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.”
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