Plus his vision to make an impact on Thailand’s educational system.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
When it comes to tackling educational inequality through the ed-tech space, Dr. Nattapon ‘Richie’ Chawla does not beat around the bush: “Almost 20 percent of the government’s national budget was earmarked for education last year, but based on the EF English Proficiency Index 2021, across non-English-speaking countries, we’re ranked 100th out of 112,” he tells me. “And we’ve been falling in the ranks for the last 5-10 years. On top of this, the latest Credit Suisse report indicated that Thailand is currently ranked among the top countries in the world with the highest educational inequality rate.” I ask him for his insight on why this is so, and he cites the lack of a platform to use English and converse with others, despite it being a compulsory subject from the primary level in Thailand. “Even adults here who converse well in English, you’ll realise that they still think in Thai, and try to translate that into English. If they’re not going to be able to overcome that, and be confident in their ability, they’re not going to improve.”
Clearly impassioned about the subject, 36-year-old Richie tells me about his counterintuitive background in healthcare, having obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a second degree in educational psychology from Asia- Pacific International University, followed by both a Master’s and a PhD from Chulalongkorn University. However, he realised working in a lab was not for him. “I consulted with a few of my advisors at university, and they persuaded me to try teaching,” he recalls. “My first job was teaching Science at a middle- and high-school level, and that’s when I discovered how much I enjoyed it – the more you teach, the more you learn, that’s what I believe. Till now, I’m very passionate about education, and I continue to teach as a lecturer on public health at a university level.”
When asked about how those experiences helped him found Voxy (Thailand), a digital English learning platform for corporate teams around the world, Richie is candid about his interest in pursuing the root of the challenges in Thailand’s educational landscape. “After looking at the data, we thought we could perhaps make a difference in Thailand’s declining English proficiency level. I teamed up with a few of my colleagues back in 2013 and started a small educational consultancy, called ACE Academy, which is still operational today and helps students get into top universities both in the country, and abroad. We did that for a few years, before we asked ourselves, ‘if we can help kids in this way, are there similar opportunities in the adult space?’ So we looked at the data – because I’m a firm believer in looking at market research data before making any decision – and saw a huge demand in English-language training among young professionals. So we tapped into this and opened ACE Languages back in 2017, working with SMEs and even large corporations to teach their teams English.”
However, he recalled even then they had issues with the retention rate. “Today, we don’t have time,” he explains. “People don’t want to learn after 5pm or during weekends. While the result of those training sessions was above our KPIs, at about 85 percent satisfaction rate, the retention was poor. So we sat down with the management from a few organisations, and they asked us if we can provide alternatives. That’s what started our online learning solutions, Voxy (Thailand), late in 2018. We’re a B2B-driven company, helping organisations and their staff, and we leverage AI learning and customisation to help private firms, government-related public firms, and education centres.”
I point out that the pandemic must have accelerated people’s acceptance and adoption of online learning, but even beyond that, Richie is bullish about the online educational trend. “The US, Canada, Germany, Japan, Korea, and many others have been into online education for almost 20 years,” he says. “Recently, we’ve seen more intense growth and investment in APAC countries, including Thailand, thus creating huge opportunities for this industry here. Last year, the educational tech industry was above USD 250 billion but in the next three to five years, some estimate that it will grow to at least double that, or even three times as much.”
He speaks to Masala further about his vision to “make an impact on Thailand’s educational system, while making quality English learning affordable and accessible to all, thus bridging the educational inequality gap.”
What exactly is the educational technology space, and how does Voxy hope to transform it?
We’ve heard a lot of buzz around digital transformation, from SMEs to large corporations that have wanted to transform, but what really is it? The textbook definition is integrating digital technology as part of your business, your core values, and your deliveries, and bringing it to customers. It’s not just taking a book and selling it online. The mindset, culture; everything has to come with it.
When it comes to education technology, we’re integrating this technology to improve learning and teaching for teachers and students, across the landscape. What we have seen in the ed-tech space is that it has revolutionised quite a bit with the emergence of AI and digitalisation. For example, at Voxy (Thailand), our market research has shown us that people in Southeast Asia are, on average, spending more than four hours a day online. Thailand is sitting slightly above that at around five hours.
We asked ourselves, if we know that connectivity is so high, why can’t we leverage that for online learning? However, what we’ve realised is to be effective, it has to be done in a structured way, and studies have shown that a blended approach is best. There needs to be models for you to study, where you can practice skills like listening, reading, and writing, and there has to be a stage where you have two-way engagement andcommunication, with live instruction, not just through e.g. watching YouTube videos.
So how have you incorporated AI to your platform?
AI connects people to people, and people to machines. It can track and monitor your progress, and see your strengths and weaknesses. For us, we leverage AI into personalisation. For example, two learners may be both at an intermediate English level, but if our AI has found that one person’s skills in reading are lower and the other’s skills in writing are lower, it personalises your learning to fix that. At the same time, AI tracks you all the way – what activities you’re doing, what are your likes and dislikes, and it personalises content based on your interests. That way, you can encourage people to keep learning by catering towards their interests.
The number one challenge in online learning is lack of engagement. If learners don’t engage in the platform, it’s hard for them to improve. But when you have personalisation, you keep them more engaged, and they’re more likely to improve. It’s just like Netflix – they recommend series based on your interests so you keep watching. Education should also be like that, which is what Voxy aims to do.
