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A Strong Purpose –Our True North in the Edtech Revolution

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A Strong Purpose –Our True North in the Edtech Revolution

We established Studycat with a single purpose; to revolutionise the way kids learn a foreign language, by making it fun.I began my career teaching English as a foreign language to young kids in Taiwan and, candidly, my first lessons back in 1989 were uninspiring. The established curriculum and method of teaching were centered around memorisation of uninspiring textbook materials that didn’t seem fit for purpose and that were, frankly,utterly boring.Rote learning can kill off a thirst for education very quickly, so I started bringing cards and using games to teach, trying to ignite the students’inherent curiosity and joy of learning. It was my first experience of the power of game-based learning and I was converted.

It became apparent early on in my teaching days that most of the educational content for English language learning was geared towards children learning it as a second language known in the industry as English as a Second Language (ESL). But there’s a big difference between that and learning English as a foreign language (EFL). Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that learning a language is easier when you live in-country and you can immerse yourself in what you’ve learned daily.

As my co-founder Mateo and I realised that using the content that was available at the time wasn’t doing the children we taught any favours, we wrote our own game-based curriculum. We started out in a brick-and-mortar format back in 1999, gaining invaluable practical experience, really getting into the weeds of how children learn languages, how to overcome the key bottlenecks and how to unleash the kids’innate ability to become motivated self-learners. We saw terrific results,with enthusiastic students and excited parents;within months,our first school had hundreds of students. 

Going digital

In 2002 we started using flash-based games on computers in the classroom and the effect was amazing. The engagement levels were off the charts as kids focused on their screens and we discovered how much young children loved both gaming, repetition and how quickly they acquired vocabulary. Our first games website was made in 2005, by which time we had four schools teaching about 1000 children. In 2006, after successfully testing what we’d made, we decided to develop a full digital version of our curriculum targeting what was then referred to as ‘new media’. This content went on to get over 35,000,000 views and 61,000 subscribers on our YouTube channel.

Two of the most important pieces of knowledge that those early days gave me were that everything you do as a teacher needs to be rooted in the fundamentals of education, and everything you create needs to be easy to use. It was the combination of front-line teaching experience and game-developer nous that ultimately led us to the business that we have now, although the road did have some bumps.

Timing is everything

We saw e-learning as the way to go very early on. From 1999 to 2006, everything we did was with our own money, but we could see there was an opportunity. No one else was making the content that we were, and we needed to get investors on board so we could continue to innovate. We were aiming for $250k in our first seed investment round; ultimately we raised more than double our target amount.

Following that success, we were aiming to launch a further round of fundraising in the third quarter of 2008. We were optimistic but, like most, we couldn’t know what was coming. We formally launched the fundraising round on 15th September 2008; the day that Lehman Brothers fell.

After that, no one was investing. We had innovated to the point where we were arguably too far ahead of the market; e-learning was in its infancy then and as soon as the credit crunch started, betting on future trends just wasn’t as likely, but that’s exactly what we wanted people to do.

Trend spotting and growth

We wrote to our investors and said we’d spend three months analysing the market and consolidating what we knew. After the three months, we went back to our investors and nailed our colours to the mast. Apps were the future.

In spring 2011, we launched in the app store. We put one app out for free then relied on in-app purchases. Next was buy one, get one free, then buy two, get one free and so on. As we continued to build the content, we developed the apps. The turning point came when we did localisation into nine different languages. Our revenue went from $2,000 per month to $40k per month. Our business had turned the corner.

The crisis impacted us because we couldn’t get investment but, looking back, it’s clear that we were too early, ahead of our time. Since then, the market for e-learning across our territories has increased dramatically; there were around 15,000 apps in the app store in 2010, in 2019 there are more than 1.8 million. The increase in popularity of smart phones and tablets, primary drivers for us, seems inevitable now but back then it felt like more of a gamble.

Partnerships, content and development

A partnership with Discovery Education and a pedagogy award from Finnish-based Kokoa followed and we knew we were on the right track. We continued to develop content and build our user base and it was this focus that made the difference. Keep your head down and do what you know works.

