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A Personalized Learning App Helps Close the Divide

Master’s student Iman Usman's innovative startup Ruangguru serves more than 25 million learners in Southeast Asia with high-quality, personalized content
Iman Usman
Photo: Courtesy of Iman Usman

When master's student Iman Usman realized that the education system in his home country of Indonesia was struggling, he vowed to transform it. But this would be no small feat: Indonesia was the fourth-largest education system globally with substandard national average teacher competence. Moreover, the World Bank reported that 55% of Indonesians who completed school are functionally illiterate, not equipped with the skills necessary to enter successfully into the labor market.  

In 2014, Usman leveraged his experience in international educational development to form Ruangguru, what is now the largest ed-tech startup in the region. From increasing access to high-quality learning content through its mobile app and website, Ruangguru aims to reach millions of students across the Indonesian archipelago. Primarily designed for K-12 students, Ruangguru's subscription model provides students with highly personalized educational content that promotes curiosity and agency in students.  

Usman and his company do not want the subscription model to be a barrier, however. One of Ruangguru's current goals — made even more vital by the pandemic — is to make its content available in areas where many students don't have access to the internet.

"In a country where the internet is still a privilege for students in remote parts, we started exploring options that were inexpensive and accessible," Usman says. "Our algorithm is designed to work with reduced bandwidth. We even provide a USB flash drive that loads the content without using our cloud library. In addition, we are partnering with major telecom companies so that students aren't charged for using data to learn."   

Ruangguru's success is attributed to its engaging interface that uses high-quality storyboarding, animations, and interactivity. Personalized solutions include private tutoring, English language coaching taught by native speakers, gamified and playful learning with animated characters, and an interactive live online tutoring academy. 

With its products and extensive content library, Ruangguru hopes to meet the changing learning needs of students across Southeast Asia, helping to close the divides that were widened in the pandemic. 

"We are exploring several ways to personalize learning. Currently, we have a choose-your-own-path feature called Adapato that gives students many choices for what they want to learn," says Usman, who estimates that Ruangguru's 18-channel live-streamed online school helped more than 10 million students during the pandemic. 

Usman enrolled in HGSE’s part-time program because it allowed him to continue working full-time in Indonesia as the COO of Ruangguru, while developing his leadership skills in the education space. Through coursework at HGSE, as well as at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and MIT's Sloan School of Management, he has been able to design a highly interdisciplinary program for himself about leading in a rapidly developing market.  

Recently, Usman earned a Cheng Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School, which supports students advancing progress on a social challenge through their design projects. Usman's goal with the Cheng Fellowship is to design innovative solutions to maximize Ruangguru's social impact, sustainability efforts, and access into deeper parts of Southeast Asia.  

"Initially, when we started, we did not expect to expand into other nations in Southeast Asia. There are still not many players in the region. However, given the knowledge, expertise, and experience we had — this opportunity was a calling," says Usman, noting the company's recent expansion into Thailand and Vietnam.   

It is clear that the region has embraced Ruangguru. Last year it was ranked #2 for Fast Company's Most Innovative Company in Education and, in 2017, Usman was recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 and as an Emerging Entrepreneur by Ernst and Young. But his company’s rapid growth into the largest ed-tech company in Southeast Asia is as challenging as it is rewarding for Usman.

"My dream is that our product helps students realize their aspirations," he reflects. "It's a humbling opportunity with a huge responsibility on your shoulders. You need to make sure you're always delivering the best. As a founder and a first-time entrepreneur, it's a lot of trying new things and learning. Especially in a sector like education that is still premature in Southeast Asia, you're experimenting every single day."  


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