From Books to Bytes: A Learning Revolution for the Poor

Many friends, colleagues and family members have appeared puzzled by my decision to leave a successful career in finance to dedicate myself to Rumie. It’s hard to communicate the magnitude of the learning revolution that we see coming as various disparate pieces fall into place. So I’ve tried herein to place it in the broader context of human history — beginning with a look at a transformative innovation from over five hundred years ago.


The Limits of Literacy

At the beginning of the 15th century, spreading knowledge was difficult. Texts needed to be laboriously copied by hand. They sometimes contained errors — which were then recopied in future versions. And since books wore out easily and were vulnerable to the elements, an army of scribes was required to maintain a sizeable collection of books.

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press during that century began a revolution in the dissemination of information. Using typesetting technologies from Asia, his “movable type machine” made the mass production of texts at a reasonable cost possible for the first time. As the cost of books dropped and their availability increased, literacy levels climbed upwards and the Renaissance began soon after — as humanity’s most precious resource, brainpower, started to be more thoroughly exploited.
There are 1.8 billion school-aged children around the world, of which more than half, one billion, lack anything resembling a quality basic education.

Despite the mass production of printed books in subsequent centuries, the cost of accessing written knowledge still exceeds the grasp of many of the world’s poorest today. Stories abound of African classrooms in which one or two old and usually outdated textbooks are shared amongst an entire classroom of children. While printed materials are cheaper, better, and faster than pre-15th century written materials produced by scribes, they still entail material costs for pulp and paper, transport costs to get them to remote areas, hefty intellectual property costs such as royalties to authors, and profit margins for retailers and distributors.

As a result, humanity’s greatest resource (again: brainpower) remains untapped in many parts of the world. By some estimates, there are 1.8 billion school-aged children around the world, of which more than half, one billion, lack anything resembling a quality basic education. These brains are like plants which, if fertilized and watered, could grow into a generation of minds that could rapidly advance progress for some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Instead, this human potential remains undeveloped.


Digital Revolution

In the latter half of the 20th century, computers were invented and became increasingly widespread in society. First we had mainframes. Then later came minicomputers. Not long after that, workstations and PCs spread into mainstream society. Next came portable laptop computers. And now we are in the age of ultraportable mobile smartphones — which, despite being small and cheap, each hold greater computing power than all of NASA had back in the 1960s.

Each new generation has heralded a change in scale: mainframes were just for companies. Later on, PCs entered the home and were shared by the family. Eventually they became cheap enough that families could afford more than one. Cheap laptops have enhanced this. And now tablets and smartphones have yet again changed the game, pushing the boundaries as their low-cost, affordability, power-efficiency, and mobility have made them truly personal devices in a way no computing device has ever been before.

At the same time, data transmission costs have dropped rapidly over time as improved compression techniques and massive investments in telecommunications have reduced the cost to deliver a byte. Whereas the marginal cost of pulp and paper has changed little in the last 20 years (indeed it has increased slightly), the marginal cost to deliver a byte has plummeted over the same period. Once the infrastructure of a device and an internet connection is in place, a written text can be transmitted at a de minimis cost even to remote locations.
The rise of the Internet has thus facilitated easy sharing of information for lots of people around the world.

The rise of the Internet has thus facilitated easy sharing of information for lots of people around the world. One result of this trend is that texts used for learning basic, timeless concepts — such as literacy and basic maths and sciences — have become free online, as academics, writers and others have published their content digitally and encouraged its free sharing through open licenses.

While some of this free content is of questionable quality, much of it is of even better than the expensive alternatives of the past: a study showed that students in Utah using free, open source textbooks from one non-profit provider scored statistically higher than similar students using traditional $60 K12 textbooks. More and more examples are appearing of freely available materials being proven to be of equal or greater quality than the expensive materials of yesteryear.

And as early internet pages have moved from text and basic images to now real-time high definition video streams, the dissemination of learning information online has gone far beyond replacing written materials and now encroaches on classroom lectures, interactive and adaptive learning that emulates tutors and teachers, and even one-on-one human interactions that take place remotely via voice and video conferencing solutions.

Thus far, much of this has been taken for granted: giving well off people things they already have isn’t all that exciting for many people. (After all, most rich societies already had access to that information in some form: perhaps at a well-stocked public library, or via individual paper textbooks and lectures at free publicly-funded schools, or on bookshelves in the home.) And while it certainly is more convenient to have learning content in digital form — interactive, easier to distribute and update, and less weighty in a child’s backpack — it’s not all that transformational to move from well-funded, good quality learning via paper to well-funded, good quality learning via pixels on a screen.

