When Varun Arora began his undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus, he had benevolent aspirations. He also believed technology could solve the world’s problems. Soon, though, he realized he was only partially correct, and that led him to the idea of OpenCurriculum, which could revolutionize K-12 education.
It’s day one of an introductory web development course at Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus (CMU-Q) in spring 2009. As class lets out, students start heading out the door, but one student, Varun Arora, lingers behind, waiting to talk to the course’s instructor, Joe Mertz. Arora can’t believe his good fortune. Mertz normally teaches courses in information systems (IS) at CMU’s Dietrich College and Heinz College in Pittsburgh, but this semester the professor is teaching in Qatar. And, by coincidence, Arora, a freshman in IS at CMU-Q, recently applied for a summer internship program that Mertz directs: Technology Consulting in the Global Community (TCinGC). The program sends students abroad to developing countries to help government ministries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) improve their strategic use of technology.
Arora wants to emphasize to Mertz his interest in the program. As a child growing up in Oman—a small country southeast of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula—Arora dreamed about breaking out of what he describes as his middle-class “bubble” in the Middle East and helping people in underprivileged areas throughout the world. An internship where he can apply technology to help people in real-world situations is exactly what he wants.
“This is ideal for me!” he exclaims to Mertz. Unfortunately, Mertz can’t share in Arora’s enthusiasm because TCinGC is intended for rising juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Although terribly disappointed, Arora doesn’t lose all hope and spends the rest of the semester “bugging” Mertz, asking him frequently for application updates and trying to convince the professor that even though he’s just a freshman, he has the technology prowess for the internship.
As the CMU-Q spring semester winds down, Arora happens to pass Mertz in the hall between classes. For once, it’s Mertz who starts the conversation.
“Have you heard of Niue?”
Arora has no clue what he’s talking about.
“Go look it up,” Mertz tells him, with a wink.
A quick search by Arora reveals that Niue is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific—just 260 square kilometers (100 square miles) with a population of less than 1,500. A developing country, it’s also the first nation in the world to give a laptop to all its students through the One Laptop Per Child program, a U.S. nonprofit initiative for students in developing nations. Suddenly, it all makes sense to Arora. He will have an internship in Niue!
That summer of 2009, Arora finds himself on the island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more than 1,000 miles from anywhere. A chunk of Niue is even a rain forest. Arora stays in a little house situated in a lush green field, waking up every day to the sound of cuckoo birds. Beyond the idyllic tropical locale, though, it’s apparent to him that Niue is a developing country with all of the associated economic and educational pitfalls. He will spend the summer internship trying to determine why the One Laptop Per Child program is failing in Niue’s schools.
Working as a student consultant with the country’s Ministry of Education, he meets with the local teachers and discovers that they aren’t bothering to use the laptops to teach because they can’t find adequate learning content. Instead, students are using the laptops for—what else—music, movies, and games. Arora asks the teachers why they don’t look online for content. They tell him that they have tried but are unable to find anything worthwhile. Their frustration reminds him of how his high school website, What’s Up ISM, ended up getting lots of traffic from people outside of his school community, from across the Middle East and Asia, who were searching for learning materials, lesson plans, exams, and other items that students or teachers had posted.
Looking into it further, Arora learns that the need for educational materials isn’t unique to Niue: K-12 education in developing countries faces a myriad of challenges, including the cost of textbooks. High prices from major publishers increase the overall cost of education, and many schools simply can’t afford to purchase textbooks for all of their students, leading to a limited number of books being distributed in classrooms, many of which are so old that they contain outdated information that isn’t even relevant to their region.
When Arora first arrived at CMU-Q as a freshman, he thought that technology was key to improving education across the globe. In fact, his application essay to Carnegie Mellon was all about One Laptop Per Child and his admiration for the program’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte. He believed that incorporating technology such as laptops into classrooms could revolutionize learning in developing countries and empower people with knowledge, which would give them a chance to escape from poverty.
After the internship ends, he returns to CMU-Q for his 2009-10 sophomore year with a fundamentally different viewpoint. He now realizes it’s not merely access to a computer that can transform learning. “Much of the world is having challenges with education not because of lack of technology, but because of the lack of high-quality learning experiences, which are facilitated by teachers and by learning materials,” he says.
He continues to wrestle with the problem he encountered in Niue—how technology can be leveraged to meet the world’s growing need for educational content. A techie at heart, he begins to see a strong parallel between computing and education. In the 1980s, the computing industry was dominated by Windows and IBM, but “open source” software helped revolutionize technology by enabling developers to access open source code and create their own applications, ultimately resulting in better and better apps. Today, it’s estimated that about 99% of the Internet runs because of open source software.
