A Lean Startup Approach to Education Development

World of Work April 18, 2017

Millions of Syrian refugee children today lack access to a quality education, leaving them at risk of becoming a lost generation. Unfortunately this is not where the problem ends, but begins. Due to challenges ranging from inequality to poverty to civil war, there are roughly one billion children around the world who don’t receive a quality education, and who therefore miss the chance to maximize their inherent potential and to live better lives.
The challenge with humanitarian crises and the problems facing marginalized communities is that there is precious little time to waste. Yet too many NGOs and aid agencies spend time finding perfect solutions – whether that’s the perfect technology that would blow away folks at a Starbucks in San Francisco, the perfect programming that would answer all the theoretical objections raised by the most stringent researcher, or the most impactful project imaginable that would be guaranteed to show statistical impact in a randomized control trial in its very first iteration.
While this quest for theoretical perfection continues, children and families on the ground – who are in desperate need – go on without the basic access to education and learning tools they need to build a brighter future. That’s why at Rumie we pride ourselves on trying and testing solutions quickly and frequently, iterating rapidly for improvement based on real-life user feedback, and aggressively questioning existing models every step of the way. In other words, we bring a rare technology startup approach to the work of non-profit development. We submit that beyond a certain point, theories only get us so far; the rest of the blanks we need to fill in by actually doing, informed by real data from the field.
This approach, broadly called the lean startup approach, is how most tech startups operate today. The idea is that once research and planning has been exhausted (which happens quickly), it’s best to put a basic version (called a “minimum viable product” or MVP) into the field to test hypotheses, learn by doing, and get real user feedback to guide future product development. (The need to release an MVP early is best captured in this quote from Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”) But despite dealing with some of the world’s most pressing problems, the international development space is surprisingly risk-averse — shying away from new ways of thinking and risky new approaches. Unfortunately, no innovation is possible without risk; nothing innovative started out completely perfect, with every i dotted and every t crossed.
In that spirit, when we were approached in July 2015 to bring our offline technology to Syrian refugees, Rumie launched the #LearnSyria campaign. The goal is to provide every Syrian refugee with the ability to continue their education and learn the skills they need to succeed by delivering learning resources that are offline-usable, portable, interactive and inexpensive. Through the campaign, Rumie partnered with Syrian teachers and organizations working in Turkey and skilled volunteers around the world to develop a curriculum for digital, semi-autonomous learning. By combining the lean startup approach with crowdsourcing support from thousands of passionate volunteers from around the world, we produced a solution faster and more cheaply than possible through traditional methods. We then installed this curriculum onto thousands of tablets and worked with partners in Turkey and Lebanon to implement them in programs with Syrian students. We immediately saw very positive impact, including improvements in numeracy and literacy, heightened student participation, increased school capacity for students, and improvements in the mental health of children.
#LearnSyria began as a short-term campaign to make provide a quick and effective education solution for displaced Syrian children without the equal access to education the deserve. Thanks to an overwhelming outpour of support from thousands of contributors, #LearnSyria has grown into an ongoing project, now spanning multiple countries and partner organizations, including also support from Google and other large corporate backers.
We’ve learned a lot along the way, and in particular three main lessons:

1.    First, when it comes to using technology to provide educational access in a humanitarian crisis, there’s no one size fits all solution. Success depends on working closely with on-the-ground partners and teachers – in other words, skilled folks with local knowledge who know what’s best in terms of learning resources relevant to the local curriculum and local needs. We can specialize in building flexible technology tools; they must fully customize it to meet the needs of local communities on the ground.

2.    Second, traditional education is not the only kind that is in high demand, or even most needed by children in these challenging situations. Because we follow a bottoms-up rather than top-down approach, we spend a lot of time listening to and providing solutions that meet the needs expressed by on-the-ground partners. And in many cases, there is much more interest in skill development related to real life practical skills than there is for rarified curriculums set up without local community consultation. (We sometimes find that communities are more interested in things like vocational training, financial literacy, and language skills than they are in learning advanced calculus – which they may not find relevant to the realities and life options they face.)

3.    Third, the impact that the right education technology can make always reverberates more strongly and widely than you can ever predict initially – for instance, in many communities of Syrian refugees we have worked with, teachers witnessed improvements not only in traditional educational outcomes like math and learning, but also things like sociability, interest, and engagement with peers. While these are always important signs that teachers look out for in student development in the classroom, for children who have survived war-torn conditions and suffer from all kinds of anxiety-related challenges, these signs are enormous and provide huge hope for their future learning trajectory and success. In addition, we’re finding that in many projects around the world a portable offline technology solution doesn’t just affect the students using it, but when taken home can also have a positive impact on parents and siblings too.
Based on what we’ve seen, we have more confidence than ever in the importance of enhancing and expanding access to offline digital education. We even hope that students with minimal teacher guidance can use it, so that someday we will be able to grow our offline technology solution to impact Syrian children living in refugee camps such as Zaatari in Jordan, Kilis Öncüpınar in Turkey, and Shatila in Lebanon.

Access to education should not be limited by access to a brick-and-mortar classroom, or a stable schedule. While these are of course ideal, they are not always possible. And a startup approach to development means not living in the world of the perfect but the possible, and learning by doing every step of the way.