After that, our growth continued at a pace. Our App Store ratings were consistently over 4.5 stars and Apple named Fun English as one of its top educational apps. With over  seven million users we knew the market was ready for more.  So we’re now launching a school- and teacher-focused version of our product suite with an integrated learning-management system, including a powerful dashboard that really empowers the teacher, provides real time results,connects parents into their child’s education and minimises administration. We combine screen-time with practical games for a blended, fully connected approach resonating with young learners because, as teachers and parents, that’s what we value. We believe in leveraging the latest academic research findings that kids learn best when they have fun and are self-motivated and also when students, parents and teachers are collectively engaged and connected in the learning process.

Keep pace

With hindsight, our journey to date has been tremendously rewarding but has also seen its share of bumps in the road. Anyone who has survived in edtech for 15 years will have similar stories! We stuck to our true north and focused on making learning effective by making it fun, igniting kids’ inherent curiosity and love of learning.We feel like we frequently innovated and developed content that was ahead of its time and the market opportunity. On balance, this probably made us better and more mission driven. I believe that if you can build a business that stays true to its original mission, with a people-orientated culture focused on great content and on harnessing the smartest technology to help deliver it, you’re on the right track.One thing we always did was to be data driven in the creation of new content. We always watched the user data to see what games the kids enjoyed most. Engagement is our lifeblood and is what drives learning outcomes for our users.

Looking forward, the potential that emerging tech has in our market is enormous. AI makes it possible for us to leverage the vast amounts of data that flow through our solution to offer insight into how children learn, from activity to activity and country to country, with precision. The insight helps us analyse the impact of our content, and continue to evolve it, developing tools such as adaptive machine learning and voice recognition to make our solutions fully interactive, smart and interconnected for teachers, parents and children. In our field of education, with academic research underpinning effective methodologies, and a veritable tsunami of emerging tech tools enabling more effective learning, including AI allowing us to iterate and continuously improve,I believe we are only at the beginning of an industry-wide transformative mega trend. We’re excited to be part of it, while reminding ourselves that the best businesses never stop learning and innovating, and, crucially, they never lose sight of their purpose.

Mark Pemberton is a former teacher and co-founder of global edtech company, Studycat.

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Teed off: As COVID fuels S. Africa’s housing crisis, golf courses feel the heat

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Teed off: As COVID fuels S. Africa's housing crisis, golf courses feel the heat 1

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It sounds like a developer’s dream: A greenfield site in the heart of Cape Town, close to the best schools, hospitals and transport links and big enough to build more than 1,400 affordable new homes. The only hitch – it’s a golf course.

The 46-hectare (114-acre) Rondebosch Golf Club is one of hundreds of golf courses in South Africa facing scrutiny by land rights campaigners as a surge in evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic exposes an acute shortage of low-cost housing.

Rondebosch had its lease renewed by the city government late last year despite the presentation of some 1,830 objections by local housing rights group Ndifuna Ukwazi, which says turning golf courses over for homes is a way to tackle deep inequality.

“Using this land for the benefit of a few wealthy individuals at the expense of those in dire need of affordable housing is inefficient, unequal and unjust,” said Michael Clark, head of research and advocacy at Ndifuna Ukwazi.

Warnings by city officials that eviction is on the cards for occupiers of abandoned buildings, just months after Rondebosch’s lease was extended, have roused activists and sparked calls for cities to prioritise land use according to need.

“Golf courses occupy expansive tracts of land in well-located areas across cities,” said Edward Molopi, a researcher with the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), which uses litigation and advocacy to support human rights.

“South African cities face an acute need for affordable housing and this land can be used to address the problem,” Molopi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that he knows of hundreds of housing evictions since lockdown began.

Nearly three decades after the end of white minority rule, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, with urban areas still starkly divided along racial and class lines.

In other countries too, from South Korea to the United States, the swathes of green space needed for a round of golf have stirred debate around alternative uses for the land, whether apartment blocks, public parks or even vineyards.

‘NOT THE ONLY LAND’

But in South Africa, where tracts of land, including golf courses, were used as physical barriers to separate different racial groups during the apartheid regime, campaigners say repurposing such areas is key to achieving a fairer society.

