Australian-based massive open online course (MOOC) platform OpenLearning raised a US$1.3 million seed round in February from undisclosed Australian and Asian investors. It has been appointed as the official MOOC by the Malaysian Ministry of Education for public institutions for higher education, and is now aggressively expanding in Southeast Asia and China.

The ed-tech startup’s Co-founder Adam Brimo was in Singapore last week and spoke to e27 about his beliefs, the journey so far, and where it’s all headed from here — including plans for a US$10 million Series A.

The other two Co-founders include Richard Buckland, an Associate Professor in Computer Security, Cybercrime, and Cyberterror at the University of New South Wales, and David Collien, a computer science major and former education PhD researcher and software developer.

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Adam Brimo, Co-founder & CEO, OpenLearning

Adam Brimo, Co-founder and CEO, OpenLearning

“All of the innovation in online education at the moment it seems is focussed on how to scale up a teacher. So a teacher currently teaches 100 students — how do you get them to 10,000 students or 100,000 students? It’s all about how do you communicate with the teacher and that sort of thing. We believe this is probably the wrong approach,” Brimo said.

“The way that we believe it should happen is rather than having the teacher being the centre of knowledge and influence, it’s really the students who have to be empowered, and the students have to be teaching each other. Because when you actually try and teach a subject, that’s when you learn it. If the students are helping each other out, solving problems together, they’re learning a lot more than just listening to someone else talk,” he added.

OpenLearning currently has over 150,000 students from around the world taking courses on the platform. These are being offered by universities, independent teachers and companies, and can all be run for free. Clearly opportunities around remote learning for such technology are large, but it can also be used within a classroom setting. Over 1,000 courses have already been created.

While most online education platforms are focussing on content delivery, OpenLearning’s peer-to-peer engagement tools result in a magnitude of more interaction — as much as 30 times more, according to Brimo — versus existing providers like Coursera and others. Users can comment directly on content, blog, chat via instant messaging interfaces, create their own content and ‘like’ the content of others. A focus on instructional design is also key.

Right now the startup’s focus is to grow the student user base from 150,000 to one million over the next year, and bring the team from 14 to 20 by mid year. On the expansion front, its setting up offices in Kuala Lumpur and Shenzhen, with most of its users currently coming from Malaysia, Australia, the US, India and China. It’s also going to be offering interfaces in new languages for some Asian markets by mid year.

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“Most startups in Australia seem to go to the US. Maybe because I grew up in the US, it doesn’t hold that position in my mind — it’s not like a promised land. At the same time, I see there’s a lot more opportunity outside the US, particularly in Southeast Asia. China’s a huge market and everyone knows that, so we’ll do things in China,” Brimo said.

“Southeast Asia is interesting because it’s usually ignored by most companies in the US. They probably can’t find it on the map, they won’t know which country is which. If people do go to Asia, they think of China and Japan. But Southeast Asia has 600 million people, the standard of living is getting better — quite good in some places — there’s a huge focus on education and improving people’s wellbeing,” he added.

Of all the courses being created on OpenLearning, the team has been especially impressed by the quality of those coming from Malaysia. This ties into Brimo’s belief that the best teachers aren’t necessarily at the most prestigious universities, and he wants to give those guys a chance to showcase their teaching to a regional or global following. Ultimately it should be less about ways to increase the ranking of a university, and more about how to deliver outstanding education.

Mushtak Al-Atabi, Dean of the School of Engineering at Taylor’s University, Malaysia, created two self-paced entrepreneurship courses that now have a combined enrollment of 6,000 students. This has bolstered the little-known university’s exposure and reputation outside Malaysia, while also offering new opportunities for its existing students to interact with new global classmates, share ideas and make new friends. The next step would be for the university to offer an online certification, for which they could actually charge. At present it is free.

OpenLearning is not yet cashflow positive, but that’s not a concern for now. The focus remains on user acquisition and reaching a critical mass, at which point the opportunities to monetise will more easily present themselves. This could be in the form of offering premium features to education institutions and corporates.

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“This year the focus is on Malaysia and China, but after that we are definitely looking at Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore as a good place to be, particularly for funding… there’s a lot of business development that can happen here. Although it’s a small market, there’s a lot of good education going on,” Brimo said.

Right now, the user breakdown is about 40 per cent Malaysia, 15 per cent Australia, 10 per cent China, 10 per cent US, five per cent India, and the rest a mix. Going forward, the majority of users are expected to come from Malaysia and China.

“[With China], you have to be quite specific about what you’re trying to achieve there. One of the main partners we have there is Guokr. They’re the largest MOOC community in China… They list a lot of [our] courses, and we do joint marketing and commercial activities with them. The students on their platform really like international courses and the ability to network with people overseas,” Brimo said.

“It is big and competitive, but the way you have to look at it is to find out — if you’re an overseas company — what you can do that a local company wouldn’t be able to, and usually that’s involving something outside China. Chinese domestic companies really struggle doing things outside China, just like a lot of US companies struggle doing things outside of the US. When you have such a big domestic market, you focus on that market. Whereas when you’re from a smaller market like Singapore or Australia you have to think about a lot of other countries,” he added.

What do you expect this ambitious edtech startup’s biggest challenge in establishing itself in Southeast Asia to be? Let us know in the comments.