AVPN speech. June 7, 2017

Speaker               : Peng T. Ong

Organization        : Solve Education!

Duration               : ~25 minutes

Greetings, honorable members of AVPN and all the participants of this year’s conference. … Ladies and gentlemen. Friends and future friends.

The theme of this year’s AVPN conference is collaborating for impact.

We are here today because we are hopeful that through collaboration we can make a bigger difference to the world we live in.

Contributions that will benefit individuals and groups, with collaboration, can possibly scale up to make a difference to towns, cities, and nations.  Thus, one of the key purposes of collaborating is so that our collective impact is much more scalable than our individual efforts.


Let me take you through the journey that landed us here today…

A few years back, I was invited to give a speech at the Africa Innovation Summit in Cape Verde. I tried to be a bit provocative and asked the question if we could bypass the industrialization stage of economic development, and jump straight to the knowledge-based economy.

It prompted vigorous discussions, but quickly, a realization of the basic problem struck: we cannot have a knowledge-based economy without knowledge workers. Since education was broken, the question became how we could fix education. We spent the next couple days talking about how education could be solved.

My takeaway from the conference was not a solution, but a list of requirements on what the solution would look like:
(1) The solution has to be scalable – for example, has to be independent of bureaucracies.
(2) It has to motivate the students to engage (incentives, jobs), and,
(3) It has to work with emerging markets infrastructure.

After that conference, I started to look for NGO’s that we could work with, and help scale out… and soon realized that the biggest challenge was actually in the design for scaling.


Here’s the challenge:  According to UNESCO, there are more than 263 million children and youth who do not attend school. [I’ll pause here to let it sink in … more than a quarter of a billion kids.

Further, we believe another few hundred million more attend schools that do almost nothing to prepare them for the world they will face.

Governments have not been alone in trying to address this social challenge.

From the 1970s, the number of non-government organizations trying to fill in the gaps that government either will not or cannot address have been growing significantly.

Large-scale social challenges such as health and education have grabbed much public attention globally. NGOs have exponentially increased in numbers and been professionalized. They have been trying to come up with solutions to make their parts of the world a better place.

From 1995 to 2010, total aid to education increased in real terms by 360%, from US$2.9 billion to US$13.3billion. Compare this with total aid in the health sector that increased 284% for the same period.

The World Bank estimates that in 2015, over US$160 billion in international development aid was channeled through NGOs with education as a central agenda.

What the data tells us is that education has been a priority!

Education has always been considered a key issue in development, and a tool for progress.

Education benefits link directly to people’s income and income prospects. Health challenges are partially Education challenges. Education is also the key to alleviating poverty; and a key to sustainable economic independence.

Achieving universal education requires us to ensure the delivery of high-quality education that breaks gender, disabilities, technology, and conflict barriers.

Since the UN’s launch of the Education for All movement in 1990, the total aid to the education sector has increased significantly. Through the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), by 2010, total aid to basic education rose by 630%, and by 294% to secondary education.

Education for All was targeted to be achieved by 2015, and yet millions of children and youth are still out-of-school today!

Although much progress has been made, much still needs to be done.

Education remains significantly popular. It emerged as the top priority among the more than 7 million people who contributed to the United Nations’ MY World survey of 2015.

The UN has upped the ante, and created a more ambitious target for education as expressed in it’s Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) for 2030.

My team had inserted a lot more data in the original draft of this speech to convince you that the lack of universal education is a very significant, and costly problem.  I thought that for most of you here, we do not have to do much more convincing.


What is so hard about universal education that seems so elusive a goal?

The challenges facing current approaches are immense…

How many schools do we need to build so we can provide education for children and youth globally?

How many qualified teachers do we need to train and educate to teach all children and youth globally?

How many textbooks do we need to print to facilitate learning in classrooms?

How many roads do we need to build to help children and youth access school?

How many conflicts and wars do we need to stop so that we can send children and youth to school instead of having to flee their homes?