Voxy provides personalised English-language learning solutions to corporations around the world. Can you walk us through how these classes work, and what makes Voxy unique from similar platforms?
There have been players before us in this landscape, which is quite a competitive one. Individual platforms have their advantages and disadvantages. We came into the industry catering towards corporate needs, understanding the gaps, and we try to fulfil that with our solutions.
Not only do we take into account personalisation, we allow you unlimited access to the study module. The second arm is live instruction, where there are over 100 24- hour classes available throughout the day, and you have up to 16 classes accessible per month. Each live class has an average of three to five students per session so you can converse with your teachers and peers, and that is so important.
Once a student is in the system, we give them a pre-test to assess the level of English that they’re at. Based on those results, everything is personalised for the individual. What we have found is that it takes around three to six months for an individual to improve one English proficiency level, of course with discipline and a study plan created by our AI and academic team.
How do you personalise your courses for people from different industries?
Our first goal was to cater to corporates, which includes the range of industries in the corporate world, and so we have over 85 courses designed for specific industry needs. For example, for the automotive industry, we’ve designed a course called ‘English for the Automotive Industry’ where specific skill sets are taught for automotive business- related purposes. Another example is the healthcare sector, where we have a course called ‘English for Healthcare Professions’ and one called ‘English for Nursing.’
We work with partners across multiple countries, and all these partners decide what is required and needed. Today we’re sitting at over 6.5 million users worldwide, and each team listens to what our customers’ needs are, we consult with our partners, and come up with solutions that best meets their needs. Again, it comes back to listening to your customer, looking at the data, and personalising it.
Entering a market for the first time can come with a whole host of challenges, especially in something as volatile as the technological space. What were the challenges that you came across when you first started, and how did you tackle them?
This takes me back to 2018 when my co-founders and I founded Voxy (Thailand). For six months, we had zero revenue. We asked ourselves, “are we doing the right thing? Let’s just shelve the project and go back to our comfort zone.”
We were facing issues with the perception of online learning. Many think, “online learning isn’t for me, I’m not used to it, I can’t concentrate, I need to be surrounded by other students,” etc. But actually, when you’re in a classroom of 20 students, each student is at a different English proficiency level, and it’s impossible to really individualise in that large classroom setting. Aligned to that is ensuring that people are engaged enough so we can see results. That was a big challenge for our company, and internally, there are a lot of KPIs that ensure that these engagement and perception factors are bridged.
What we had to do was add supporting elements to our online solutions. We do a lot in the academic space, either by holding F2F classroom sessions which are now virtual, ‘chit chat’ sessions, workshops, intervening with learners, providing learning partners, and many other things to offer a truly hybrid solution.
By God’s grace and through the hard work and determination of the team, we were able to penetrate the market, and we had a successful case starting with one or two organisations, and that started the domino effect.
Educational trends have been changing recently, with more of a focus on the digital space and virtual learning. What have your experiences and learnings been in terms of these changing trends, especially during the last two years, with online classes and hybrid models becoming the norm?
With us, COVID has had both a positive and negative impact. With the pandemic, all large corporations have tightened their belts, so the training budgets have been trimmed. On the opposite front, a lot of organisations who had specific learning and training needs were not able to conduct them face to face, so they had to look for online providers. This is an area where we’ve seen over 60 percent growth in inbound inquiries.
The pandemic was a catalyst that has driven a lot of online learning, and when parents saw their kids going to school online, there was mass adoption towards online learning. The industry value could actually triple over the next few years, so we’re in a very exciting phase.
What’s actually required to drive this adoption and enhancement of the ed-tech industry is the government sector. It’s still an area where there’s not much capital investment from the policy makers’ side, so if we want to see a lot more growth, we will have to perhaps hope that the government comes in as another catalyst, and we look forward to more public-private partnerships.
You’ve received a lot of accolades over the years. What do you attribute your success to, and the achievement that you’re most proud of over the years?
There are many, and I give credit to both my parents, who’ve instilled the value of education to me, and my wife who has played a huge part in my life and who also is a strong believer in doing charitable things, something that I’d like to venture towards more.
I’m very grateful to have been given a scholarship by the King to do my PhD, and it’s one of the reasons why I want to do more in return. I’d like to keep educatin\g others and doing more in that sphere. Being a teacher, you don’t just provide education, but you enhance a child’s life in other ways – with moral support, and a holistic approach. And I’d like to do more for the Indian community as well.
Tell us a little about your interests outside of work. Any advice you’d like to give those in the start-up space who want to maintain a good work-life balance?
I’m a big fan of sports – I enjoy playing and watching football. I also like spending time with my family and friends, especially being with my three little monkeys; my three daughters. Besides that, I’m a big fan of reading; I make it a point every day when I wake up to read, not just books but news articles as well.
For those wanting to enter the entrepreneurial or tech space, I’d say, don’t jump into it, read, do your research. Make decisions based on data, rather than just emotions. A lot of us fail to realise that we don’t need to do everything by ourselves. We’re not living in a one-man-show; you have to empower others. Imagine your business without you. How will it still operate? That’s the mindset, the question I ask myself.
For me personally, prioritising is really important. You need to know when and how to do it. Alongside my current roles, I’m a father of three, a university lecturer, and an advisor to two companies, and many people ask how I manage to find time for it all. For me, it’s not hard. It comes down to how you prioritise
your tasks. Having clear goals, being results-oriented, loving what you do, and having a positive mind set are the key elements to finding this balance. And if anyone wants to ask me for my advice, my door is always open.