In Asian cultures, the concept of education is often tied to one’s grades and personal success. However, Sabda PS, the co-founder and CEO of Indonesian edtech company Zenius, has a different view. “Being connected to society is equally, or even more important,” in Indonesia, he said in an interview with Oasis.
Especially in an era when home-based online learning is normalized, Sabda thinks online learning will complement traditional instruction methods to foster stronger cognitive abilities and provide effective training to kids.
The following interview has been edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): How did the idea for Zenius come about?
Sabda PS (SP): When I was in college, I wasn’t the best student, but I was surrounded by many friends who were really smart. Before we graduated, they took the GMAT test. However, their score wasn’t good enough to get into the top graduate schools in the US. I was wondering why this had happened. That was when I got curious and started researching education systems worldwide.
When I compared 77 different education systems, I had a moment of realization that in Indonesia, application skills are not being taught. We tend to focus on knowing things instead of logical thinking, connecting the dots, and applying the skills we learned. I wanted to do something about it.
OS: What led you to found Zenius in 2007?
SP: By 2002, I had already done a few years of in-depth research on education systems. I happened to meet a former minister of education and presented my study to him. I was young, and although I had the thought of wanting to change Indonesia’s education system, I didn’t know how or where to begin. When I met him, I was thinking about getting into politics. He gave me an important piece of advice, “You have a background in computer science and AI, and you are obsessed with education. Why not combine both?”
As a minister, you only get a five-year window to improve the system, but he thought that five years wasn’t enough. He told me that I probably needed to commit 30 years to education if I wanted things to change. That’s how the idea of Zenius came about. It’s what I’ve been working on for the past 17 years.
OS: How does Zenius tackle the problems that you observed?
SP: I think one of the misconceptions about learning is that it’s boring, and we learn to sit for tests. However, I believe that one of the most satisfying moments in life is when you acquire new skills. It’s like what we call an “aha” moment.
Our mission at Zenius in Indonesian is “cerdas (intelligence), cerah (enlightenment), and asik (fun and excitement).” For asik, it’s not only about having fun but also having emotional empathy to understand human nature, communicate, and connect with others.
We combine the above and try to make it fun for students to learn.
OS: How do you make learning fun?
SP: One way of doing so is through gameplay, where we try to build their skills such as logical thinking and mathematical reasoning.
It doesn’t necessarily always have to be a game. What’s more important is that the experience of learning should be meaningful and fulfilling. Gamifying the learning process is only the path to reach that goal.
OS: I like that you mentioned empathizing with others. This goes further than the usual idea that learning is for a better personal future.
SP: Definitely. I believe there are two important goals in education. The first relates to the individual—everyone wants to succeed and have a fulfilling life. However, the second part of being connected to society is equally, or even more important. We live in a connected world where what we do will have an impact on others, and this is why it’s essential for us to teach the right values and social skills to the younger generation.
Education is not just done through learning in a formal school setting but also at home with the family. In Indonesia, we have had a long period of traditional beliefs of equating education with material success. This acts as a barrier to scientific and critical thinking because students are only taught to prepare for examinations.
OS: How did you break down that cultural barrier and convince parents to trust and use Zenius?
SP: Trust and success are built up over time.
We had to start by connecting learning with grades because that’s how parents are able to understand and accept the product. Once they realized that their kids can learn well through gamification and video tutorials at Zenius, then they are more likely to share it with others.
Besides academic classes, we also provide non-academic programs for students, such as learning to manage money as a student, the future of transportation, or why smartphones use lithium batteries.
These classes are held interactively, and active participation is required. The goal is to develop curiosity in students and prepare them for real-life situations through different topics. Once the parents see that, they are more willing to enroll their child in our courses.
Zenius has also gained trust by constantly working with the Indonesian government. For example, when Indonesia mandated nationwide study from home in April 2020, we collaborated with various local governments to efficiently and effectively help teachers transition to digital teaching.
OS: With the pandemic normalizing home-based online learning, do you think online learning will overtake traditional learning in the future?
SP: I think online learning will complement traditional learning rather than overtake it.
In education, there are two aspects: cognitive and affective. For the cognitive part, we can solve it with online learning. However, there is a big learning gap when it comes to traditional learning, where students in the same grade can have different learning abilities. This is where online learning comes in to cater to the learning needs of every individual student.
However, when it comes to the social and emotional aspects of learning, you need more than just online tutoring. Through traditional learning, you learn how to do projects and work with others through a social setting, and that’s important.
My vision for education would be to have students learn the core curriculum through online learning. That would free up more time for teachers to guide their students in a more effective and personalized way and level the class’s ability.