Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 8
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS > TRACKING NEWS AND IDEAS IN EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
Mobile Devices Put Education in Hands of Syrian Refugees
Cellphones and apps
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
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
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
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
By Sarah Schwartz
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.
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
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
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 sup-
8 | EDUCATION WEEK | September 6, 2017 | www.edweek.org
port, 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 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
For older students, some tech initiatives focus beyond foundational
academic skills to job training, attempting to prepare youth for the
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
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
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
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
There's some evidence that gamebased 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."
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 6, 2017
Education Week - September 6, 2017
Teachers Carve Out a Place in the Curriculum For LGBT History
Learning to Teach Via Virtual Reality
Rule Targets District Bias In Spec. Ed.
Hurricane Takes Heavy Toll on Schools
News in Brief
State Educational-Leadership Initiatives In Budget ‘Pickle’
New Tool Alerts Teachers When Students Give Up on Test
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Mobile Devices Put Education In Hands of Syrian Refugees
LGBT Curricula Spreads Slowly
Tweaking School Turnarounds
After Fierce Fight, Illinois Enacts Tax-Credit Scholarship Program
President’s Youngest Son Joins Back-to-School Crowd
Sarah M. Stitzlein: How to Define Public Schooling in the Age of Choice?
Q&A With Jack Schneider: What Makes a School Good? It’s More Than Test Scores
READERS REACT: Have SAT Accommodations Really Gone Too Far?
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Chris Elmendorf & Darien Shanske: We Need Better Education Data
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - Hurricane Takes Heavy Toll on Schools
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 2
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 3
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - News in Brief
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 5
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - State Educational-Leadership Initiatives In Budget ‘Pickle’
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - New Tool Alerts Teachers When Students Give Up on Test
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Mobile Devices Put Education In Hands of Syrian Refugees
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 9
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 10
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 11
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 12
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 13
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - LGBT Curricula Spreads Slowly
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 15
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - After Fierce Fight, Illinois Enacts Tax-Credit Scholarship Program
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - President’s Youngest Son Joins Back-to-School Crowd
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - Sarah M. Stitzlein: How to Define Public Schooling in the Age of Choice?
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - Q&A With Jack Schneider: What Makes a School Good? It’s More Than Test Scores
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - Letters
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 21
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - 23
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - Chris Elmendorf & Darien Shanske: We Need Better Education Data
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - CW1
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - CW2
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - CW3
Education Week - September 6, 2017 - CW4