Diving Deep Into Allegro Learning Solutions With Andy Lee And Liau Chuan Yi

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 31 May 2020.)

When the going gets tough, the tough go video-calling. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to have the world by the balls, it's certainly business not as usual; amid partial/full lockdowns instituted by governments almost everywhere to break transmission cycles, folks remain huddled indoors on account schools and most workplaces were ordered shut. With physical interaction severely limited, virtual facetime just became a commodity way hotter than toilet paper. Small wonder Zoom, Skype, Houseparty and Cisco Webex among other major application developers are laughing all the way to the bank. Even Facebook has stepped up its game with the introduction of Messenger Rooms, while Google is making Google Meet free for all G Suite users.

Might there still be some pie left for smaller, newer entrants to the global video conferencing market already worth a staggering USD 3.85 billion in 2019? Allegro Learning Solutions, a technology startup whose specialty revolves around crafting holistic online teaching tools is keeping faith, well at least on the education front. Founded by Andy Lee, former vice president of business development at an American technology platform, and General Paper tutor Liau Chuan Yi (owner of My Mustard Seed Learning Centre), it endeavors to address glaring gaps that continually plague present-day learning management systems,of which many lack full-fledged remote classroom capabilities.

In his own words, Chuan Yi professed:"Numerous market offerings we explored thus far are either geared toward corporate users (instead of school-going children), or did only one or two things rather than deliver a wholesome teacher-student experience in cyberspace.....the latter arise because they have not been designed with a proper understanding of the diverse and complex needs of education."

As of this writing, Allegro comprises:

• AllegroLearn - A lesson management portal featuring both tutor and student accounts. Educators can upload and manage courses, assignments, quizzes, video clips as well as monitor each student's progress.

• AllegroMeet - A virtual classroom where lessons can be hosted with no time limits imposed whatsoever. It comes complete with built-in video recording, screenshare, collaborative notepad and whiteboard functionalities.

We corresponded with both Allegro founders via e-mail to sniff out the seemingly impressive horsepower transpiring under Allegro's hood, as well as better appreciate how they strive to make good on their catchily devised "You teach, we tech" mantra.

QN: Hi Andy and Chuan Yi, thanks for talking to us. Hopefully you gentlemen are holding up well during this circuit breaker period?

ANS: Yes we are, thank you for reaching out; we trust all’s well on your end too.

QN: By the way, heartiest congratulations on Allegro, it does appear to be brimming with potential based on the preview videos supplied. Indulge our curiosity for a tiny moment here; was Allegro built using an open source framework such as WebRTC, or a customized Software as a Service (SaaS) deployment such as Twilio or Wowza?

Chuan Yi: Thank you for your kind words. Allegro does indeed utilize open source frameworks like WebRTC as you have mentioned, but it also significantly relies on our own proprietary software. Considerable additional effort has been invested into ensuring everything works like a charm for our clients.

I’m sure questions surrounding the decision to rely on open source frameworks will inevitably arise, therefore allow me to explain a little of the thinking underpinning our resolve to proceed as such. In essence, we adopt a client-first approach toward software development; this means we can pass on savings reaped from minimising project costs (wherever possible) to our clients, and being able to go the extra mile as and when required to meet their forseeably varied needs. As history has demonstrated, more often than not, attempting to reinvent the wheel typically results in expensive yet inferior products. This has, of course, not been without its challenges, hence the need to develop a lot of our own proprietary software. The problem, as you might hear us emphasise repeatedly, is that our situation is a novel one, and the needs in education are determinedly diverse. No two teachers ever teach in the same manner. In addition, we are also particularly mindful of the importance of privacy and security especially when it comes to vulnerable young children. I believe the recent hiccups that confounded Zoom users adequately illustrate what happens when security becomes an afterthought. Relying on open-source frameworks for essential security features like authentication and encryption thus enable us to guarantee best in-class security with constant patches/updates disseminated.

QN: From conception to implementation, what were some of the key difficulties encountered and how long did it take before you could finally proclaim ready, steady go? As far as division of labour is concerned (website coding, sales/marketing etc), who did what?