Arora wonders: What if the democratic “open source” model was applied to K-12 education, making learning materials easily accessible to every community regardless of income level, race, gender, or status in society?
He learns he’s not the only one who sees free and open education as the way of the future. In fact, an entire movement in this direction has emerged in the past decade—Open Educational Resources (OER) network. According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, OERs are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”
OERs include “full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”
OERs are precisely what were needed for laptop learning in Niue. Ironically, there are millions of OERs already floating around on the web. Arora recognizes that what’s missing is some sort of user-friendly, “go-to” hub that can catalogue all of these rogue OERs and, at the same time, enable users to remix them and share what they create. In other words, what’s missing is a community-generated and maintained “ecosystem of educational content that is usable in classrooms.”
Imagine a high-school science teacher in Niue, for example, creating a class that includes:
- learning videos about stem cells, posted by U.S. researchers
- video games that teach about bacteria and water sanitation, created by students in Indonesia
- reports showing effects of climate change specific to Niue based on the teacher’s local research.
The class’s syllabus and accompanying learning materials could then be uploaded, so the approach to the high school class could be easily shared with other teachers from around the world looking to create their own high school science classes.
Arora asks himself: “How can this become a reality?”
Then he provides his own answer: “I’m an IS student. I’ve built websites. I can build this.”
Rather than let his collegiate course load be an obstacle to creating his education platform, it inspires him. “At CMU, you are used to making things happen, not talking about things,” he says.
In 2011, when he is still an undergraduate, he writes a white paper about his idea and submits it to Education without Borders, a biennial international student conference. His paper is one of 20 selected among thousands, and Arora travels to Dubai to present it at the 2011 conference. The enthusiastic reception he receives there, as well as “the ongoing encouragement” from his Carnegie Mellon professors and colleagues, further validates his idea.
He goes on to earn his BS from CMU in 2012 and decides to continue his studies at the Pittsburgh campus, where at Heinz College he earns an MS in ISM (Information Systems Management), also in 2012. He also manages to transform his white paper into a nonprofit venture, OpenCurriculum. Arora is the founding director, developer, and designer. His friend and classmate Zeinab “Z” Mohamed (E’13) is the director of content operations. In addition, OpenCurriculum enlists the help of a community of 40-50 volunteers, gathering more than 10,000 OERs and creating more than 300 original textbook-style articles from free sources on the web, on subjects ranging from science and math to history and literature.
Last August, the website, www.theopencurriculum.org, went live and has quickly become one of the largest K-12 OER catalogues in the world. But, Arora says success won’t come until every school and teacher can easily find localized content, until every textbook is open source, and until schools can see a visible impact.
Getting the world to use OpenCurriculum’s platform means reaching out to every country “from the ground up,” traveling and meeting with schools, teachers, and organizations. OpenCurriculum is forging partnerships with literacy and advocacy organizations in India, Nepal, and South Africa who work with hundreds of low-income K-12 schools. For example, in Nepal, OpenCurriculum partners with the Rukmini Foundation, which helps girls from underprivileged backgrounds have the financial means to stay in school. OpenCurriculum has also partnered with Internet cafés so that teachers in schools without Internet access or computers can print PDFs and bring them back to their classrooms.
Although Arora says he’s just getting started, his efforts have already garnered worldwide attention.
Last fall, Arora, who calls himself a “technopreneur,” won a prestigious United Nations award. He was chosen as one of the Top 10 “Young Innovators” worldwide in recognition for his work as an entrepreneur and use of technology to change the world. He has also been named a 2011 Google Zeitgeist Young Mind, a contest that recognizes 10 young pioneers, innovators, change-makers, and leaders of tomorrow across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In addition, OpenCurriculum was one of five non-profit ventures accepted into the 2013 Points of Light Civic Accelerator, which is dedicated solely to investing in startup civic ventures. The organization provides financial support, as well as mentoring, entrepreneur education, and networking.
Since launching OpenCurriculum, Arora says he hasn’t taken a weekend off, usually working late into the night at his organization’s office, which is located just a few miles from the Pittsburgh campus. That’s convenient because his CMU academic ties aren’t quite over. He was selected to be Heinz College’s 2013-14 Anne V. Lewis (HNZ’90) and Edward J. Lewis Post-Graduate Fellow in Social Innovation. The program provides an opportunity, with financial assistance, for the fellow to build the framework, business, and strategic plans for a venture that addresses an important social problem.
And that is exactly what Arora is doing