Jamiya VocApp: (Empower) Hacking Refugee Language Learning in Amsterdam

Ben Webster
Apr 29, 2016 · 5 min read
Mapping out functions for the Jamiya VocApp: a good reflection of the creative chaos of the weekend

As well as our core project working with universities to provide free online accredited courses taught by Syrian academics, Jamiya also has a number of smaller side projects. We spent last weekend in Amsterdam working with great Empower Hack team (thanks Han and Kimi!) on a hackathon to design a solution to support technical language learning for refugees attending European universities. Although there was some heavy lifting done in explaining concepts, directing the work and providing background — and at times it felt like chaos — it was definitely worth it: we ended up with a great prototype interface to start testing.

The problem: gaining academic and technical language fluency

Although some will already be fluent, many may have only just met the minimum language requirements to access their course. As such, students face a triple set of challenges in their first year: gaining fluency in a second language; learning the content of the course they’re studying; and finally, learning the technical vocabulary of the course and how to use it.

Many universities will already offer writing skills in the native language, guides on how to study or additional language courses for students.

But refugees and students Jamiya has spoken to have commented that they face a struggle with the technical vocab for the first 6 months of their course - “it’s great to reach B2 fluency in English, but the technical and academic vocabulary in reading and lectures leaves us struggling for the first part of our course”.

Language was identified by an EU commission study (Cremonini, 2014) as one of the most important barriers causing interruption in tertiary (and secondary) education of young Syrian refugees. This, along with the additional pressures that a refugee will face (sustaining income whilst studying, social integration, overcoming any psycho-social issues resulting from conflict), make any additional support to help students catch up crucial to ensuring they stay on their course and integrate fully.

In our conversations with Syrian academics for the Jamiya Project, we’ve found that professors would often guide students through the vocabulary and jargon (often in English) of the technical subjects they were learning. The question is, how can this be replicated with both students and academics displaced to many different countries?

Understanding the user and their challenges

Meeting user needs

An app suitable for an android device was a suitable place to start for three reasons: firstly, the ubiquity of the technology, particularly among young refugees; secondly, it is easy to bring to lots of education scenarios (classroom, library, lecture…. or even on the metro!); thirdly, such a device can handle very interactive software.

Brainstorming with participants (including a number of refugees in the room), we mapped out what the needs and particular challenges were given the situation. Issues such as existing lack of confidence in the language of

Beyond the dictionary

Drawing out elements of the solution

Our design challenge, both in software and functionality, was to come up with a design that went beyond the dictionary i.e. a simple reference and translation function.

The dictionary (or online equivalent) is the current tool for students. But this doesn’t provide a suitably ergonomic solution given the other pressures facing refugees. It is also responds to only one learning challenge in a single way: ‘I don’t know a word and need a referenced translation’

Jamiya VocApp

Mock-up interface for the Jamiya VocApp

1.‘Search Academic Concepts’ — a reference tool, imitating a dictionary function, but focussed on the academic vocabularly required for a new student (e.g. on 1st year of Computer Engineering course) providing definition and explanation of how to use contributed by an academic professor in Arabic and English - and linked to other more interactive elements, such as community comments

Concepts explanation in Arabic with immediate feedback on the usefulness of explanations

2.‘Connect with Community’ — this provides peer-to-peer support with other Syrian , allowing students to raise common issues as part of a forum, also contributed to by bilingual Syrian academics to provide guidance and mentorship.

Peer community with up/down rating to help popular subjects rise to the top

3.Active learning: ‘Saved Concepts and Quizes’ — as well as learning terminology and concepts through references and peers, an additional micro-learning element was considered crucial. Initially, it would work in a similar way to popular language learning apps, such as DuoLingo: simple, intuitive systems of learning with immediate feedback. However, as students progress, they learn more complex syntax, progressing to a second stage of more complex problem solving. A third stage establishes groups of similarly able peers to work on micro-projects together making use of new vocabulary.

Micro-learning to help quicken the process of gaining technical fluency in the student’s pro

Testing the prototype

We have a great team of volunteers working on the project over the summer. But we’re always looking for funding: get in touch if you would like to fund this innovative app.

If you have any feedback on the prototype already or would like to share you own experiences with us, please get in touch.

Thanks to all those who attended the hackathon. Everyone giving up their weekend to help us design this means a lot and we’re very grateful! And, of course, thanks to the Empower Hack team for making it happen.

Ben Webster

Written by

Founder www.jamiya.org, researcher // Humanitarian contexts, refugees, collaborative economy