News & Analysis

While Australian schools adopt technology at snail’s pace, EdTech startup Literatu takes Asia by storm

- February 10, 2015 7 MIN READ

One of the fastest growing (and perhaps most under-recognised) EdTech startups in Australia is Literatu. Founded by Sydney-based entrepreneur Mark Stanley, Literatu has experienced tremendous growth, particularly in Asia. Literatu’s user count grew eight-fold from around 5,000 in early 2014 to over 42,000 by December 2014. Though no specific numbers were revealed, Stanley said that by the end of 2014, Literatu was finally cash flow positive and profitable. To date, Literatu has won a number of awards, including the prestigious BETT Asia EdTech Excellence Award in the international category last year.

Literatu made its entry into the market at a time when primary and secondary school educators around the world began recognising the need for change in the educational landscape. Prior to advancements in technology (and even today in many Australian classrooms) educators were employing a ‘top-down’ and ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching, which is not only a limiting experience for students who come from diverse backgrounds, but can also further marginalise already marginalised students – such as students whose first language isn’t English or students living with social anxiety.

But as eLearning matures as an industry, and as educators begin recognising the possibilities afforded by technology, the focus is shifting towards learner-centricity. Using technology does not simply mean delivering information online – i.e. posting notes and links in HTML format. Rather, it’s about utilising data; that is, capturing and analysing data at the student, classroom, school and cluster level and using that data to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching practices and create personalised learning paths for students.

This is where Literatu comes in – making data collection not only possible, but simple. Stanley sums up Literatu’s mission through the words of ACER’s CEO Geoff Masters: establishing where learners are in their progress; tailoring teaching to the needs of individual learners; providing immediate feedback to guide action; and assisting learners to see and appreciate the progress they are making. But all through technology.

Where before, data insights would disappear with paper, using Literatu, educators can collect student responses and other data from interactive online activities. Literatu’s interactive and instant data dashboards give teachers visibility and insights across all students. Data down to the question level is captured along with live monitoring capabilities that allow educators to see answers as they are being entered.

In a previous interview with Startup Daily, Stanley said teachers are not only able to engage students with their own pedagogical approach and materials, but also save over 75 percent of grading and feedback time whilst building Big Data analytics about their students. With Literatu, educators have full control over course material, as well as how they would like to monitor student engagement and performance; but added to that is the benefit of metrication at the end.

“We’re not asking teachers to change. We’re not asking them to relearn a whole new way of authoring content. We’re simply embracing what they’re doing now, and giving them back information they don’t currently have,” Stanley said in a previous interview.

Unfortunately, Australians have been slower to adopt Literatu’s technology compared to its Asian and American counterparts (especially the former). Literatu recognised an opportunity to expand into the Asian market after SAMSUNG launched its Galaxy Note 8 tablet which came with a stylus pen. Stanley said they decided to take a chance and customise their software for the tablet so that teachers could mark papers while watching television. SAMSUNG was quick to notice Literatu, and invited Literatu to a conference in Singapore. Since then, Stanley has been able to establish relationships with executives at SAMSUNG, as well as distributors in other parts of Asia.

“It’s amazing what they’re doing in Asia. They’re just leap-frogging – building 4G towers everywhere, handing out tablets to disenfranchised kids. They’re focusing on the social equity of education. The idea is ‘why shouldn’t those kids have access to the same technologies that we do?’” Stanley said in a previous interview.

He adds that in various parts of Asia, there aren’t any structured curriculums. Students often struggle with North American textbooks, due to language barriers: “There are all kinds of dialect issues, so they need technology that offers flexibility. Literatu provides that, because they have the power to create their own content.”

Literatu is not the only Australian startup playing in the education space to be recognised by Asian leaders. Last year, Melbourne-based startup ParentPaperwork – which, simply put, digitises school forms – were being approached by government officials in countries like Malaysia and Pakistan.

There’s no denying that education is taken quite seriously in Asia. Many Asian countries are seeking to implement new education technology as they rebuild the backbone of their education systems. In the West, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the past two decades in international trade and investment flows, with many industries offshoring computer, consumer, financial, data-processing and business services. Business success is increasingly contingent on the effective use of intangible assets such as knowledge and skills, rather than physical inputs or natural resources. Interestingly, the growth of the knowledge-based economy is often seen as a strategic response to low wage economies, particularly countries in Asia, investing heavily in knowledge.

Given Asia’s eagerness to harness the power of educational technology, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to see this as a strategy to safeguard the region’s long-term economic prosperity. This also puts Australian EdTech startups in a unique position to tap into Asian markets. Although many Australian startups head to the US and UK to pursue growth opportunities (probably because it’s more comfortable from a cultural perspective), the potential in Asia shouldn’t go unrecognised.

