Education Over Ebola: Using Low-Cost Tech Innovation in Liberia

Imagine being a parent, teacher, or student, and having 'Back to School' time come around only for schools to remain closed? Worse, imagine that being the least of your problems?

The Ebola death toll in Liberia is approaching 3000. But this figure grossly understates the damage that the virus is unleashing on the 99 percent of Liberians who do not have Ebola. Many government health facilities, which often lack adequate protective equipment, have closed. Prices for food and other basic goods have shot up and security has declined as people fear robberies and social unrest.

And even worse, all the schools in the country are closed with no plans to reopen soon, depriving Liberian children of an education and all Liberians of the most critical investment they can make in their future.

Here at the Rumie Initiative, a tech startup with a charitable mission, we've been working on finding an affordable and scalable solution. Rumie's mission is to lower the economic barriers to a quality education by delivering the best free learning content online to underprivileged kids in offline communities. So far, we've been doing that via super power efficient, low-cost tablets that don't need internet because all the content is preloaded onto them.

In July, an organization in Liberia arranged to use Rumie Tablets at a facility to rehabilitate former child soldiers, giving them their first chance at an education. Rumie shipped devices to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, towards the end of July, just as the Ebola outbreak was becoming a clear threat and just before the borders were closed. Unfortunately, the program for former child soldiers was suspended due to the Ebola outbreak.

But then a funny thing happened. Abel, the program leader, initiated a program in his neighborhood, allowing kids to use our tablets as a replacement for school and as a source of energy and entertainment in a time of uncertainty and fear. Abel's feedback has amazed me: the kids in the community have kept busy, even while mostly confined to home, fully engaged by the interactive educational content on the devices. Children gathered in small groups locally are smiling and proudly holding their tablets, a faint glimmer of hope and self-empowerment in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly dire situation in Liberia today.

While it is crucial that the rest of the world deliver medical aid to help Liberia meet the massive need for health care, the secondary consequences of the outbreak should not be ignored. Besides containing Ebola, Liberians need food and basic supplies. They need assistance for non-Ebola related health issues. They need creative solutions in education. All of this can help them remain hopeful, encourage them to work together and recognize that the rest of the world has not deemed their situation beyond repair.

We've seen an immediate impact in giving kids in Abel's neighborhood a tool for independent learning. If a child can't go to the library, why not bring the library to them? A low-cost tablet is intuitive to use and can be preloaded with thousands of high quality digital educational books, videos and games for offline use. I call it a library for the cost of a book.

There are many benefits to connecting people with this digital educational content on portable devices, but the one that I underappreciated until this experience in Liberia is mobility: a mobile device can be used at home when schools are closed or inaccessible.

The importance of easy, mobile access to materials cannot be overstated. Since I started Rumie last year, one challenge above all has motivated me: finding a way to improve access to education for girls. Though girls' education is in my opinion the best long-term investment that a society can make, in some countries it's unsafe for girls to attend school. We saw this in Nigeria, where over 200 girls were kidnapped from a girls secondary school, igniting a campaign to "Bring Back our Girls."

We also see this in other parts of the world, as the plight of Malala Yousafzai, the brave young Pakistani campaigner for girls' education, has highlighted. Our next project will likely use tablets to educate girls in Pakistan.

Abel informed me recently of the sad news that his mother passed away. She had suffered from non-Ebola medical complications since birth and, with hospitals closed, could not receive the care she required. Despite this, Abel maintains a positive attitude, dutifully trying an innovative method to make a difference in the lives of children in his community.

That's why today we're launching the crowdfunding campaign "Education over Ebola" to get more devices to Abel so that he can grow his great work. Setup, software, and shipping costs are all covered, so anyone in the world can now contribute to sponsor one additional device -- with a library of learning content for the cost of one textbook -- to send to Abel. Today, he's using this innovative, low-cost technology approach to impact hundreds of kids. Tomorrow, with our help, he'll reach thousands and tens of thousands.

The problem in Liberia is a severe version of a common theme -- unequal access to education is a problem even in rich countries such as the U.S. But by maintaining hope and thinking creatively to find new solutions to an age-old problem, we can hopefully start to make the glass finally look half full.