Cellphones, Apps Power Learning for Syrian Refugees

By Sarah Schwartz — September 05, 2017 8 min read
Syrian refugee children Shahed Qassab, 6, left, Asem Qassab, 6, holding cellphone, Abdul-Razzag Hindawi, 8, and Haneen Tareef, 6, use an educational app to play learning games at a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan.
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Last spring, in a weathered trailer in Bar Elias, Lebanon within walking distance from the nearby refugee camps, Syrian teenagers were hard at work at Arabic, math, science, and English lessons.

For many of the students in the makeshift schoolhouse, refugees who have fled war and violence in their home country, it was the first time they had sat in a classroom in years.

From October through June, following the schedule of the Lebanese public school system, the teenagers gather in an unofficial school for Syrian youth in the Bekaa Valley, one of a group of enrichment centers run by a local nonprofit in a region crowded with refugee settlements. The organization is leading one of many efforts to provide education to Syrian refugees, through a mix of in-person instruction and low-lift technology.

The Syrian civil war has upended the education of hundreds of thousands of students since 2011. UNICEF estimates that in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, over half a million Syrian youth are out of school. That amounts to over 30 percent of the Syrian school-age population in those countries.

Though countries in the region have made changes to their formal education systems to accommodate refugee students, barriers to enrollment and participation persist. Entrance exams and documentation requirements for registration keep Syrian students out, and schools are facing teacher shortages with the influx of new pupils.

“This is an unprecedented number of children that we’re trying to reach in enormous complexity,” said Katy Barnett, the UNICEF advisor to No Lost Generation, a partnership among NGOs, the United Nations, and national agencies to support children affected by the Syrian conflict.

The Promise of Tech

Technology and education companies—including Coursera, Google, Microsoft, and Pearson—have also stepped in to help, providing digital and online instruction to students who have limited or no access to the formal education system.

The stakes are high for students, said Doha Adi, the programs and media officer for Sawa for Development and Aid, the organization that runs schools out of trailers in the Bekaa Valley. Sawa aims to academically prepare refugee students to enter the Lebanese school system.

“We realize how important it is to educate this upcoming generation, because at some point, hopefully soon, they’re going to return to Syria, and they’re going to build this new Syria,” Adi said.

United Nations agencies have facilitated ed-tech access for students in refugee camps around the world over the past decade, but the Syrian conflict has drawn an especially high level of involvement from private organizations and companies.

Recent research from the University of Massachusetts Boston documented this surge in private sector education aid for the Syrian crisis, and noted its tech bent: The researchers found that 49 percent of all projects focused on developing or distributing technology.

Part of the surge in involvement by tech companies can be attributed to the availability of reliable communication devices. Most Syrian refugee families have cellphones, which they have used to stay in touch with family and friends, navigate migration routes, and appeal for asylum. Access to phones makes the possibility of mobile education and e-learning “a lot broader” than in other recent refugee situations, said Barnett. “It means tech is a lot more relevant.”

There are also efforts to wire hard-to-reach areas—NetHope, a company that implements network connectivity projects in developing countries, worked with aid organizations and IT companies to install WiFi hotspots in refugee camps in Greece and along migration routes.

Initiatives like these don’t yet have universal reach, and WiFi and mobile data can be hard to come by in refugee settlements, including in the Bekaa Valley.

Sawa has a technology class, where students have built and flown model helicopters. But basic education services—not access to online learning—is Sawa’s most pressing priority, said Adi. The Bekaa Valley is home to thousands more refugees than schools and nonprofits can support, she said, and Sawa often has to convince families to send their kids to school, rather than to work.

“When all of these children are receiving education,” said Adi, “then we can think about technology.”

But a mobile app or online learning tool isn’t meant to replace a teacher, said Helen Crompton, an assistant professor of instructional technology at Old Dominion University who conducted research on educational options for out-of-school Syrian students in Jordan. An app “provides something, where they might have nothing,” she said.

Some apps are designed with connectivity limitations in mind.

EduApp4Syria, an app design competition run by a partnership between the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, UNICEF, mobile provider Orange, and other national agencies, supported the creation of the two winning learning apps earlier this year. “Feed the Monster” and “Antura and the Letters” aim to teach Arabic literacy, providing an educational foundation for young students.

