exponentially since its SGD 1.5 million Pre-Series A funding round in 2019.
A year later, Genibook says its now positioned among the top ten tuition providers in Singapore, by membership.
Zhizhong attributes part of this success to Geniebook’s approach in offering personalised questions to each student.
“Our patented technology identifies topics that a student needs more practice in and provides targeted questions for them to tackle. With such customised material, students can skip redundant content and concentrate on the most useful topics to help them understand concepts. Through this, we create a personalised learning path for every student, enabling them to improve within a short amount of time. Secondly, Geniebook strengthens the foundation which is critical for our national examinations. The Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and Singapore-Cambridge GCE O-Level Examination test concepts from Primary Three to Primary Six and Secondary Three to Secondary Four respectively. By having access to previous levels’ questions, Geniebook enables students to practise and understand the current topics better,” says Zhizhong.
According to Zhizhong, in typical tuition centres and private tuition sessions, students usually only practise questions of their level. Geniebook fills in the gaps for the previous foundational topics. With a thorough understanding of a concept from the basic to advanced levels, he claims students can excel in these national examinations confidently.
“Students can revise effortlessly. We encourage repeated practice and revision to deepen students’ understanding and convert knowledge to their long-term memory. Students’ mistakes and corrections are made available to them and they can revise them conveniently anywhere, anytime,” says Zhizhong.
In light of all this, we asked Cheong what other factors contributed to a five-fold increase within 12 months?
“Geniebook is one of the most established online platforms that is powered by AI. We have built a strong team of curriculum professionals who create original questions and answers which are in line with Singapore’s Ministry of Education syllabus. Our patented technology learns from how students answer these questions. From there, Geniebook’s AI generates worksheets with the best ‘learnability’ for each student. The AI improves as students answer more and more questions. Our platform also encourages self-directed learning. With the implementation of our rewards system, many parents have given feedback that our online platform has motivated their child to complete their worksheets. Additionally, Geniebook has a Parent App for parents to monitor their child’s academic performance. This Parent App allows parents to stay involved in their child’s educational journey,” says Cheong.
In terms of growth opportunities in the private education space in ASEAN, Cheong says with the increasing penetration of online and mobile first adoption, along with a rise in disposable household income, there is much for Geniebook to look forward to as it expands across the region.
“In Malaysia, we are seeing an increase in the adoption of technology within schools, as part of their Smart Schools initiative, a subset of the national Vision 2020 ICT plan. Additionally, in Vietnam, there is a strong demand for high international education standards along with growing tech-savviness. With 33 million middle and affluent consumers, statistics have shown that citizens spend up to 40% of their disposable income on education. This is something that we are optimistic about,” says Cheong.
We asked Cheong what were some of the constraints around time and affordability with the tuition market in Singapore?
“The constraint on travelling time to attend tuition is very real. As students advance to higher levels of education, their commitment to extracurricular activities increases. This means that parents and students will find it increasingly difficult to find an agreeable time to fix classes. It can also be taxing for students who are involved in many extracurricular activities, as these activities will tire them out before their tuition classes at night. In addition, these students tend to spend less quality time with their families. As an online learning tool, we hope to reduce students’ travelling time and yet still allow them to revise their work effectively. As long as they have a suitable device and Internet connection, they can revise anywhere, anytime,” says Cheong.
As nations move towards an easing of lockdowns due to the pandemic, we asked Zhizhong whether he believed online learning is the future of education, in terms of affordability, and better educational outcomes.
“We believe online learning is the future of education. The concept of traditional classroom learning has changed radically within the last couple of years. With the advancement of technology and the Internet, being physically present in a classroom isn’t the only way to learn. Singapore has even embarked on a Smart Nation Initiative to drive the pervasive adoption of digital and smart technologies throughout the country. In fact, all secondary school students will have personal digital devices by 2028 and will be supported by government top-ups. Although technology is an important and crucial tool, its role has and always will be to support the human teacher in his or her lessons. While the machine will be able to analyse, teach, and zoom into technical aspects of learning, the teacher’s role to guide, nurture, and inspire students has always been relevant, perhaps even more so in an age where human interaction is constantly on the decline. In the current landscape, it is even more crucial for online learning to help maintain students’ academic progress as students are learning more efficiently and effectively online. It is also more cost-effective than traditional learning as parents are required to pay less miscellaneous fees. Instead, they focus on paying for the resources of the lessons, which therefore makes it more affordable overall,” says Zhizhong.