Stanley believes there is great opportunity for Australian companies to engage Asia, “as long as they engage with Asia  in the way Asia does business – i.e. in person.”

“We have found that relationships are paramount to success in Asia  and having strong distributor partners is the only way to effectively work in Asia. To sell access to technology in the North American style of ‘direct via a great web site’ – is totally hit and miss. This means an investment in time, patience and money. You are so much better off having a hawker style meal with your partners streetside than spend money on the most amazing website,” Mark adds.

In a previous interview with Startup Daily, Leon Young, Managing Director of Australian software development company 2and2, communicated a similar sentiment. Referring specifically to China, Young said that Australian companies need to have an innate understanding of the market they’re targeting; and the only way to really understand the mindset of people who are different to you culturally, is to spend time with them. But it is also important to not be over-confident about your knowledge of the nuances of a particular market.

“I have learned that the only way to truly get into the mindset is spend time on the ground immersing yourself. The research you do on the internet never quite matches what you experience in a foreign market by just being there,” Young told Startup Daily last year.

“It’s important not to be over-confident about your assumptions … We’re confident we have a product uniquely suited to China, but we don’t underestimate the nuances of the market and the complications in execution.”

Stanley also understands the importance of avoiding Anglo-centricism and recognising local problems. For Literatu, it was important that all native applications support online and offline user access because in various locations internet access is very limited, with some schools only having power for three hours a day. In fact, Literatu sent ChromeBooks to rural schools in East Timor that work in offline mode; and the technology is being used to teach both adults and children.

Literatu has also co-branded itself in Asia as EDXIS Live Classroom. Edxis Consulting Group produces an OEM Intel Chromebook that ships with a Literatu license direct from the factory.In January, Literatu sent 40 EDXIS Chromebooks and two Intel intranet appliance servers to Mayanmar.  Stanley says this collaboration will open up Literatu to hundreds of thousands of users in 2015.

Last year, Literatu joined forces with the Cardoner Project – a teaching immersion project run by the Society of Jesuits. Together, they developed teaching materials for immersion-based educators to teach Adult Numeracy. All materials are aligned with the UNESCO Adult Numeracy Curriculum. With the help of Timorese Jesuits, they voice-recorded and translated all materials into Tetum. Audio support is particularly important in this region because many locals do not read Tetum. This connected Australian teachers to the local people immediately, and allowed teachers and students to work together in their own dialect.

In January, 10 immersion educators went into disadvantaged refugee camps and villages to teach numeracy and english. Although Literatu is very much a profitable business, what makes it powerful is the impact it is having on disenfranchised communities that have had little access to education, let alone innovative educational tools.

On that note, Literatu’s technology is constantly undergoing advancements, according to Stanley, though he stresses the importance of not compromising simplicity in the process: “We are working on the latest tech platforms, re-writing all the front end applications and focusing on minimising the need for teachers to have pre-requisite capabilities to use Literatu effectively.”

“We now focus on how teachers really want to use technology rather than building systems because we can.  We now know that many times, Version One rarely gets close to how it works in reality. Never think you can change the world until you meet people who do it every day,” he adds.

Literatu’s new Windows and Chromebook applications were released last month, which according to Stanley provides more instant meaningful data and connects students, parents and teacher on the same page. The startup has worked closely with Microsoft to develop a completely inline O365 offering that embeds Literatu into Word, Powerpoint and Excel across Windows 8.1 devices.

From numerous conversations, it’s clear that one of Stanley’s greatest skills is establishing strategic partnerships. Stanley, who travels back and forth across Asia and Australia, has been able to establish partnerships with big tech brands including Microsoft (Australia and Singapore) and Intel Singapore. Together with Microsoft and Intel, Literatu is working on a presidential educational programme in pilot schools that takes into account the problem of limited internet access. Literatu now has strategic partners in Kuala Lumpur, the Phillipines, Singapore, Indonesia and Guatemala – all of whom are fully trained in using and implementing Literatu.

Literatu will be accompanying Microsoft to GEPS in Seattle this month, representing the Australian EDU ISV community.

This year is all about scale for Literatu, and continuing to work with its Asia-based partners to impact learning across many Asian markets. In the near months, Literatu will be announcing its latest development that will make its platform available to any school in the world, whether or not they are connected to the cloud. Stanley says, “We have an opportunity to bring the cloud to the classroom – we wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

But what about Australia? Stanley hopes that Australian schools open themselves up to experience the full benefits of technology.

“Technology really should be instrumental in building and enhancing teaching and learning relationships in classrooms. This continuous connection really needs to be driven and sustained by teachers,” he says.

“I also hope that we don’t continue to see third party e-content consuming the budgets of schools. Putting 20th century content onto 21st century devices is not getting teachers and students any closer and arguably not improving learning outcomes.”