In China, education is at the core of a child’s life. Parents place immense pressure on kids to go to the best pre-school, primary school, high school and university in the hope of securing a stable and lucrative future. For very young children, rigorous studying is required, yet not natural. But playing is. That’s why a start-up called Dingshi created a platform called Oladao.com which aims to make learning fun.

Oladao.com is dedicated to deliver quality online education to young children in China by combining education with gaming to create a fun environment for learning. Oladao.com claims their solution has been proven to improve test scores in math and logic for young kids. Given the intense competition to get your child into a top school, how can you not try it?

I had a chat with Eugene Hsu, the co-founder and CEO of Oladao, to get some insight into how they are disrupting old school ways of learning.

Switching from corporate to start-up

Originally from America, Eugene came to Shanghai with Intel Corporation as a Senior Director of Software Strategy of a worldwide education program.

During his time at Intel, he had a strategic vantage point from where he could see how education technology was shaping up worldwide. He observed that “it was just 3 years ago, that the rate of innovation and adoption in education technology really started taking off globally.”

Eugene says “Education has always been a passion of mine.” He has travelled extensively to witness poor kids around the world, and he came to realize “education is a key to advancement.” And he co-founded a non-profit called Village Children’s Fund, focused on building schools for impoverished areas in China.

Armed with a passion for education, seeing how education tech was rapidly changing, and also how much things could be improved here, Eugene made the switch from corporate to start-up in April 2010 with friends from Google, and Microsoft.

Making learning fun for the little ones

Oladao.com aims to be the most innovative, engaging, and performance based solution in the Chinese education market for kids. Oladao.com is starting with kids aged 3-7 years old since it is critical for kids to grasp the education basics. In terms of innovation they are using the latest 3D technology to give an attractive visual experience. On the engaging side they are making games as fun and interactive as possible. On the performance side, they offer parents reporting tools to track the results of their kids learning.

The product focuses on basic learning of math, logic, language etc. and follows the Chinese curriculum, but with western ideas. In this way, Oladao.com provides learning tools to kids to practice core skills they must master to pass their primary school entrance exams, or risk being left behind.

Social impact through technology

Of course for centuries, kids learnt through books or playing with toys. But in this digital age, even 5 year old’s know how to operate a computer better than some adults. I noticed this in my cousin who played computer games when he was just two years old!

From a parents perspective it is very difficult to get a kid to focus. They are naturally inquisitive and easily distracted. Oladao.com is trying to help everyone in the process, by making it fun for kids to learn, and by giving their parents peace of mind to know their kids are learning in a safe and productive environment with tracking tools to assist.

Eugene sees that they can “offer a better and stronger solution than exists today and there is a clear opening for us to bring this type of tech to China.” Dingshi recognizes a great opportunity to build a profitable business on a quality product as well as scale the web based product to reach millions of children across China to have a “socially transformative impact.”

Getting kids to hit the ‘flow’ state

It’s been a long time since I was three years old and I barely remember how I learnt, if at all. So I asked Eugene “what is the kids experience on Oladao?” Quite profoundly, he said their “goal is to create a high level of immersion that allows the child to reach a cognitive flow state of a complete willingness and consciousness. The games are designed for them to interact with their world, explore, touch things, and be delighted. “

So how do adults build games for kids? Oladao was built by an expert team of educators and gaming revolutionaries with a mission to tune in to what kids love to do. They are old enough to profoundly understand education, but young enough to fully understand the engaging nuances of gaming. Hard metrics are also used to monitor how kids interact and use things, which of course help them fine tune their games in an iterative process. Also, the team has created its own education advisory board with experts from Harvard, Michigan, and Stanford. The goal of the board is to make sure that each of the learning activities is highly effective.

Some examples of games are counting fish swimming in a stream; learning number ordering by popping balloons; and doing addition to put out a virtual house on fire. “It’s really amazing to see kids interact and count out loud and be 100% involved. Parents are really amazed and happy to see their kids engaged and learning while playing our activities.”

Making kids smarter

The real measure of success is results. Eugene says that kids really do improve very quickly. For instance, kids were given a test of core skills, then guided to play on Oladao. After two weeks, they were given the same test, and across the entire age group, scores measurably improved. This has given Dingshi confidence that they are making a real positive impact on kids, rather than just keeping them busy.

Business side of things

The majority of customers will come from parents, word of mouth from child to child,  with a smaller share from in school installations. The business model is based on a freemium model, where certain games are free and extra game worlds are paid. In setting the pricing structure, Dingshi intends to make the service available to the masses to allow for the greatest social impactful.

Only after launching in July, the platform already has 8,000 subscribers without any marketing spend, “but we’ve barely scratched the surface, and there is a lot more to come starting this fall…”

In the future, Dingshi looks to build a big educational brand by going mobile, and possibly even creating merchandise.

Currently Dingshi is angel funded and is just beginning their series A.