And, how much money we need even to answer those questions?

When you ponder the scale of the problem, it becomes clearer why, given current approaches, the problem has remained unsolved for so many children.

Education issues are complex and intersect with other major challenges. Traditional approaches to education have not, and we suspect, might not provide universal education because the cost and the logistics requirements are very high; perhaps too high.


Last year, on our visit to Myanmar, we spent some time with an NGO, MyME (or Myanmar Mobile Education), which is trying to educate kids in Yangon. They target kids who work in Tea Houses.

What they told me about the kids they work with was heartbreaking … but it also showed us a clear opportunity for a scalable impact….

Poverty is high in Myanmar’s countryside. Many parents who cannot afford to feed their children send them to work in Tea Houses in the capital city of Yangon. The kids leave home as early as 8 or 9.

The kids are paid. They send some of their money back to support their family, and they save some of it.

Here’s the surprising thing… By the time the kids are 13 or 14, they make their first big purchase.

Guess what it is: ….. a smartphone!

It turns out that, even at this level of poverty, the smartphone is center of these kids’ lives. Just like us, their sense of connection to their culture, society, and social circles, comes in large part from their smartphone.

Could we leverage this social phenomenon to propel education?


The question remains, how do we offer a scalable and sustainable solution to education around the world?

Coming from a tech background, I can’t help but to observe a fascinating trend in technology scaling that is happening globally.

Let me give you one example of how scalable digital technology is

In 2004, Facebook launched its social network platform for the first time. Today, 13 years later, there are 1.9 billion active Facebook users worldwide and 1.7 billions of these active users access Facebook through mobile phones.

Facebook has not only changed the way we communicate with each other but has also changed how we transform our social and political institutions.

Today, active Facebook users are found not just in the company’s country of origin, but also all around the world, including people in the most disadvantaged rural areas, in some of the poorest regions.

Guess what the #1 app is for those Tea House kids in Myanmar? … Facebook.

You see here how quickly scalable digital technology is. How significant change in access and communication has been made through digital technology!

Peter Thiel, an early investor of Facebook, wrote: “… by creating technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.”

I agree with Thiel. I believe, specifically, that through digital technology we can solve education.


Another interesting observation is how prevalent broadband is. In 2016, there were 4.3 billion people with mobile phones, more than half of which are smartphones. The number of smartphone subscriptions is estimated at 6.1 billion by 2020, which is equivalent to 70% of the global population. More people have smartphones than have electricity at home. 80% of the new smartphone owners will be located in Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa.

You now see, people of all walks of life, in the cities or villages, carry their mobile phones everywhere. They cannot live without their smartphones. Actually, we can’t live without our phones.

[Survey: How many of you do not have your smartphone within easy reach of where you sit.]

Last year, the World Bank published a background paper on Digital Dividends. It explores the relationships between Internet connectivity and economic growth. Not surprisingly, Internet broadband penetration positively impacts economic growth. Broadband, over the years, has influenced the world’s GDP growth.Mobile broadband has emerged as the high-speed network of choice for developing nations.

Another study, conducted in 2013, looked at the quality of the broadband connection, measured as the average download speed, to estimate the economic impact finding that doubling broadband speeds adds 0.3 percent to GDP growth.

As access to broadband becomes more ubiquitous, competition within the smartphone industry has become even stronger.

Today, Android smartphone adoption through low-cost devices is through the roof. People with low income can afford smartphones. The cost of the components of an Android One phone, which is a full-spec smartphone (i.e. not low-end), is less than US$50.

>>> EDU-TECH <<<

Over the years, we have seen the rise in the education technology industry. More and more entrepreneurs have started to bring about education innovation through technology.

But, most have also missed two major challenges within the education technology field.

The first challenge centers around MOTIVATION. Existing products assume users’ motivation to learn.

