How Mobile Games Can Advance Universal Education for Refugee Children

This World Refugee Day, mobile technologies are filling educational gaps for millions of out-of-school Syrian children.  

Child playing Antura and the Letters with her grandmother.

A refugee child and her grandmother play Antura and the Letters game, sourced through the EduApp4Syria prize competition. Photo credit: Norad.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a manifesto created following the devastation of World War II that defined basic protections for all individuals and affirmed the dignity and worth of Humankind.

Among the most fundamental rights enshrined in the declaration was Article 26, which states that everyone has the right to education, that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that parents have the right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Despite the lofty ideals espoused in the declaration, its universal implementation has remained elusive at best. For example, years of conflicts in the Middle East have hampered progress toward universal access to education in recent years, as the largest refugee crisis since WWII has uprooted millions of lives and plunged entire regions into crisis.

As a result, more than 3.5 million refugee children were unable to attend even one day of school in 2016. Over time, this places an entire generation at risk. Research also shows how the lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills among young people significantly increases the likelihood of societal instability—both regionally and around the world.

These statistics could induce concern for the future of the Middle East, but there are reasons for hope. Among them is the exciting potential of commonly available technologies to address the challenge. The advent of mobile smartphones, now nearly ubiquitous around the world, often provide an ideal vehicle to deliver education to those who cannot attend school. This is best illustrated by the EduApp4Syria competition, which resulted in the development of two mobile games – Antura and the Letters and Feed the Monster – designed to build foundational Arabic literacy among the 2.3 million Syrian children displaced by conflict while also improving their psychosocial wellbeing.

Since their release in March 2017, the games have been installed on more than 150,000 devices, and a rigorous evaluation indicates the games’ effectiveness in improving literacy and psychosocial wellbeing among users. Although nothing can replace the benefits of in-person instruction with teachers and collaboration with peers, a goal we should continue to strive for, games like Antura and the Letters and Feed the Monster ensure that children who would otherwise be disconnected from any instruction at all can make progress.

These games offer solid proof of concept for using smartphone applications to teach foundational literacy skills to refugees and other children who do not have access to effective instruction. Even better, because of their open-source technology, they can be easily adapted to many languages to help the next wave of refugee children, regardless of where they live or language they speak. This model is being validated by Curious Learning, which has already adapted Feed the Monster into 30 additional languages with plans and funding to do more.

Today, on World Refugee Day, every government, NGO, and stakeholder in the future of education should consider creative solutions like the EduApp4Syria games to ensure children and their families in crisis can continue access to education. Perhaps through the power of emerging technologies, we may one day be able to realize the true spirit and intent of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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