Golf lovers have a choice of about 450 courses in South Africa, according to independent golf course ranking platform Top 100 Golf Courses.

They are easy to spot on a Google Maps view of the nation’s cities, many in close proximity to other golf courses, and also poorer neighbourhoods or townships.

But officials say finding space for affordable homes is more complex than repurposing golf courses.

Not all of the courses are publicly owned or suitable for residential use, said officials from the cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. The sport also draws tourists and creates jobs, they added.

“Densification, diversification and inclusionary housing requirements in well-located parts of our cities is a more realistic approach,” said Nthatisi Modingoane, a spokesman for the city of Johannesburg.

‘SPATIAL JUSTICE’

Johannesburg’s Observatory golf course lies less than five kilometres (three miles) from Hillbrow, an inner-city suburb notorious for derelict, overcrowded buildings and crime.

People unable to afford rent end up there in “dark buildings” – properties seized by rogue landlords that offer crowded but cheap rooms, often without electricity.

“Since COVID, people need cheap rent, but if you don’t pay the landlords you get kicked out or … they kill you,” said Ethel Musonza, a housing activist who used to live in a dark building.

“There is a big need for people to be resettled in a safe place they can afford,” she added.

But the Observatory course sits on the site of an old ash dump, making it a poor site for residential construction, said club captain Simon Leventhorp.

“There is need for affordable houses but golf courses aren’t the only land available,” he said, adding that the club had a lower membership fee that other courses, making it a more inclusive space.

Some courses – like Rondebosch in Cape Town – do fit the bill for affordable housing, said Clark.

Golfers at the course can still enjoy views of the city’s famous Table Mountain from the greens, but authorities did add a two-year cancellation clause to the club’s lease if an alternative use of the land is identified.

Land used for community and recreational use, including golf courses, is currently being reviewed for possible residential sites, the city added.

In the meantime, land campaigners will continue to put pressure on state and city governments to “proactively intervene in housing markets”, said Molopi from SERI.

“This will be central to dismantling the ‘apartheid city’ and moving towards urban spatial justice,” Molopi said.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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UK might need negative rates if recovery disappoints – BoE’s Vlieghe

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UK might need negative rates if recovery disappoints - BoE's Vlieghe 2

By David Milliken and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England might need to cut interest rates below zero later this year or in 2022 if a recovery in the economy disappoints, especially if there is persistent unemployment, policymaker Gertjan Vlieghe said on Friday.

Vlieghe said he thought the likeliest scenario was that the economy would recover strongly as forecast by the central bank earlier this month, meaning a further loosening of monetary policy would not be needed.

Data published on Friday suggested the economy had stabilised after a new COVID-19 lockdown hit retailers last month, while businesses and consumers are hopeful a fast vaccination campaign will spur a recovery.

Vlieghe said in a speech published by the BoE that there was a risk of lasting job market weakness hurting wages and prices.

“In such a scenario, I judge more monetary stimulus would be appropriate, and I would favour a negative Bank Rate as the tool to implement the stimulus,” he said.

“The time to implement it would be whenever the data, or the balance of risks around it, suggest that the recovery is falling short of fully eliminating economic slack, which might be later this year or into next year,” he added.

Vlieghe’s comments are similar to those of fellow policymaker Michael Saunders, who said on Thursday negative rates could be the BoE’s best tool in future.

Earlier this month the BoE gave British financial institutions six months to get ready for the possible introduction of negative interest rates, though it stressed that no decision had been taken on whether to implement them.

Investors saw the move as reducing the likelihood of the BoE following other central banks and adopting negative rates.

Some senior BoE policymakers, such as Deputy Governor Dave Ramsden, believe that adding to the central bank’s 875 billion pounds ($1.22 trillion) of government bond purchases remains the best way of boosting the economy if needed.

Vlieghe underscored the scale of the hit to Britain’s economy and said it was clear the country was not experiencing a V-shaped recovery, adding it was more like “something between a swoosh-shaped recovery and a W-shaped recovery.”

