If you had polled Alicia Cheong’s secondary school teachers, none would have envisioned her becoming an educator. The 38-year-old was quite a rebellious student.
Still, while many of her teachers “gave up” on her, one didn’t. “My maths teacher always told me she believed in me and that gave me the confidence to study hard and do well,” says Cheong. Her good results allowed her to move to a better class when she was 15. Thanks to the move, she cut ties with the troublemakers from her previous year and got closer to her new classmates, some of whom are still her best friends today.
Reading an interview with Mother Teresa cemented her desire to transform the learning journeys of students. Someone asked Mother Teresa how she could impact the world and her answer was: “One person at a time”.
Today, Cheong and her business partner Neo Zhizhong have impacted the lives of more than 100,000 students in Singapore and the region, first through the learning centre they set up in 2007 and now, through Geniebook, a personalised online learning platform.
The idea for Geniebook was more happenstance than planned. In 2010, Cheong and Neo created the first iteration of Geniebook, which was a simple database of questions that their students could tackle. Each question was tagged to a learning concept. With this, the duo could pinpoint the areas in which each student was weak and personalise the learning plan.
The platform was so effective and popular, they explored the idea of making it available to the public in 2017. “But we didn’t want to spend resources to create a public version to sell. So, we told ourselves that if we could get 50 parents to commit to paying an annual subscription of $899 for the idea in three months, we would develop the product.” They managed to get 70.
Geniebook’s revenue has grown an astronomical 12,000 per cent in three years. It was a compelling product that produced results and has had no competitive equivalent to this day. The potent mix of performance analytics and targeted learning questions enabled students to improve in rapid time. According to Cheong, 90 per cent reported improvements after completing eight Geniebook worksheets. The company is already expanding overseas, with clients in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
For Cheong and Neo, Covid-19 had a silver lining. While it impacted their learning agency, it proved to be a boon for online lessons and, consequently, Geniebook’s adoption. “Unlike other industries, education hasn’t changed. Twenty years ago, we learned in classrooms with a teacher. It’s still the same today. The difference now is that the classrooms are virtual. What Covid-19 has done is to reduce the resistance to online learning, especially when all parties realise the benefits. Teachers saw a reduction in their administrative work and parents received access to analytics and convenience,” Cheong says.
In the future, she envisions a world where learning is no longer confined to a rigid pedagogy and can be personalised for each student. The hunger for knowledge will never dissipate. “Teachers will remain important in the journey.” Just like a certain maths teacher who never gave up on Cheong.