The apps have low data requirements and are compatible with the older, Android devices refugees are likely to have, said Alf-Inge Wang, a professor in game-based learning at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and head of the jury for the EduApp4Syria competition.

A young girl walks to school in early August at the Zaatari Refugee Camp for Syrians in northern Jordan. Mobile technologies are helping put educational content in the hands of refugee students.

A Teacher’s Responsibility

One educator at Sawa encourages students to turn to these kinds of resources. Nidal Alsaadi, an education officer for the organization, wants his students to exploit every avenue possible for education—including enlisting their smartphones. There’s a wealth of material available across all subjects, he said. “In math, physics, everything.”

Alsaadi, like his students, is a Syrian refugee. He worked as a teacher for 17 years before he fled his home country with his family in 2014, he said. He felt it was his responsibility to help teach refugee students in Lebanon. “It’s my duty to do something for the people of Syria, my people,” he said.

Like American kids their age, Alsaadi’s students at Sawa are pros at downloading games and navigating apps. Alsaadi collects recommendations from students—educational YouTube videos, or a program that teaches English prepositions—and introduces good finds to the rest of the class.

For older students, some tech initiatives focus beyond foundational academic skills to job training, attempting to prepare youth for the workforce.

Microsoft Philanthropies, one of the major players in Syrian education relief, has focused most of its efforts on digital skills and employability programming, said Jane Meseck, the senior director of global programs for the organization.

Historically, out-of-school time youth programming has been a focus for Microsoft’s philanthropic work, said Meseck. “So when it comes to the refugee situation, we applied some of that same approach and learning.”

Microsoft has donated $30 million in software to local community organizations and international NGOs and developed a free, downloadable digital skills curriculum for refugee children. They’ve also helped develop and build train-the-trainer programs.

For tech and education companies making large philanthropic contributions, education aid poses not only an opportunity to contribute to an area of great need, but also, a chance to demonstrate the global relevance of their products and programming. Coursera has offered free access to courses for refugees, while Google has funded the donation of 25,000 Chromebooks to refugee students in Germany.

Even with this groundswell in donations of software and services, many refugee students in Lebanon don’t have access to programs like Microsoft’s or the hardware to use them.

“We need to meet students where they are: on the phones. Where they already are playing and communicating,” said Kathy Benemann, the CEO and founder of Kiyo Inc., an education consulting company. Benemann serves as the education growth manager for Project Amal ou Salam, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting displaced Syrian children.

Apps with strong academic content and low data requirements are the ideal, said Benemann. But even when they exist, she said, it can be hard to connect students with them.

The problem, said Benemann, “is not so much quality of ed tech. It’s uptake; it’s adoption.”

‘Building the Human Being’

Trying to find helpful resources can be like “trying to quench thirst with drinking through a fire hydrant,” said Crompton. In her research, no one platform emerged as a favorite among the students. “People just use what there is, what they find,” she said. And though mobile technology is sustainable and accessible for refugees, there’s limited information about how tech access will affect educational outcomes, if at all, said Mary Mendenhall, an assistant professor of practice in the International and Comparative Education Program at Teachers College.

There’s some evidence that game-based programs could be helpful tools. A recent New York University study found that digital games can effectively teach Syrian refugee youth cognitive skills, coding, and new languages, while also improving their mental health.

But overall, the field is so new that “there really just hasn’t been enough time to digest what everybody’s learning and to share that more broadly,” said Mendenhall.

For now, the students at Sawa complete most of their work with pencil and paper, said Alsaadi. Sometimes, in academic classes like math or science, teachers use a laptop or projector to show videos. In general, the school is short on hardware.

And not all lessons have an academic focus. Students play sports, draw and make artwork, and take music class, where they sing traditional Syrian songs.

Sawa faces a steep challenge—making refugee students feel supported and comfortable, while preparing them to enter a school system and a culture that is foreign to them. Technology use, said Alsaadi, can only have a limited role. “You are working on building the human being.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2017 edition of Education Week as Mobile Devices Put Education in Hands of Syrian Refugees


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