WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook - we use apps on our phones to communicate with friends all the time. But what if we could also use them to communicate with teachers? Enter SnapAsk, the latest app from AppEdu that's available for both iOS and Android users, a tech startup which is radically changing the way we learn.
SnapAsk's concept is simple: to provide students with immediate help. When you're stuck on a question, instead of waiting until class the next day, just take a picture of your problem. Help will arrive from a real tutor in an average of 17 seconds.
The tutor, a university student, will walk you through the question on a WhatsApp-style platform. Voice recording lets tutors easily explain their answer.
SnapAsk currently has a pool of 600 tutors, who are paid HK$4-HK$8 per question, depending on how satisfied the student is with their answer. Students pay a monthly fee of HK$300 for help on up to 50 questions, far cheaper than traditional tutorial classes. Many poorer families cannot afford the classes, which usually range from HK$100 to HK$400 for a one-hour session.
"Our mission is to level the playing field for all students," says Timothy Yu Yau-him, the 25-year-old founder of AppEdu. Of SnapAsk's 8,000 users, half are underprivileged children who receive the service at a discounted rate, subsidised by AppEdu and social enterprises.
SnapAsk is the brainchild of Yu and Philip Hong Ting-yung. The pair were finance classmates at the University of Hong Kong, and during their second year, they started a tutorial centre to earn some extra money.
They set up a Facebook page so students could post questions outside of class, and were soon overwhelmed by the demand. They realised students wanted instant help, and that using the internet to answer questions would save tutors travelling time.
Bored by their routine bank jobs, they decided to quit two years ago and work full-time on developing SnapAsk.
But while the app works well for maths and science questions, tutors rarely pick up questions about economics or history, because these take more time to answer. Some also worry the app will make students lazy.
"There are a million ways to copy homework," says Yu. "Our platform makes everything easier and more efficient, but at the end of the day, the choices are up to the students."
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Since its official launch in January, SnapAsk has been expanding fast. It was also launched in Shanghai and Taiwan and is developing a virtual classroom tool for group discussions. It is also testing a quiz feature allowing teachers to receive instant data on students' performances in the classroom.
Yu and Hong hope SnapAsk will eventually reach students in Africa, where many use mobile phones to connect to the internet. Hong says students in Africa rarely have access to good tutors, but with better matching, could make use of tutors from around the world.
Besides SnapAsk, here are some other useful learning apps our junior reporters recommend.