“I want to emphasise how far we still have to travel in this recovery,” he said, adding that it was “highly uncertain” how much of the pent-up savings amassed by households during the lockdowns would be spent.

By contrast, last week the BoE’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, likened the economy to a “coiled spring.”

Vlieghe also warned against raising interest rates if the economy appeared to be outperforming expectations.

“It is perfectly possible that we have a short period of pent up demand, after which demand eases back again,” he said.

Higher interest rates were unlikely to be appropriate until 2023 or 2024, he said.

($1 = 0.7146 pounds)

(Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by William Schomberg)

 

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UK economy shows signs of stabilisation after new lockdown hit

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UK economy shows signs of stabilisation after new lockdown hit 3

By William Schomberg and David Milliken

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s economy has stabilised after a new COVID-19 lockdown last month hit retailers, and business and consumers are hopeful the vaccination campaign will spur a recovery, data showed on Friday.

The IHS Markit/CIPS flash composite Purchasing Managers’ Index, a survey of businesses, suggested the economy was barely shrinking in the first half of February as companies adjusted to the latest restrictions.

A separate survey of households showed consumers at their most confident since the pandemic began.

Britain’s economy had its biggest slump in 300 years in 2020, when it contracted by 10%, and will shrink by 4% in the first three months of 2021, the Bank of England predicts.

The central bank expects a strong subsequent recovery because of the COVID-19 vaccination programme – though policymaker Gertjan Vlieghe said in a speech on Friday that the BoE could need to cut interest rates below zero later this year if unemployment stayed high.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due on Monday to announce the next steps in England’s lockdown but has said any easing of restrictions will be gradual.

Official data for January underscored the impact of the latest lockdown on retailers.

Retail sales volumes slumped by 8.2% from December, a much bigger fall than the 2.5% decrease forecast in a Reuters poll of economists, and the second largest on record.

“The only good thing about the current lockdown is that it’s no way near as bad for the economy as the first one,” Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics, said.

The smaller fall in retail sales than last April’s 18% plunge reflected growth in online shopping.

BORROWING SURGE SLOWED IN JANUARY

There was some better news for finance minister Rishi Sunak as he prepares to announce Britain’s next annual budget on March 3.

Though public sector borrowing of 8.8 billion pounds ($12.3 billion) was the first January deficit in a decade, it was much less than the 24.5 billion pounds forecast in a Reuters poll.

That took borrowing since the start of the financial year in April to 270.6 billion pounds, reflecting a surge in spending and tax cuts ordered by Sunak.

The figure does not count losses on government-backed loans which could add 30 billion pounds to the shortfall this year, but the deficit is likely to be smaller than official forecasts, the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank said.

Sunak is expected to extend a costly wage subsidy programme, at least for the hardest-hit sectors, but he said the time for a reckoning would come.

“It’s right that once our economy begins to recover, we should look to return the public finances to a more sustainable footing and I’ll always be honest with the British people about how we will do this,” he said.

Some economists expect higher taxes sooner rather than later.

“Big tax rises eventually will have to be announced, with 2022 likely to be the worst year, so that they will be far from voters’ minds by the time of the next general election in May 2024,” Samuel Tombs, at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said.

Public debt rose to 2.115 trillion pounds, or 97.9% of gross domestic product – a percentage not seen since the early 1960s.

The PMI survey and a separate measure of manufacturing from the Confederation of British Industry, showing factory orders suffering the smallest hit in a year, gave Sunak some cause for optimism.

IHS Markit’s chief business economist, Chris Williamson, said the improvement in business expectations suggested the economy was “poised for recovery.”

However the PMI survey showed factory output in February grew at its slowest rate in nine months. Many firms reported extra costs and disruption to supply chains from new post-Brexit barriers to trade with the European Union since Jan. 1.

Vlieghe warned against over-interpreting any early signs of growth. “It is perfectly possible that we have a short period of pent up demand, after which demand eases back again,” he said.

“We are experiencing something between a swoosh-shaped recovery and a W-shaped recovery. We are clearly not experiencing a V-shaped recovery.”

($1 = 0.7160 pounds)

(Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage)

 

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