Social learning crucial to edtech says Noon Academy founder

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The coronavirus lockdown shifted attitudes towards education technology (edtech), accelerating its adoption across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region as students attempted to continue their education online. 

Founded in 2013, Saudi Arabia-based Noon Academy has established its name as one of the most prominent startups in the region's edtech landscape. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the startup has gone from strength to strength, with its continued expansion beyond Mena following its recent pre-Series B investment of $13 million.

We caught up with Mohammed Aldhalaan, CEO and co-founder of Noon Academy, to find out his perspective on the current state of edtech and his predictions for the sector in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How has the crisis impacted edtech in the region?

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, people did not fully trust digital learning let alone pay for it, and so they shied away completely from them. The crisis however, has forced both parents and educators to start accepting digital learning as a necessary solution in order for them to keep fulfilling the learning needs of the kids at home. 

However, we as a company have come to realise that the biggest problem with online education was that the experience itself was not appealing to students, who find it dull and boring and less lively compared to the offline classroom experience. So we decided to double down on social learning and increasing the engagement levels among our communities of students and tutors. 

When the pandemic arrived in our region, we realised that we were on the right track. The need for the teacher-student interaction, lively discussions and peer-to-peer collaboration was further amplified by the crisis. We have seen that students are turning down unlimited one-on-one tutorials in favour of one-to-many classes. I think many edtech startups have neglected the human component of their digital learning solutions for so long and now is the time to start taking it seriously.

How much growth have you registered during these past few months? 

I think the most important milestone achieved in the past few months was the new senior-level hires at Noon Academy. We successfully managed to attract top talent from different tech backgrounds. 

In terms of user base, we have seen a seven-fold increase in our active users due to the Covid-19 crisis. The number of  registered users increased from three to six million. We are getting high levels of engagement on our platform. 

On average, our students spend almost 45 minutes a day on our platform, while social students spend around 78 minutes a day, five times the global benchmark which is 14 minutes. In order to cope with this demand, we are channeling our energy to creating more relevant and accessible social products. That is why we opened our office in London, trying to attract people from companies like , Snapchat and Instagram as well as online gaming companies in order to potentiate our social learning products. 

We have also expanded into India, Pakistan and Iraq.

How are you competing in the markets that you are expanding to? 

We are trying to frame ourselves as a social learning company not a tutoring company. For example, in India, there are 300 million students, around 150 million of which constitute the total addressable market. The vast majority of them study in their provincial languages, while only 15 million students study in English. The latter segment is targeted by the different, well-established tutoring companies. We would not be able to fare well as a tutoring company by all means amid the competitive tutoring landscape. We needed to go hyper local to gain the traction needed. 

What we are trying to do is to automate the digital class, decentralise the supply chain and then the network effect kicks in. One of the disruptions we are working on is to empower teachers and facilitate their work through our virtual tools so they can teach their own way. They can simply open a class, upload the material and then start teaching without even our permission. This is how we approached the Indian market and we believe that our value proposition as a social learning company is the way to win the global markets.

What are you plans for the coming year?

We are looking to broaden into the European and the US markets during 2021 and to close another investment round by mid-2021. We will also continue doubling down on monetisation and launch social products like virtual schools.

How do you see the future of edtech?

The options are still limited when it comes to edtech in our region. We saw that educators and parents had turned to applications like Zoom and Google classrooms, which are not designed for educational or instructional purposes.

As the market dries up in areas like transportation, talent and investment will be flowing into spaces like edtech and fintech. As a result, we are going to see more and more edtech companies being established in our region for the foreseeable future. However, the challenge will lie in how these companies can ensure the sustainability of their products after Covid-19 days are over and students go back to their brick-and-mortar classrooms.


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