Even having access to a free encyclopedia, which used to cost $1,000 to purchase, is barely noticed. Though folks appreciate the convenience of being able to look anything up from anywhere (it’s easier to settle a dinner table bet on the main export of Botswana if someone can pull out a phone and check in seconds, rather than walk to a bookshelf and slowly search page by page from an encyclopedia; or worse, go to the local public library to figure it out), few appreciate that this drop in effective cost might increase its accessibility to the majority of people worldwide.


Those still left behind

Yet the digital revolution has not yet reached most of the world’s poorest.
Yet the digital revolution has not yet reached most of the world’s poorest. Many have pondered the question: how can educational technology be used to rapidly improve the lives of the world’s poorest? Many a TED Talk has pontificated grandly about the potential for this, alongside other grand ideas, but few have articulated a useful method by which this would come about. While the idea is nice, so far it has remained far too expensive and too difficult to implement in practice.

One initiative bravely attempted to build a special device to bring technology to the world’s poor children. One Laptop per Child (OLPC) announced in 2005 that it would bridge the digital divide for the world’s poorest by designing and manufacturing a low-cost, durable laptop that children from Ghana to Guatemala could use — equalizing the playing field.

Unfortunately, OLPC didn’t really work out. It took longer to design and build than promised. It cost far more than expected — over $200 per device, a price point too expensive for many target markets. The hardware didn’t work particularly well and was soon eclipsed by better, commercial alternatives. And most problematic of all, there was no content strategy, since most of the leading sources of free learning content didn’t exist when large OLPC deployments launched in 2007 and 2008 — nor did its designers have much interest in content, focused as they were on the idea of delivering a specially designed computer-for-the-poor to a child as an end in itself.

Ultimately, OLPC was widely considered a disappointment. Third party studies on large scale, expensive deployments in Peru found that students using OLPC devices showed no measurable gains in math or reading scores compared to students who did not have them. It turned out that giving them a specially designed device with no content and a poor internet connection had little impact on their learning outcomes.

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Timing is Everything

OLPC was a noble effort, but it was an idea before its time. In technology, timing is everything. Research firm Gartner has advanced the idea that new technologies often go through what it calls the “Emerging Tech Hype Cycle,” wherein a peak of inflated expectations amongst media and investors gives way to a trough of disillusionment — markets overshooting, as they are wont to do — before finally the initial promise is realized.
Five or six years after developed countries reached high levels of mobile phone penetration, the scale economics behind producing global cellular networks and hundreds of millions of handsets led the costs to plummet and a $50 handset became possible.

This same phenomenon occurred in the early 2000s, as basic mobile phones started to spread into developed countries. Many dreamers recognized the promise of bringing such devices into emerging markets, where the lack of landline infrastructure meant that a “leapfrog” to mobile phones would be much more transformational to societies and to economic growth. Unfortunately, many companies bought wireless spectrum and built networks when equipment costs were high and the cheapest handsets were well over $200. Many companies thus failed or were later forced to restructure debts. They failed to realize that the technological capability alone wasn’t enough for developing countries — the leapfrog innovation also needed to be cheap enough.

But some five or six years after developed countries reached high levels of mobile phone penetration, the scale economics behind producing global cellular networks and hundreds of millions of handsets led the costs to plummet and a $50 handset became possible. And this finally led to the beginning of the mobile revolution in emerging markets. OLPC’s foray into education came shortly after and, while noble, did not heed the most important lesson of the mobile leapfrog in developing countries: to spread in these countries, one doesn’t need flashy, cutting-edge technology; one needs good technology with cutting edge economics.

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Rumie and the Digital Learning Revolution

I founded Rumie in 2013 with another leapfrog in mind. This time, the goal was to leapfrog libraries and expensive paper materials with cheaper, better and faster digital materials: a transition from books to bytes for the world’s poorest. Twelve years ago I led investments into mobile phone networks when handset costs reached $50, believing that the true promise of mobile phones was not taking the world’s richest from something good to something great, but rather taking most of humanity from nothing at all to something great. Similarly, I believe that the major human impact of a proliferation of high-quality, adaptive digital learning tools won’t be the marginal gains for a minority of humanity who are already quite well-educated; but rather a transformative leapfrog for the vast swaths of humanity who have never had access.

