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Story | Education
16 January 2019

The story behind Taleemabad: a virtual 'Education City’ for refugees in Pakistan


Haroon Yasin, co-founder and CEO of Orenda, on how he and his team developed a virtual Education City in Pakistan.

My classmate, Ahwaz Akhtar, and I were consumed by one simple question: how could we use our education to benefit people back home?

As a student, Pakistan was never far from my mind. While studying at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), I was always aware of how fortunate I was to receive a world-class education. Before coming to Qatar, I had worked to set up a school in a slum in Islamabad, where over 70 children studied free of cost. On our visits back home, we were constantly reminded of how the education system seemed skewed to favor the privileged.

It was not unusual to meet children as young as four who had faced classroom demolitions and natural disasters. Many of these children had already seen their lives turn upside down upon arriving in the country either as refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, or as internally displaced people (IDPs) from across Pakistan. All too often, these kids were left begging in the streets or doing odd jobs instead of getting an education.

Ahwaz and I began to wonder: what if these children could receive a world-class education like ours? What if we could prevent them from falling behind? What could we do to put them at the cutting edge?

Failing better

Our journey toward resolving those questions started with the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), a global initiative of QF aimed at transforming education through innovation. We were selected to participate in the WISE Learners’ Voice program, a year-long fellowship which empowers young people with the skills, knowledge, and inspiration needed to make a difference in our communities. The program set us on a course to turn our ideas into something tangible.

My co-founder, Ahwaz Akhtar, and I along with our growing Orenda Project team

With the help of enthusiastic colleagues and mentors such as Dr Thomas Cassidy, we began sketching our initial ideas. The first iteration of our project was based on creating ultra-low-cost schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan using shipping containers. After doing much of the leg work required, our initiative seemed to collapse even before it started when we discovered that local authorities planned to demolish slums and forcibly remove refugees in the areas where we wanted to work. We had to think on our feet and adapt to the quickly changing circumstances. Our resolve to offer solutions helped bring Orenda to life.

The imaginary world we created was dubbed ‘Taleemabad,’ which is Urdu for ‘Education City.’ The amazing thing is that anyone can be a part of it; it is a revolution that excludes no one.

The key insight we had was that, in areas where we worked, there was a proliferation of affordable internet service and smart devices like cell phones, even among the poorest families. Could this be the answer to our education delivery challenge?

After running co-creation sessions with local communities, and testing our idea to use digital content and smart devices to reach students, it was time for us to embrace the digital revolution.

Creating ‘Taleemabad’

Once it became clear that our future lied in the digital realm, we got to work. After raising money through small grants and crowdfunding, we worked tirelessly for months, hand-in-hand with our target communities, to develop highly engaging and addictive educational content for children. The result was an award-winning curriculum taught through cartoons, reinforced by play-based learning, and tested by continuous assessments. The imaginary world we created was dubbed ‘Taleemabad,’ which is Urdu for ‘Education City’. The amazing thing is that anyone can be a part of it; it is a revolution that excludes no one.

This curriculum is now hosted online in the form of the Taleemabad Learning App, from where it can either be downloaded or streamed online. This enables us to sidestep the need for physical brick-and-mortar schools in situations where they cannot be built, allowing us to spread education in a flexible and inexpensive manner. As of now, it costs us just PKR 5 ($0.04) to reach a child anywhere in Pakistan, with a comprehensive curriculum that can help them achieve numeracy and literacy.

More importantly, our platform is meticulously driven by data. We assess each student and tailor the curriculum according to their strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, their interests. In the future, using content usage insights from more than 100,000 users, we will start to build our episodes using data; a Netflix model, except for educational content. Meanwhile, the data from student assessments will be used to modify the app behavior, leading to a unique experience for every child. Those who struggle will be given extra attention, while those experiencing learning gains superior to their grade level will be allowed to surge ahead.

Growing ambitions

The initial results of our program have been impressive. We have seen a slow-down in drop-out rates, raised attendance, and improved performance. But this is just the beginning. As technology becomes more and more prevalent, we aim to bring the school to the children, as opposed to the children to the school. Our app has currently been used by over 60,000 children all across Pakistan, and we are aiming to get it to one million children by the end of 2019.

In the future, using content usage insights from more than 100,000 users, we will start to build our episodes using data; a Netflix model, except for educational content.

Recognizing the significance of our mission, we now received support from the Government of Pakistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to further spread our educational model there. It is our hope that our idea — born in Qatar and achieving impact in Pakistan — will become something that the next generation can say: “This is ours.”

During our time in Education City, we benefited from an academic environment where financial and social barriers were cast aside, to create opportunities for everyone. Similarly, at Orenda, we aim to empower those on the fringes. As the Taleemabad platform grows, our ambition is that it reaches every single child on the planet one day, improving lives with access to the highest quality of education available. Our hope is that like minded partners and supporters come join us in this long and arduous journey to spread the light of education to all corners of the world.

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