“We turn discarded laptops into learning devices for refugee and vulnerable children”

In the latest of our Spotlight On series, we talk to Rudayna Abdo - founder of Lebanese organisation Thaki, which Theirworld is supporting to deliver digital skills.

Millions of refugee and displaced children do not have access to quality education. A project supported by Theirworld is helping to change that in Lebanon.

The organisation Thaki – which means smart in Arabic – collects used laptops and loads them with educational software and content available offline. The Theirworld project involved setting up computer labs in five schools, training teachers to use the devices and improve the digital skills of 2,000 children aged five to 18.

In the latest of our Spotlight On series, we talk to Rudayna Abdo, a daughter of Palestinian refugees who founded Thaki eight years ago after a previous career in urban planning.

What is the current situation for the children and young people you work with in Lebanon? 

The living situation of the children we work with is dire. Resources are scarce, education often inaccessible and opportunities non-existent. My family has known the trauma of war and dislocation. I fled Lebanon with my family during the civil war when I was a child. But we were fortunate to be able to rebuild our lives thanks to opportunities provided through education.

These opportunities didn’t extend to many others who met a similar fate as ours and don’t exist for thousands of the children with whom we work in Lebanon today.

Why did you decide to start an organisation that upcycles technology to reuse in classrooms?

In 2015 we were in Abu Dhabi. My husband and I were lucky enough to be able to provide a comfortable life for our young children and I could see how they were learning through technology. At the same time, I could see there were so many unused electronic devices all around us that were perfectly good but discarded or unused, adding to the toxicity of landfills.

Being one who really doesn’t react well to waste (be it food, water or resources), and feeling the global refugee crisis very heavily in my heart, I felt I had to do something and got inspired with the idea to start Thaki.

What we do at Thaki is collect used yet functional laptops, then load them with a wealth of learning content and skills-building software that is accessed through an offline bilingual (Arabic-English) user interface developed by us. We establish computer labs in schools and learning centres that cater specifically to refugee and vulnerable children. The learning content is both open source and donated to us by leading ed-tech content experts.

Why is it so important to integrate technology into classrooms?

I believe that digital literacy and education are human rights. In the world today, if children do not have the opportunity to gain digital skills, they will be eliminated from modern work opportunities and will not stand a fair chance of getting out of poverty. This ever-widening and unjust rift will marginalise them even further. Through Thaki, we try to bridge this digital divide.

How do the learners you work with benefit from having access to technology?

Integrating technology into the classroom allows children to learn valuable skills at their own pace and in a more engaging and enriching fashion. It helps them follow their curiosity and stay motivated.

Technology helps teachers convey concepts and open up new worlds to the children. I see this over and over in our partner schools just as I see it with my own children. What we’re doing at Thaki is giving marginalised children a fair chance of reaching their potential. In fact, the tagline of Thaki is “Unlock Their Potential”.

Our more than 25,000 learners often live in places where there is either no internet or internet is too weak or expensive to allow them to stream online educational content. Our offline solution helps overcome this problem in a massive way.

They get to learn how to use technology, learn essential skills like word processing, graphics, building presentations and coding while accessing a library of beautiful, curated, interactive and engaging content that feels like a web experience.

We also observed that teachers often don’t have the comfort with technology, so we developed a self-guided digital learning platform to help them gain and apply digital skills in the classroom. We have put this innovation along with a new social-emotional learning program, Nour (co-developed by the Dutch organisation TNO), to make our solution responsive, holistic and sustainable.

What are your hopes for the future of Thaki?

My first hope is that our current solution of offline learning will no longer be needed because everyone will have equitable and affordable access to the internet. Sadly, this reality seems even more distant today than when I started Thaki.

My hope is that we become more successful at getting corporations around the world to donate their lightly-used laptops and digital devices to us rather than downstreaming them for marginal profit or to recyclers (anyone reading this whose company can donate used laptops please visit our website and discover how to donate in a few easy steps).

My hope is that our model is contextualised and replicated across the globe to bring equity in access to those being pushed further to the margins. My hope is that we continue to question the ethics of technology and have the wisdom and courage to change course when yesterday’s solutions no longer fit today’s circumstance.

My hope is that Thaki remains a nimble and thoughtful leader in the equitable digital literacy space.

What keeps you motivated when challenges seem too large to overcome?

This sounds clichéd but when I go into the field I’m reminded that without the continued intervention of Thaki and its network of partners to support these children, they would be on their own, having to fend for themselves and having their hopes for the future stripped away through no fault of their own. And this is wrong and unjust.

I get inspired and energised when I go into the schools and observe teachers doing their utmost with the tools provided by Thaki, and the children just being children – interacting, playing, questioning as they should.

This is what keeps me going and what is truly humbling and heart-expanding. At these times I am reminded that I have the best job in the world.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned outside the classroom?

Whenever I get an emotional reaction to something, I should stop and pay attention to what’s happening at that moment because there is an important message or lesson in it for me that may well change my course in an unanticipated way. I’ve learned to listen to my instinct rather than to silence it with my rational mind.