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Irish edtech firm makes inroads in South Africa

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Less than a year since setting up its South African presence, Irish online educational company Shaw Academy has made inroads in its user base and local staff complement.

After opening in December 2019, with a 25-member team, the Shaw Academy has today grown to 200 full-time local staff, says founder and CEO James Egan.

This growth, according to the company, is largely due to a surge in new users and the launch of a number of new subjects on the platform.

“Shaw Academy will continue to add to the team in Cape Town,” says Egan. “In the short-term, we expect to add an additional 40 roles up to the end of this year.”

The CEO’s assertions come as a shot of relief to SA’s depressed job market, which has worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stats SA recently revealed that unemployment in the country rose to 30.1% in the first quarter of 2020. It pointed out that in the quarter, employment decreased by 38 000 to 16.4 million.

Fiona Baker, head of education at Shaw Academy, who is based in SA, explains that the local team consists of student support advisors who assist millions of students around the world.

“This involves helping with lesson plans, advising on schedules and answering any subject-related questions in further detail, if required. Our education team is also based out of the Cape Town offices. The educators are subject matter experts in their fields and are central to the development of the courses.

“Shaw Academy curates, delivers and broadcasts to students globally. Working alongside them is our production team, who work side-by-side with the educators to ensure the best online learning experience for students. This team consists of learning designers, content managers, graphic designers, video editors and voice-over artists.”

Upskilling a nation

With offices in Bangalore, India and now Cape Town, the Dublin-headquartered organisation develops online educational courses focused on building practical skills.

The online courses allow users to ask questions and receive answers while attending webinars and they also get to interact in real-time with fellow classmates. A typical course with the education tech start-up is for a period of four months, during which a user gains grounding in an area where they can develop practical skills.

According to Egan, Shaw Academy has over 18.6 million registered users, with approximately 10% of this base being students from SA.

As to why the Irish company’s edtech courses resonate with local users, he believes competitive pricing and accessibility play a significant role. “We fundamentally believe that the cost of education is too high and our mission is to deliver high-quality education at scale. In South Africa, there is huge demand for education and those with a desire to learn new skills.

“We recognise this and aim to make our courses as competitively priced as possible, without affecting the quality of education. We have also listened to our students and launched new subjects, having taken their feedback into account. While globally Shaw Academy has grown to over 400 employees in the past 12 months, we are still an agile business and can react to industry trends and launch in-demand subjects in a relatively short period of time which resonates well with our audience.

“South Africa has always been an extremely important and valuable market for Shaw Academy. Prior to the global pandemic, student numbers from South Africa remained continuously high and this has grown exponentially in the last 12 months.

“We schedule classes that suit the student’s lifestyle. They are interactive so users can ask questions and receive responses whilst on lessons and they are affordable; not many educational providers can offer over 100 hours of nominal learning for under R1 000, and finally, it is local. The majority of our educators who broadcast to millions of students all over the world do so with South African voices.

“COVID-19 changed everything for Shaw Academy. We have had over 10.6 million students register with us since 1 January this year, so the demand for skills both from a professional and personal level has increased dramatically. We have become an attractive option for both business and consumers as not only can we offer those professional skills, such as leadership and marketing for career-focused roles, but we can also offer a range of lifestyle courses, such as mindfulness and nutrition, which became increasingly important for everyone in South Africa as lockdown continued.”

The future and beyond

The COVID-19-induced lockdown presented a number of challenges for the company’s operations.

Baker explains that when lockdown was announced, setting up all staff working from home was the first obstacle to overcome, as not all the team members had access to high-speed Internet.

“We overcame this by providing and giving free Internet to all of our employees, which helped immensely for remote working. Mass hiring during a pandemic proved to be another challenge to overcome. We suddenly had to recruit and on-board remotely.

“We have, however, managed to adapt and fine-tune the process; so much so that we are still on-boarding remotely for the time being. We were naturally conscious about how remote working would impact team building and morale, but we can confidently say this has not impacted on it one bit.”

About whether an additional office outside of Cape Town will be opened anytime soon, Baker says there are no plans for that at the moment. “However, the past six months demonstrates that anything can happen.”

Looking to the future, Baker says more courses and content are in the pipeline. “We are working hard to release 10 new courses before the end of September and another 20 before the [end] of the year.”

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