After six years of civil war, an estimated two-thirds of Syrian children have either lost a loved one, had their house or school bombed, or been injured as a result of the conflict, leaving millions in a state of “toxic stress,” according to a recent report by Save the Children. Left unchecked, toxic stress disrupts healthy development, increases the risk of mental health disorder in adulthood, and impedes learning.
Compounding this trauma is a lack of educational opportunity, and the social experiences that accompany it. In January 2016, recognizing the scarcity of literacy programs for the estimated 2.5 million displaced Syrian children whose education has been disrupted by years of conflict, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development joined a Norway-led coalition to launch the EduApp4Syria competition.
Challenging game developers to support literacy
The competition challenged game developers to create open-source smartphone applications designed to build foundational literacy skills in Arabic and improve psychosocial well-being for out-of-school Syrian refugee children aged five to 10. This competition resulted in 78 entries from around the world, which were then evaluated by a jury of experts in game-based learning, literacy, psychosocial well-being, Syrian culture and Arabic language, and tested with Syrian children.
Last week, at the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week conference in Paris, two open source Arabic literacy learning games were announced as winners of the innovation competition. The announcement preceded the worldwide release of the games — Antura and the Letters and Feed the Monster — which are now available for free download through Google Play and the App Store.
EduApp4Syria sought highly engaging and user-friendly applications, so that young learners would stay focused and have a fun, positive and motivating experience playing the games with minimal adult supervision.
The challenge required a broad spectrum of expertise within the competing teams, including pedagogical, psychological and Arabic language expertise, as well as game development, publishing and marketing. Consequently, both winning games are a result of collaboration between several institutions.
Apps that support engaging learning experiences
Antura and the Letters, developed by a consortium led by Cologne Game Lab, is a playful smartphone game that seamlessly mixes the best entertainment technology with practical Arabic educational content to deliver an engaging learning experience. It includes 25 mini games—plus assessments—making it possible to expand, reduce or change modules depending on factors such as budget, language, and context. The didactic concept embraces game design principles such as stealth learning, flow, and psychological player-modelling; it mixes vocabulary lessons with funny interactions with a dog named Antura.
Feed the Monster, developed by a consortium led by Apps Factory, is an innovative smartphone puzzle game that helps children learn and practice the key first stages of reading in Arabic. Kids choose their pet monster and help the monster grow by feeding it whatever letter or word it wants. The monster shows a letter or shouts it, so children can practice matching letters and words to sounds, helping them to gain knowledge and develop speed and accuracy.
Learning despite stress and trauma
The competition took advantage of the high availability of smartphones among war-affected Syrian families. — As many as 86 percent of Syrian children in refugee camps have access to smartphones and downloadable games can potentially reach millions of out-of-school children.
The engagement and motivation features embedded in the EduApp4Syria winning games are designed to help children learn despite being negatively affected by high stress and trauma. The social emotional learning (SEL) skills are the interpersonal, emotional, and cognitive skills that help children succeed in life. They help children process information without becoming distracted, use their working memory, control their impulses and emotions, persevere, solve problems, and get along with others.
Beyond the initial objective of improved literacy and psychosocial wellbeing among Syrian children, the hope is that this competition can serve an even broader humanitarian purpose. The EduApp4Syria competition partners are working to build outreach alliances with a range of mobile operators and humanitarian organizations with the aim of facilitating easy discovery and download of the games for as many children as possible. Because the games have open source licenses, they are designed to be easily adapted for other languages and different groups.
No time to wait for the end of conflict
As the conflict in Syria, and other places around the world continues, we can no longer afford to let millions of families wait for a resolution. Instead, we must develop new, innovative solutions to help prevent the stalling and reversal of education and literacy gains among displaced populations in affected regions.
Without literacy, children grow up with limited economic opportunities – the hallmark of unstable societies. Fortunately, technology is empowering great progress in reaching children across the globe with literacy resources.
In our experience, innovation is most easily accomplished through collaboration, and EduApp4Syria is a great example of a partnership that leverages the unique expertise of numerous stakeholders to reach a common goal.
Project partners include the Norwegian government, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, the mobile network operator Orange, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE).
All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, established in 2011 as a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government, is an ongoing series of grant and prize competitions that leverages science and technology to source, test, and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries.