Education Anywhere: How Rumie Is Using Pro Bono to Cross the Digital Divide

Rumie is a nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to learning through technology—founder Tariq Fancy shares how pro bono has been a resource for their work.
Oct 28, 2020 8:35 AM ET

2020 has been a year unlike any other. Communities around the world are working together to address and recover from compounding crises. Nonprofits of every shape and size have been stepping up to support them. And we’re spotlighting the role of pro bono service in rebuilding communities as a part of this year’s Pro Bono Week.

Rumie is a nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to learning through technology—the organization has been working with volunteers for years to change lives around the world. Founder Tariq Fancy shared how pro bono has been a resource for their work, and how they’ve applied the expertise of volunteers in creative ways.

Rumie’s Work and Mission

Rumie aims to make learning life and career skills as accessible, interactive, and easy as social media. Because more and more learning is taking place online, it’s easy to assume that virtual education is available to everyone. As mobile tech grew in popularity throughout the world in recent years, “the assumption was that access to tech would suddenly level the playing field in learning,” Tariq told us. “But early data said that the gap was growing—communities that didn’t have access to tech weren’t seeing any gains.”

Unfortunately, unequal access to money, spare time, and a fast, reliable internet connection are significant and widespread barriers to digital learning. These barriers leave millions of people behind in a global economy that is increasingly knowledge-based. The current pandemic has also put a spotlight on the deepening tech divide for everyone from school children to adults. Rumie works to provide these essentials and create engaging, free and open learner-centric modules that level the playing field for under-resourced communities.

Building Access Through Relationships

Pro bono has been a cornerstone of Rumie’s work from the very beginning. Rumie has grown and overcome a number of struggles by working with Taproot and skilled volunteers from their own network. “For me the most useful pro bono projects were the ones that weren’t in our core competencies,” Tariq said. “I said to my team that for those non-core areas ‘we can either get help or figure it out all by ourselves.’”  The team decided to take the first option: focus on their own mission and strengths and get pro bono support for tasks outside their areas of expertise.

Pro bono made a big difference as they were first getting off the ground: a connection they’d made with Dell EMC (known as EMC Corporation until 2016) through pro bono was a game changer when it came to sourcing hardware for students to use, something they helped their early partners to do in order to get the initial programs off the ground.

Tariq knew he wanted to order the devices they needed from specific factories in Shenzhen, China, after visiting a few in person. But it was impossible to build a relationship directly with the factory once he’d returned to North America. “There were no translators, there’s the 12-hour time difference, difficult logistics… and there’s a big scale problem that means the factories weren’t interested in working with us directly, since we were still relatively small and early stage back then.” That’s where their relationship with EMC came into play.

The pro bono work they had done with the EMC North American team gave them contacts who were ready to lend a hand. Those contacts reached out to their Hong Kong-based colleagues who were able to move the project forward by leaps and bounds.

“The doors at the factory just opened up when EMC called them, versus me just calling and saying ‘Hey, we’re Rumie!’” Tariq explained. “I don’t think we would have gotten the hardware piece working or gotten some key early programs off the ground if we hadn’t made that pro bono connection.”

Access to EMC’s knowledge of the hardware supply chain in Asia meant Rumie could reach students effectively and learn from their device usage habits. That usage information provided the insights the team needed to evolve into the advanced learner-centric model they use today.

Leading by Listening

“We want to lower the barriers to learning, but also to be non-paternalistic, and to listen to the people on the ground. That way we’re trying to meet the real demand.”

Learning from device data and listening to students has given Rumie an understanding of the real demand for education. The data they collected lead them to two major shifts in perspective:

  • Students were more interested in ongoing personalized learning whenever and wherever it was convenient for them, and less interested in an old-school, formal educational program with a static curriculum laid out in advance.
  • People wanted to learn practical skills – the kinds that could help them build their lives and careers and put food on the table. In particular, the skills they wanted most were soft and human skills that can’t be replicated by machines – for example, goal setting, leadership, and communication. And they preferred to learn through micro-learning modules that they could do in short bursts, whenever convenient for their busy everyday lives.

Those findings flew in the face of common assumptions about digital learning and pointed to how Rumie could approach their work more strategically. But they’d need volunteers who wanted to teach practical skills in order to make micro-learning happen. Pro bono was a perfect resource to meet the demand for modules teaching job-related skills.

“I realized we could build the machine to leverage pro bono at scale on a 21st century digital volunteering platform. Taproot helped us make this possible in the first place through deep, meaningful pro bono relationships with specialists that got us to this point; and now we’ve used it to build a complementary approach, opening a new paradigm in pro bono that is lighter-touch but can quickly scale to large numbers of people working all at the same time.”

Rumie’s micro-learning modules, or Bytes, have given volunteers a chance to share and teach their skills to people around the world. The Byte authoring platform launched this year as a structured “opportunity to provide value as a volunteer, instead of one-off volunteer projects or hands-on opportunities that don’t connect to their professional superpowers.”

“This was a way for people to give what they’re really great at and share their most valuable skills. Volunteers include a community of instructional design and learning experts, leaders in science and other areas (astronaut Chris Hadfield just wrote a Byte!), and companies whose employees build modules linked to their skills and functional expertise.”

The short, digestible format of the modules also met learners’ other major demand: education that wouldn’t disrupt their lives. The quick and easy format means that Bytes can even compete with ‘boredom windows’ (the time spent waiting in line, on public transit, or other small breaks) that advertising and social media platforms are designed to take advantage of. Rumie’s system can even suggest new modules based on the learner’s interests, just the way streaming and shopping sites make recommendations.

Tariq’s advice for nonprofits interested in pro bono:

  • Consider going through an intermediary. Connections can sometimes come up organically through your network, but a matchmaking service could find you a qualified volunteer who’s a great fit in much less time.

“Going through Taproot saves a ton a time, in the same way that a dating site would. An intermediary creates a marketplace where you can find what you’re looking for and connect.”

  • Be very specific about what you want, and don’t be shy about it. Try not to operate from a place of having to ‘take what you can get for free.’ If you’ve found the right company or volunteer for your project, confidently ask for what you want!

“Here’s the core competency that I don’t have, that I never want to build. But somebody has that competency. That person exists in the world. Finding them is a product of being very specific about what you need, and that’s a product of finding the right fit in the first place.”

Rebuilding communities now and in the future

Even before the pandemic, 60% of adolescents worldwide faced barriers to quality education and 54% of adults didn’t have the skills training needed to adapt to a changing job market. COVID-19 has had a sweeping global impact, deepened the digital divide, and intensified the need for mobile learning that can help young people learn and adults find sustainable work. Rumie has been actively responding to the crisis—their mobile learning technology and user-centric approach to education makes them an ideal resource for rebuilding and developing equitable communities around the world.

“We’re oriented around building. We know how to build and we know that we can learning new skills as easy as social media who don’t otherwise have access to it. And of course, that starts to drive massive gains for our communities.”

Do you have professional skills you’d like to share through Rumie’s Bytes program? Learn more about getting started here. “People can do this remotely, and we need folks in the professional world because we’re looking for job-training skills!”

Interested in getting started with pro bono at your organization? Sign up on Taproot Plus to start connecting with skilled marketing, tech, and strategy volunteers.
Learn more about Pro Bono Week 2020 and sign up for the webinars that interest you now!