Downloadable Mobile Games Offer Hope for Out-of-School Syrian Children to Gain Literacy Skills

Syrian refugee child playing winning EduApp4Syria game, Antura and the Letters, with her grandmother. Photo Credit: Norad.

With the seven-year-old Syrian conflict showing no signs of resolution, millions of affected children are at grave risk of becoming a “lost generation.” After long periods out-of-school during their formative years, many are facing a lifetime of significant societal challenges due to their lack of basic literacy skills, while also struggling with the long-term effects of trauma and chronic stress. Without intervention, they face a future burdened by limited education, leading to social and economic difficulties which will further destabilize a region already ravaged by years of conflict.

In a perfect world, each affected child could eventually return to his or her school to receive high-quality instruction, but this scenario strains credulity. There are simply too many complex factors at play. However, an emerging technology solution may be able to play a role in advancing literacy and increasing psychosocial wellbeing among these children.

In March 2017, the EduApp4Syria competition partners, including All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), unveiled two mobile games – Antura and the Letters and Feed the Monster – designed to increase access to literacy programming for the 2.3 million Syrian children displaced by the conflict. The open source games were designed not just to improve basic Arabic literacy among users, but also children’s psychosocial wellbeing. With high rates of smartphone usage among refugee families, all that is required to download the free games is a wi-fi connection, at which point children would have unlimited, offline access to the instruction provided through the apps.

Syrian refugee child playing winning EduApp4Syria game, Feed the Monster. Photo Credit: Norad.

In the year since the EduApp4Syria games were released, they have been installed on an estimated 80,000 mobile devices and have garnered consistently positive reviews. But, to truly measure whether they were achieving their goals to advance basic literacy outcomes and psychosocial wellbeing, a rigorous evaluation was needed. For that reason, ACR GCD, Digital Learning for Development, together with UNICEF Office of Innovation, funded and coordinated impact evaluations of each game, the results of which were released earlier this month.

Employing a longitudinal, quasi-experimental design, the evaluations compared growth in literacy and psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for children using the apps, all 900 of whom were living in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, to children who did not use the apps. Despite challenges related to retention and dosage in the control and treatment groups (a direct result of the itinerant nature of life in a refugee camp), positive findings for literacy and psychosocial wellbeing for both games provided proof of concept for using smartphone apps to teach foundational literacy skills to refugees and other children who do not have access to effective instruction. This is a significant breakthrough in the edtech field, proving for the first time that within this context, meaningful progress is possible in as little as 22 hours.

While there is little doubt that full-time access to high-quality instruction in a classroom setting provides holistic benefits that are difficult to achieve through a mobile game, the low barrier to entry and limited dosage necessary from mobile games ensures that children who would otherwise be disconnected from any instruction are making progress. And in the midst of a conflict like the Syrian war, some progress now may be the difference between a lost generation and one that is able to achieve education gains despite the losses incurred during the conflict.  

To download Antura and the Letters and Feed the Monster, each of which has been updated based on evaluation findings, please visit Google Play and the App Store. Both games are open source and available for translation for use in other contexts.

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