WHEN taking in the large touchscreens that replace traditional chalkboards, as well as science labs and 100 to 200-capacity seminar rooms at the Mind Stretcher regional campuses, it gets hard to imagine that the homegrown tuition chain emerged from a basement bomb shelter in Bishan 15 years ago.
"In fact, you would be met with six cubicles of toilets when you first enter, before you can even get to our tuition centre," shared founding principal Kristie Lim.
But Mind Stretcher did not simply explode onto the education scene. Ms Lim described marketing efforts in the early days as having to start from ground zero.
"Back then, finances were tight," she revealed. "My daily morning routine would be to walk door-to-door and distribute flyers across several blocks in Bishan."
"In education, reputation is everything," she added.
The constant struggle to be recognised was one that would last for years. But today, Mind Stretcher, which integrates technology with learning through in-house apps, has grown into a successful tuition chain for pre-primary to secondary school students, with 15 centres across the island - four of which are franchises - and two more in China.
Meeting the needs of every child
About 15 years ago, Ms Lim was struggling to pick up the pieces of her broken marriage. To top it off, she was a working lawyer in her 30s with four children, including an eight-month-old baby.
It was then that she decided to leave the legal profession for good. Starting her own business, she reasoned, would allow her more time for her kids.
But what business? The answer came from the home.
"Even when my son was barely one year old, he was learning things very fast," said Ms Lim. "During that phase, I had to go out and find different kinds of materials to stimulate his interest. He was always hungry to learn new things."
Her efforts brought her overseas to countries such as Australia. Over time, Ms Lim not only acquired considerably good learning resources, but she also developed a keen sense of what is effective. "I knew exactly what kind of materials suited kids of different learning abilities, because my four children are very different too," she said.
It was this instinct for meeting the learning needs of children that drove her into the education sector. It also gave her a eureka moment that led to her introducing class banding as her tuition centre's unique selling point two years after the centre opened.
"I realised that I cannot have a one-size-fits-all curriculum to meet all their needs. I either have to lose the weak students, or lose the really good ones, and I did not want to do that," said Ms Lim. "I want education to be accessible by everybody who wants and needs it.
Mind Stretcher now has an "Achievers" class and a "High Achievers" class. In 2011, it introduced the Primary 3 Gifted Education Programme (GEP) preparatory classes for lower primary students who wished to get into the GEP.
Technology as the future of education
Five years ago, Ms Lim decided to get rid of all the whiteboards in her tuition centres and replace them with smart boards - a large touch screen with a short throw projector that eliminates shadows cast on the screen.
It was a bold investment to ensure that lessons felt more engaging and tangible.
Then came Reading Oceans a few years later, an interactive app that helps children learn how to read.
Still, Ms Lim realised that just having technology in the classroom does not equate to effective use - some teachers would actively enhance their lessons using technology, while others would simply play a video for students from time to time. In the middle of 2015, Ms Lim and her team conceived an idea to create a single digital platform complete with a full set of lesson plans interwoven with videos, audio and interactive graphics.
The result: e-Study Buddy, a S$1 million collaboration between Mind Stretcher and educational consultancy Amdon Consulting. The app has been adopted in all Mind Stretcher classes since late last year.
"Not all teachers are equal and not every student can be taught by a star tutor," said Ms Lim. "With the e-Study Buddy, we can raise the bar by enabling our teachers to achieve and maintain a consistent level of teaching at all our centres."
For instance, a primary school student doing a cloze passage about the lost city of Machu Picchu would first experience the sights and sounds of the popular tourist spot, via a video on the app. Google Maps graphics are also embedded, so that students can navigate the area in virtual reality.
Besides this, students can access the app at home to complete e-worksheets that self-mark. Parents are also given access to their children's accounts so that they can track their learning progress.
Value of the human touch
Despite many students' positive reception towards e-Study Buddy, Ms Lim currently has no intention of marketing the product as a standalone.
"It has been shown overseas and there are people who are interested in us bringing the product to neighbouring countries," she said.
"But I have been very careful about bringing it out there on its own because e-Study Buddy is not an end-user product. It has got to be complemented with human teaching."
Ms Lim will still be looking at how she can bring the product abroad, but she insists on working with educational institutions to repackage e-Study Buddy so it best suits students' learning needs.
As future business plans go, she reckons that the key is to concentrate, not to expand.
"We feel that growing bigger per centre is the way to go because we can make better use of resources. For instance, parents would want to send their children to a centre that has everything under one roof," said Ms Lim.
She attributes Mind Stretcher's success to never taking a good result for granted.
"I always remind myself and my team that you must never think that you have arrived," she said.
"Mind Stretcher has constantly been innovating and we always try to seek new ways to deliver a better learning experience to our students. I guess this is what makes us different."