Andy: Before Allegro, I was working for an American technology platform in business development, so it’s only natural that I assume sales/marketing related duties, while Chuan Yi takes care of all the nitty gritty tech stuff.

Chuan Yi: By far the biggest challenge on my end was adapting our platform to meet the wide-ranging demands of our clients. We never had any major problems with conception and implementation since I was already synthesizing some of these tools by the end of last year. But there is a world of a difference between creating for yourself and creating for others. Developing an online learning solution that caters to less than a hundred students all taking classes for one single subject, is vastly dissimilar from forging something capable of accommodating Singapore’s curiously mixed private education sector.

QN: Could you also share pertinent details regarding Allegro's general technical user requirements (network bandwidth, webcam resolution, minimum RAM amount etc)?

Chuan Yi: Certainly. AllegroLearn, our learning management system, runs on virtually any web browser and I’m proud to state that not a single client has reported problems deploying it thus far. AllegroMeet, our integrated online classroom, is somewhat more resource-intensive given the need to support a multitude of capabilities (audio, video, webcam, whiteboard, chat, screen sharing and breakout rooms among others). That being said, our approach centres on keeping things light and agile to bestow maximum user compatibility (which is especially important since many students do not own laptops or are disadvantaged by unstable internet speeds). Almost all devices are supported so long as they have the latest version of any modern web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari or Opera) installed. Minuscule limitations could manifest though when loaded via older versions of iOS, however there's no serious harm done because a simple update will straightaway sort these out.

QN: Features-wise, what are you most proud of, and why?

Andy: We’re probably the only portal to offer both LMS and virtual classroom solutions. Education providers who embrace Allegro will discover for themselves how surprisingly affordable things can be.

Chuan Yi: I reckon it has to be the flexibility of our platform which allows a whole host of different education providers to each leverage some tenable aspect so as to execute their meticulously planned lessons with minimal friction.

QN: Allegro's tagline "You teach, we tech" sounds dreamily simple for the user......it's as if the burden of getting everything right falls squarely on your shoulders, nothing less. How then would you convince someone, anyone, that Allegro is a walk in the park even for absolute tech idiots?

Andy: We’d be happy to organize a demo (via screen share) for any new client coming onboard - trust me it’s way more practical than reading an instruction manual. Generally folks should be able to take to the platform shortly after.

Chuan Yi: You’re absolutely right about the “dreamily simple” bit. Truth is, no one can guarantee 100% user satifaction. Even tech giants of today have their shortcomings. There’s no whiteboard in Google Meet, while latencies habitually occur for Microsoft's OneNote ....by the way have you even heard of Amazon Chime? But this is not to say we cannot dream, for dream we must if we are to succeed on our own terms. Ultimately, the premise is simple: when you approach us with an agenda you desire to achieve but has very much eluded you, our primary goal is to suitably discern what this may be. Assuming you’re not asking for the moon, we are open to dedicating a reasonable amount of time and resources to turn it into reality.

QN: What encryption protocol does Allegro employ for video calling - end-to-end encryption, Transport Layer Security (TLS), Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) or something else altogether? How confident is Allegro when it comes to preventing similar "zoombombing" incidents that have cropped up of late?

Chuan Yi: In honesty we effectuate a whole alphabet soup of encryption protocols, from TLS to DTLS to SRTP, but the more important question begs: is security an integral part of our development or just a mere afterthought? For me, the answer must always be the former, and as we expand albeit cautiously, it is something that we must thoroughly insist upon. Anyone who is interested to know (in greater detail) about the Zoom brouhaha can consult the extensive literature already written and readily accessible on the internet, consequently I don't have further comments. Suffice to say, there are a number of key differences between us and them. First and foremost, our company is incorporated in Singapore, so rest assured that we comply with all relevant data privacy laws. Second, our servers are hosted entirely in Singapore, which means dodgy business practices associated with sending encryption keys to servers in China or something of the sort shall never happen. Third, to reiterate, AllegroMeet runs from one's browser, so there is zero likelihood of our software being hijacked to install malware onto your machine. Fourth, you can only access AllegroMeet if you have registered a secured account on our platform. You cannot simply turn up unannounced, and even if you somehow managed to do so, teachers have been empowered to prevent you from entering live sessions.