We first worked with an existing tablet manufacturer to modify a $50 tablet, jerry-rigging it with extra battery life and extra storage space so that it could store an entire K12 curriculum comprised of high-quality open source materials, allowing it to work even without internet access. (Internet access would allow syncing and updating materials, but the goal was that when fast Internet wasn’t available — meaning the vast majority of the time — the device would not become a paperweight.) Simply giving up on trying to create a fast, live internet connection where it didn’t yet exist aggrieved many technology utopians, but with our practical focus we didn’t want to be Steve Jobs; for our markets we figured Macgyver was a better inspiration.)
By 2015, it was clear that this technology was affordable and could drive cost-effective impact in many diverse regions and countries — ranging from Ghana and Guatemala to Syrian refugee camps.

We started expanding via local educational partners running schools in various countries using primarily English language STEM materials and seeing excellent results: it turns out that content that shows clear statistical gains for kids at an already high baseline in rich countries is even more impactful when absorbed by kids who start with test scores some 40–50% lower but are just as capable. Working based on feedback from partners on the ground, new features were added: user profiles (in recognition that no matter how on-the-ground programs were designed, the devices were inevitably being shared amongst students and family members); gamification (so kids could be rewarded with some game playing time by teachers and administrators as a reward for good behaviour); and analytics (to pave the way for the kind of real data analysis, impact testing and measurement that was never possible before in paper-only societies).

By 2015, it was clear that this technology was affordable and could drive cost-effective impact in many diverse regions and countries — ranging from Ghana and Guatemala to Syrian refugee camps. But while the hardware and operating system were usable in many places, the educational content was not. (To begin with, Ghana, Guatemala and Syrian refugee camps needed English, Spanish, and Arabic, respectively, to say nothing of cultural, curricular, and certification differences.) And organizing content to meet such criteria is hard: there’s too much of it from too many online sources in English alone, to say nothing of covering diverse subjects that may be useful to these communities (such as health, vocational training, etc.) across so many different languages and age levels. An organization with 10 or 20 people could not possibly do it; one would need an army of 10 or 20 thousand, or likely far more.

So in 2015 we introduced the LearnCloud, an online platform on which volunteer educators come and meet requests from NGO partners to organize content from the myriad free resources available and produce curriculum in specific subject areas and languages — in turn, rapidly populating what will become the world’s largest open repository of free learning content that is collaboratively organized and localized for different communities and cultures. If Wikipedia could leverage non-profit status to build such a formidable army of volunteer workers that it put its for-profit competitors out of business, why can’t we leverage the wisdom of the crowd behind the noble goal of educating the world’s least fortunate adults and children?

Today, this volunteer army is growing rapidly and contributing thousands of hours to the cause. Educators in the Arctic Circle are using technology to impact the education of children in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey. (Seriously: they’re doing this at Arctic College in Nunavut, Canada.) It turns out that educators and many other folks are a bit fed up of always being asked by NGOs to open their wallets and give money, money, money to help causes far, far away. When asked, they’re far more inclined to generously donate their time, skills, and passion first.

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Does History Rhyme?

Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Over 10 years ago, after developed countries had enthusiastically adopted mobile phones, scale economics drove the cost of the cheapest handset toward $50, unlocking a similar growth pattern in wireless penetration in emerging markets. Today, some five to seven years after folks in emerging markets have enthusiastically adopted smartphones and tablets (which largely share the same components and software), the cheapest tablets and smartphones on the market have dropped to $50. The GSM Association now projects that there will be 5.9 billion smartphones in the world by 2020, of which 80% will be in emerging markets.

First, basic Nokia-style mobile phones became the “computer for the poor,” enabling not just telecommunications but also mobile banking and advances in healthcare. Now the same communities have begun upgrading to devices that look a bit more like the smartphones we recognize, with large screens, virtual keyboards, and computer power that beats what NASA had in 1969 — when it put two astronauts on the moon. Such devices are capable of receiving rich content in its native form: PDFs, videos, apps, and websites. This is at a time when everything we learned under the age of 18 (and more) is available for free online, replicable and distributable at almost no marginal cost.

Over the next five years we will witness the beginning of the greatest revolution in access to information since Gutenberg introduced the printing press in the 15th century, as those who didn’t have books leapfrog directly to a cheaper, better and faster method: bytes. And finally, humanity will rapidly begin to harvest vast unused tracts of its greatest and most precious renewable resource.


Written By: Tariq Fancy
Founder at Rumie


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