Making a Classroom Where You Are 

How a mobile education app could help teach Syria’s refugee children how to read.

syrian child smartphone.
Around 86 percent of Syrian youth in refugee camps have access to a smartphone. Above, a boy plays on his phone inside a makeshift shelter in Beirut on July 9, 2015.

Joseph Eid/Thinkstock

Right now, 2.8 million Syrian children are missing school while the conflict in their homeland rages. Most of these kids don’t have classrooms, teachers, or textbooks. What they do have, though, is smartphones: One study found that 86 percent of Syrian youth in refugee camps have access to a smartphone.

Now, a competition is taking advantage of that unprecedented technological access. In January, Norway and a coalition of partners announced a contest to develop a smartphone-based app to help Syrian children ages 5 to 10 gain basic Arabic reading and writing skills during the refugee crisis. The contest, called EduApp4Syria, will award $1.7 million for the winning developer or team to create the project.

The idea is noble and good. But a competition this ambitious comes with a lot of challenges.

Like any educational effort, the difficulty here will be engaging kids for long enough to get them learning. In this case, that means understanding where they’re coming from. Before the conflict, Syria boasted almost universal primary school attendance and literacy rates over 90 percent. Now, thousands of kids have been separated from their families. Many are working as cheap labor jobs on farms, in cafes, and in auto repair shops, and some are still on the run. “The refugee crisis is a whole new world,” says Chris Fabian, co-founder and co-lead of the UNICEF Innovation Unit, which will be providing the project with funding and advice. “And it’s not just Syrian refugees, but also refugees from Afghanistan, Central Africa. Everyone has their own reason for fleeing from violence, but they all have the same need: to get information and to make choices in their life.”

To be useful, an app for educating Syrian children also needs to help them navigate their everyday lives. “The focus should be on building vocabulary that children would hear and use at home and in their local environment,” the competition’s rules state. People have made these kinds of apps for adult migrants before: Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, a professor of learning technology and communication in the Open University’s Institute of Education Technology, points to the example of Maseltov, an app she helped develop that was designed for use by migrants to European countries who have been in their new home for two to five years. Maseltov includes a game-based scenario in which players have to fulfill various practical tasks—like go to the bank or the doctor. The goal is for players to have fun exploring a new world, and in doing so, develop the ability to communicate and navigate their new surroundings.

Another challenge: In the absence of a formal teacher-classroom scenario, you can’t assume students have a shared framework for learning. That means the game needs to be highly engaging and intuitive on its own. One way to do this is to allow students to incorporate their environment as a resource for learning. That might mean drawing on their real-life experiences by having them take photos, video, and audio recordings to build stories. It might mean involving other people and things around you. (Maseltov, for instance, features a geosocial feature, which lets you see whether other users are nearby and can help you.) This ensures that students are “not just passive recipients—they’re actively involved in creating,” says Kukulska-Hulme, who focuses on the informal learning space. After all, “learning happens not just on a device, but in a space or an environment.”

Interested in applying? Here’s the deal: First, you’ll need to submit a simple prototype demonstrating the main gameplay. (It can be Web-based, Android, or iOS.) Attach some documents, in English or Arabic, explaining how your game works at a technical level, who’s on your team, and your plan for executing it should you win. Finally, include a YouTube video explaining the main concept of the game. A couple of key things: Because Internet access can be spotty, you should design your game so that users can download it for offline use. Moreover, your code will be released under Creative Common Attribution. It’s key to make the competition open-source so that future applications can build on what you’ve created—rather than reinventing the wheel, says Fabian. Proposals are due by April 1, and the winning projects will be selected by an independent jury of game-based learning experts.

But this app is supposed to do more than just develop literacy skills. Most of these kids are coming from places of emotional and physical displacement; many are severely traumatized. As such, they’re particularly at risk of isolating themselves or detaching socially. Recognizing this, the competition states that the winning app should also “improve psychosocial well-being for Syrian refugee children aged five to 10.”

That sounds like a big ask. But the way to go about it, many learning experts say, is simple: Make it a game. Make it fun. In fact, the contest rules recommend that the winning app take the form of “an immersive and engaging game.” According to the User Experience Requirements, “The user should feel emotionally and viscerally involved in the game” and “The user should become less worried about everyday life or self while playing the game.” Kyle Tomson, president and founder of the Mobile Education Store, puts it this way: “The first step in helping kids get past these deficits is creating something that they want to play with. Because if you don’t have that, then you’re never going to engage them.”

Tomson should know. His first two apps—SentenceBuilder and StoryBuilder—are some of the best-selling reading apps in the iTunes store, with more than 500,000 combined paid downloads from around the world.

In 2009, Tomson created an educational app for his autistic daughter Caitlyn. SentenceBuilder was meant to help Caitlyn, who had severe language learning deficits, gain a better understanding of language, grammar, and sentence structure. After Tomson put it on iTunes for $5.99, it sold well—and it wasn’t just parents and teachers of autistic kids who were buying it. Some used it in Asia to teach English as a second language. One teacher emailed him from Australia to say she had been using his app with students who had been orphaned by the series of devastating brushfires that struck the country in 2009–10. “StoryBuilder app was the only tool teachers had any success with getting these kids to come out of their shell and rejoin the human race,” says Tomson.

The key to Tomson’s apps was that they gave players the building blocks to create their own story. In StoryBuilder, for instance, the user is presented with a cartoon picture (screenshot below). Then she is told to explain what’s going on in the image. As she imagines the story behind the picture, she records herself talking, sentence by sentence, and the app stitches those sentences together into a narrative. The players can then share their story with teachers, parents, and other kids.

Screenshot via Storybuilder.


While the app may be new, the idea of empowering kids by having them use their lived experience as their creative material is not. Northwest of Prague lies a concentration camp that is known, strangely enough, for its art. Today a haunting exhibit of drawings documents the daily lives the nearly 600 children who were imprisoned at Terezin, and who passed the time taking lessons under the tutelage of art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. Dicker-Brandeis had her students draw scenes not only from their lived experience at the camp, but also from their imaginations, channeling their hopes for freedom and return along with fears of Nazi retribution. These classes functioned as art therapy: The goal was to use creative expression to “unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure,” as she explained in a 1943 lecture on her teaching methods.

Back in the 21st century, the challenge at the heart of this competition is that we’re dealing with a diverse population of children who are displaced across so many regions. But that might also be its strength. After all, what these children share, ultimately, is the experience of displacement. An app that allows them to tell their own stories in their own words—like Storybuilder, like the art at Terezin—could similarly help them regain a sense of control over their narrative. Being able to document their stories could help them process their experience and acclimate to their new surroundings; being able to share them could help foster community and social bonds.

Whatever proposal is selected should be thoroughly tested by potential end-users, says Fabian, who previously helped to develop a tablet-based app to educate children in rural areas of Sudan. Because while an app to help kids learn both literacy and social skills sounds great, it won’t be much use if the students themselves don’t like it.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.