TECH TALK: Digitising O/A level past papers one topic at a time

Updated 20 Sep 2020

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ANTHIVE Product Director Hunaid Hameed.
ANTHIVE Product Director Hunaid Hameed.

Despite witnessing great traction since the coronavirus outbreak, edtech in Pakistan is becoming a boring (and unimaginative) space with most players — incumbent or new — offering some variation of either learning management system, marketplace or content. Beyond these three areas, not many solutions exist and that’s a gap Anthive is trying to change.

Anthive.co is a Karachi-based startup digitising O/A level topical past papers. Working on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, it can integrate with a school’s own online portal/learning management system and allows students to simply log in and solve exams in an interactive manner. They can check the solution from a mark scheme right there or take mocks in a test setting.

The startup has so far digitised 16 subjects — popular locally, spanning over 12 years, and comprising more than 18,000 questions in total.

It basically started as a hobby project for Hunaid Hameed in 2012, then just entering A levels, after learning PHP programming.

He launched a website by the name of Automatic Papers where one could solve past exams of Cambridge International Examinations in an interactive manner.

For years, it continued as such with the founder getting a few individual customers here and then. But back in November 2019, he partnered up with his first cousin Salman Popatya, who has been in the IT industry for two decades, and a CIE teacher Mohsin Adhi to establish Anthive.

Anyone with a background in CIEs would probably be thinking why is there a need for Anthive when Xtremepapers is doing everything for free? The lucky ones even get their practicals leaked over there.

“If you want yearly past papers then of course there already are options that don’t cost a dime but no one is doing topicals at the moment, which is our unique selling point. Plus, we offer an interactive testing environment and grading [for objective questions] instead of downloadable PDF files,” says Hameed.

Though like most local early-stage companies, Anthive’s biggest competitor is not some online startup operating out of a fancy incubator promising to disrupt the education scene but rather the traditional players: the booksellers.

And it’s wild west out there thanks to all the piracy. Making the matters even more complicated for them is the fairly popular trend of teachers themselves compiling and selling topical papers and probably wouldn’t be too welcoming of someone wanting to take away that extra income.

What’s the benefit one reaps by going digital for past papers? Their estimates suggest that an average O/A level student will spend more than Rs22,000 over the course of their high school life, which AntHive promises to more than halve it at least.

While the numbers might not match those of the local educational boards, there is still a huge body of Pakistani students taking CIEs every year. News reports from a few years ago put annual registrations over 270,000, and the figure is only expected to shoot up as more and more people get lured by the foreign system’s appeal of imparting critical thinking skills and other cliches.

However, the concern is not that there aren’t enough schools but whether they are tech-savvy enough to go digital? I mean it’s not some Southeast Asian country where every kid has a tablet in hand during class. Here, the environment is still by and large paper- and whiteboard-based with electronic devices mostly prohibited.

How exactly does Anthive hope to survive in these conditions?

“The temperament on that front is now changing, especially after the Covid-19, which forced schools to adopt technology to survive so we expect some sort of behavioural shift,” says Popatya.

As a business-to-business offering, Anthive plans to put in place a subscription model with annual pricing (currently undetermined but expected to start from Rs1,000) on a per-student basis. Given the popularity of appearing as a private candidate, the question is why not also open the solution to direct consumers? “That market is a little more complicated due to issues in digital payments,” says Hameed, referring to the age-old issue of recurring payments. So far, the startup is being funded through Popatya’s company S2 Consulting, an IT services firm headquartered in Karachi.

CIEs are a fairly popular system beyond Pakistan too, especially in places like Sri Lanka, Singapore and obviously the United Kingdom. And that’s what the team wants to cash in after treating local market as a proof of concept.

The writer is member of staff:

m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com

Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2020