If you grew up in Silicon Valley, you understand why you might want a degree in Computer Science. For one thing, your starting salary is substantially higher than your classmates’ who studied something else. And you know, just because you have been educated, your lifetime earning power is much more significant than that of someone who was not educated.

In a country with low GDP-per-capita, it is actually perfectly reasonable that a rural child is totally unmotivated to learn Computer Science. What evidence does she have that tells her (and her parents) that the investment she might put into her education in Computer Science will benefit her in the long run? Unfortunately, in emerging markets, the benefits of getting an education are often times unclear.

We believe, there should also be an approach that motivates the young develop their thirst for learning. There should be an approach that can cause people to become addicted to learning. The motivation could start as small incentives, but could ramp up to an offer of employment on successful completion of certain training.

The second challenge is about the INFRASTRUCTURE. Most education technology products are designed to suit well-developed broadband networks, running up-to-date devices. Most broadband networks in emerging markets are not well developed, and the most sophisticated access point is a low-end smartphone.

We believe that there should be an approach that benefits the majority of the people on the planet. Software systems for edu-tech can be designed to function in low bandwidth, with intermittent connectivity, and using low compute-power. This is harder to do. And of course is usually not done because it is not required in developed economies.


We believe that if we modify traditional pedagogical approaches to ride on prevalent technologies and broadband networks, we might be able to create a scalable and sustainable approach to education for large numbers of the young.

That is what we are attempting to do at Solve Education!

It took us about a year  after Cape Verde to realize that traditional approaches to solving education at scale lacked a few key features… and we needed to provide these features. Three of these features include:

  1. A pedagogical approach that includes incentives to motivate learning, perhaps connecting education to online employment,
  2. A digital-only approach to delivery of education, so that deployment can happen over the Internet at scale, and,
  3. Software delivery systems that will run on emerging markets broadband and low-end smartphones.

The path we have chosen, though very possible, is one that requires collaboration across multiple disciplines. We are engaging different groups of experts around the globe to help us achieve our mission…

  1. Pedagogists. To help us build rigor around how we educate.
  2. Game Creators. To drive learning by making it fun and addictive.
  3. Software Engineers. To build systems that will support millions of users, using low bandwidth and low-end devices.
  4. Data Analysts. To understand efficacy of teaching methods, and effectiveness of our courses (or adventures, as we call them).
  5. Course Designers. To create syllabuses and content that can be delivered by our systems.
  6. Social Media Experts. To develop greater engagement in our user base.
  7. On-the-Ground NGOs. To help us deploy, and get real-world feedback.


As you can see… we cannot solve education at scale by ourselves; we need you!

We need your hope and optimism. And we also need your engagement, in your areas of expertise, every step of the way.

I am here today to invite you to collaborate with us. If you think you can assist, reach out and help us build a scalable and sustainable solution for education!

Thank you!

~~~ end ~~~


Pritchett, L., 2008. The Policy Irrelevance of the Economics of Education: Is ‘Normative as Positive’ Just Useless or is it Worse? Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Ericsson. 2013. Socioeconomic Effects of Broadband Speed. http://www.ericsson.com/res/thecompany/docs/corporate-responsibility/2013/ericsson-broadband-final-071013.pdf.

OECD, 2011. Aid Effectiveness 2005–10: Progress in Implementing the Paris Declaration. OECD, Paris.

UNESCO, 2011. Trends in aid to education, 2002–2009: despite increases, aid is still vastly insufficient and fragile. EFA Global Monitoring Report Policy Paper No. 1.

UNESCO, 2016. Education for People and Planet. Global Education Monitoring Report.

World Bank, September 2002. Development Committee Development Effectiveness and Scaling Up: Lessons and Challenges from Case Studies, World Bank Board Report DC2002-0018. World Bank, Washington, DC.

World Bank, 2005. Operations Evaluation Department. Capacity Building in Africa. An OED Evaluation of World Bank Support. World Bank, Washington, DC.

World Bank, 2016. Digital Dividends. World Development Report. World Bank, Washington, DC.