QN: Is Allegro entirely self-funded, or might it be backed by private investors? If your response alludes to the former, how much capital outlay was involved? Are there further disclosures you wish to make in the name of transparency?

Andy: We’re self-funded.

Chuan Yi: As Andy has pointed out, we’re self-funded.

QN: How has the reception to Allegro been so far since its launch in January this year?

Andy: We’ve been kept busy assisting everyone in getting acquainted with our products. The circuit breaker measures introduced also brought about a significant increase in fresh signups owing to the temporary suspension of face-to-face tuition.

Chuan Yi: Work-wise we are tremendously swamped, I am actually somewhat glad to be able to take time off to participate in this interview. Feedback received from our clients till date has been overwhelmingly positive. That said, of course we had people telling us on occasion that our platform is inferior to this or that other solution, regardless we fully respect their opinions.

QN: Mainstream schools and popular tuition centres are flocking to Zoom to fulfill their home-based learning needs, despite it being a largely "business-focused" solution as deemed by your website write-up. What are your thoughts on this? Can you demonstrate Allegro to be significantly superior to Zoom such that folks feel inclined to jump ship?

Chuan Yi: You are absolutely right. Words are empty. We conduct live demonstrations precisely for this reason.

I don’t think we can ever assert that Allegro flat out eclipses Zoom. In the education world, it’s never about who is superior but rather who is better suited. In the same way that a parent chooses to discontinue his/her child's attendance at some learning centre because the pace of teaching is overly fast, so too have some opted in favor of our solution because Zoom gives them much of what they don’t need yet scantly fulfills their wants. Let me highlight a few salient examples.

Zoom has a whiteboard, so do we. But Zoom’s whiteboard is just that — a plain vanilla tool allowing for simple annotations on PDF files (which btw you have to clear each time before scrolling to subsequent pages). Ours on the other hand grants you free rein to upload a variety of different file types to the presentation whiteboard and even retain all essential scribblings previously made for good.

Videos beamed to other participants on Zoom (only via screen share mind you) are of questionable quality because they are reproduced using basic screen capture means courtesy of the source. In comparison ours permits streaming of high resolution videos anytime, anywhere.

Furthermore, Zoom lacks notepad sharing facilities, neither does it accord you the ability to restrict private chats (as far as I am aware). Besides, having to consistently connect to out-of-country servers may at times render janky as hell performance. The list goes on.

QN: Ease of use aside, some parents opine that learning over the internet may perhaps augment, but will never serve as an adequate substitute for lessons conducted in the physical classroom. When the circuit breaker period ends and schools gradually reopen, do you therefore envision future demand for video conferencing apps tapering in the education industry? Any consequent paradigm shift in Allegro's business model 2, 3 years down the road?

Andy: While online learning is becoming increasingly accepted especially amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in-person tutelage will no doubt be preferred. Allegro does not seek to upend the status quo - rather we want to help educators push the envelope in terms of content delivery innovation.

Chuan Yi: The circuit breaker period has forcibly implored us to reconsider some of our dearly held preconceptions about what is and isn't feasible in the online realm, so I think there is a real possibility that a substantial proportion of classes still currently conducted in-person may be migrated to the internet. As for our business model down the road, we shall remain focused on serving existing clients faithfully while contemplating prevailing trends to value-add.

QN: Before concluding this interview, perhaps some final words for our parents and students?

Chuan Yi: A whole-hearted thank you from myself to all the parents and students who have been open-minded and patient enough to give online learning a shot. Whichever platform you choose to use, and whoever you choose to use it with, I think half the battle is already won when you decide to take a leap of imagination instead of dismissing things right away.

Once again, three cheers for your graciousness and patience in answering our barrage of queries; may good fortune smile on both of you, and Allegro eventually achieve critical success. Stay safe! :)