April 22, 2021
When our No Lost Generation Tech Summit prize winner, Asafeer Education Technologies, set out to train a cadre of authors to develop quality STEM-focused storybooks for Syrian refugees and other children in the Middle East, they lacked an essential reference point: examples of engaging children’s books in the Arabic language.
“We needed English literature books to explain the concepts to the authors we trained,” says Amro Abu-Hmaidan, founder and CEO of Asafeer, a Dubai-based EdTech company whose app by the same name offers free reading content and premium services to schools. “An example in Arabic—with a structure and plotline— at the time didn’t exist.”
Having won $100,000 from the All Children Reading Grand Challenge No Lost Generation Tech Summit (NLG) prize in 2017, Asafeer was charged with creating 100 audible, leveled and illustrated ebooks that presented engaging STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics in Arabic. Instead of seeking out a cadre of good authors to create the content, Abu-Hmaidan turned to Maria Dadouch, an author who received her degree in literature from University of California-Los Angeles. Dadouch developed a syllabus to train 24 authors—the majority of whom were women—to create the 100 storybooks for the NLG prize.
“The prize enabled us to think about the problem differently,” Abu-Hmaidan says. “Instead of just looking for good people, we created good authors.”
That decision has paid dividends over the last four years. Not only did the cadre of 24 authors create 100 quality Adventures in Science & Life ebooks in Arabic and English for free use on the Global Digital Library, but Abu-Hmaidan and Dadouch now had a reference point of quality Arabic content they could use to train more authors.
“What made that initial training successful was that we had a group of educated and committed authors who could be trained using storybooks and concepts in English,” Dadouch says. “I wouldn’t have been able to train new authors without the Arabic books created through the NLG prize.”
In 2020, with the 100 Arabic stories funded through ACR GCD now available for free across several platforms, Dadouch and Abu-Hmaidan determined they could now scale their model to reach more aspiring authors with training on creating quality children’s content in Arabic. Dadouch partnered with the Edraak Initiative, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform established by the Queen Rania Foundation, to create a course on how to write and create quality children’s storybooks in Arabic.
Since launching the course in 2020, it has engaged more than 34,500 learners, many of whom have since published books through Asafeer or other publishers. “We keep receiving thank you notes,” Dadouch says. “These authors are producing stories that are very different from what they used to be and are getting published.”
Layla Audi, who worked with Dadouch to moderate and support the course content, also developed a WhatsApp group to support learners. While the initial group started out quite large, it’s since been refined to roughly 50 students, who collectively have published more than 25 books, Audi says. “These students were so happy with the course that they wanted it to go on, so we’re continuing to support them through the WhatsApp group,” Audi says.
Abu-Hmaidan says the Edraak training has also improved Asafeer’s business. To increase interest and engagement in the course, Asafeer ran a competition to publish the best books created by authors who completed the Edraak course content, of which Asafeer published five. Now 20 months later, Abu-Hmaidan says the quality of submissions Asafeer receives from authors has improved exponentially. “We know the higher quality of submissions now is a result of the course on Edraak,” he says.
The impact of the books created by Asafeer through the NLG prize continues beyond the initial batch of books and ongoing use of them to train new authors. The books are available on the Asafeer app and the Global Digital Library (GDL), an initiative of the Global Book Alliance that offers free digital and print-ready books in more than 70 languages. Because the books are open source, other authors can translate the stories or use the beautiful images to create new content. Many of the books have already been translated into dozens of additional languages on the GDL platform.
“In Syria, books are so unaffordable; just one book costs the salary of a parent for a whole month,” Dadouch says. “I told a librarian about the Asafeer books, which she shared with the children. So many children have created videos about how much they loved the books.”
When asked whether their model could be used in other contexts or languages to train new authors, Dadouch and Abu-Hmaidan agree it can, with some conditions. For example, any effort to replicate the model would require a “connector,” or someone who understands the techniques in Western literature and can make the training interesting and applicable to the new context, Abu-Hmaidan says.
Another challenge is creating not only good stories, but procuring good illustrations, Abu-Hmaidan says. Still, that is becoming less of a challenge with good artists being available for hire almost anywhere online, he adds. “One of the problems I see with the Creative Commons books available is the artwork is not always very good,” he says. “Even with a good story, it’s not going to be engaging if the artwork is not on the same level. But with the world now being so connected, that’s an easier problem to solve.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having a solid reference point of books in the local language from which to train authors is a must, Abu-Hmaidan and Dadouch agree. Even that is becoming easier, as the books created by Asafeer can be translated into any language on the GDL.
“The initial training relied so heavily on English literature that our initial group of authors had to understand English to understand the course,” Dadouch says. “That problem was solved with the Edraak training because of [ACR GCD’s investment in] the Asafeer books in Arabic. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”