Smartphone schools could help Syria’s child refugees

It’s impossible to stay in school if your family has been pushed hundreds of miles across a continent by conflict or climate change. Unicef estimates there are 30 million children worldwide who are out of school in countries affected by emergencies or conflict.

The former British prime minister Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for education, has described Syrian children as potentially “a lost generation” if action is not taken to ensure their continued schooling.

Save the Children has called on the technology industry to find solutions to child poverty and the refugee crisis – and that could mean using smartphones as an emergency learning tool. You can already find more than 80,000 education apps in Apple’s App Store, ranging from phonics to physics.

“A simple Android smartphone can become the refugee child’s classroom. Wherever they happen to be, they can be in class,” says Janae Bushman, founder of non-profit Aliim, which is currently developing a specialised education app to be launched in August. She believes smartphone-based learning can overcome problems such as a lack of classroom space, transport to schools and available teachers.

According to Aliim’s research in the field, some 68% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have at least one smartphone in their family, many of which come from developed urban centres like Beirut or Amman, where devices are widely available. For those who don’t, Aliim will accept smartphone donations.

With 80% of Aliim’s app designed to work offline, intermittent internet connectivity is not expected to be a significant problem. Moreover, it hopes inexpensive solar panels – again donated or subsidised by solar panel manufacturers – can be provided in areas where power supply is an issue.

More help is needed to get the app programme ready to launch and Aliim is seeking partnerships with technology firms as well as looking for volunteer coders, designers and mentors.

The initial focus of the app will be basic Arabic literacy, numeracy and life skills (including e-commerce entrepreneurship and English). Learning can be both online or offline, and individual or collaborative: children will be able to use it on their own with no data signal as well as in groups with a working connection to the cloud.

This summer, the organisation plans to train a team of Arabic-speaking volunteers to remotely assist children with their learning using the app, and is working to formalise some of the learning and provide certification at the end of the process.

Aimed initially at children aged 12 to 16, the scheme hopes to reach 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017 through pilot programmes in Jordan (Amman and Irbid) and Lebanon (Beirut and Sidon). To date it has been funded with a mix of public and private donations, but Bushman hopes the pilot will prove the concept and secure further funding.

“Depending on the success of the programme among Syrian refugees, we hope to take the app and contextualise it for other refugee contexts, possibly South Sudan or Uganda,” says Bushman. “Different refugee populations have different technology literacy levels. The app, along with the programme, will have to be adjusted accordingly.”

Meanwhile, NGO World Vision and the Norwegian government recently invited coders to submit ideas for a refugee education app in their EduApp4Syria competition. Funding will be given to up to two apps to be developed.

“Almost all Syrian households tend to own smartphones,” says Berger Brende, Norwegian minister of foreign affairs. “The smartphone is a crucial tool for staying in touch with friends and family and for accessing important news and information.

“We also know that Syrian parents are extremely concerned about their children’s learning and wellbeing,” he adds. “That’s why we want to develop this game-based learning tool, which can be used wherever the children are.”

The competition comes as a growing number of entrepreneurs turn their attention to developing tech solutions to meet the needs of refugees such as finding hospitals and accommodation. The finished apps are intended to help those feeling fleeing conflict, displaced in Syria itself, or resettled in other countries.

Alongside this new approach, charities continue to develop traditional education options. War Child (which is also working on an e-learning programme for a tablet app) has set up 15 early childhood development centres in Afghanistan, where 450 children aged between four and six can get basic pre-school education, a snack and the chance to socialise with other children. Other ongoing projects are in place in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.



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