How Refugees Are Using Technology as a Tool for Education

An aerial view of the Za’atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, from a helicopter. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
In May 2018 I spent three weeks at Edraak, a massive open online course (MOOC) supported by the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan. We were a group of ten volunteers — mostly UX designers and researchers. Together, we worked in Amman and visited Za’atari, the Syrian Refugee Camp with the greatest population.
Here are some of my insights and design notes from those three weeks.

The project: Edraak

Edraak is an online learning platform serving K-12 as well as adult learners and primarily built for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Edraak is tackling a very deep problem in MENA, where 40% of children are not receiving an education due to displacement and conflict. Adding to the challenge, it is very complicated for refugees to continue their education outside of their countries, where the curriculum is different.

The Queen Rania Foundation created Edraak to address this problem, offering students opportunities to access learning not only in classrooms, at home, and in refugee camps—but also in their native language. The platform significantly increases the amount of digital education content available in Arabic, and provides support to Arabic content creators.

Refugees in Jordan

Edraak is strategically located in Jordan. It’s important to remember that Jordan shares borders with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, and the number of refugees in Jordan has increased rapidly with the Civil War in Syria.

Za’atari refugee camp alone has around 79,000 residents, many of whom were originally looking for temporary housing but have been in Jordan for years due to the extended conflict.

Education is one of the major challenges refugees face. How can children continue their studies while living in a refugee camp, or as a temporary resident in Jordan? Several issues come to the table when this question is raised:

  • Mental health issues: PTSD, nightmares and feeling of hopelessness are some of the things I heard from a Youth Center maintained by Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) during my visit to Za’atari.
  • Physical and verbal punishment: A problem for children that join regular schools out of the camp.
  • Harassment, bullying and child labour are also recurrent problems.

Besides these challenges it’s tricky to continue to study when you’re out of your origin country, since the curricula and the language can have different nuances. For instance, the curricula in Jordan schools are slightly different than in Syria or Egypt, and sometimes they will be similar but in a different order for the content, so what you would learn in grade 2 in one country could be mixed with something you’d learn on grade 3 in another.

Myself and another volunteer sketched the interviewees during the field study since most of the refugees don’t want to get photographed because of potential persecution in Syria.

Visiting Za’atari refugee camp

During our trip to Jordan we included several field research trips to understand better the user needs. Za’atari refugee camp was part of the schedule and a big empathy exercise. Even for me, as someone who lived my early days in a poor neighborhood in Brazil, Za’atari was nothing like what I was used to. On the surprising side, the infrastructure is incredible—like a well developed city—with 3,000 small businesses, 11 schools, 27 community centers, 2 hospitals, and a lot of nonprofits providing services, events, and activities. On the other hand, residents are isolated in the middle of the dry desert, with very little access to the outside world — some people will have a permit to go out once a week. Residents don’t have access to motorized transport, so they either walk or ride a bike, which may mean walking 3 miles—strenuous exercise for a 5 year old—to go to school everyday. Small businesses are owned by refugees and they are concentrated in an area called Shams-Élysées — a reference to Paris but also the historic name for Syria.

Technology allows refugees to learn new skills that increase their autonomy, but also to dream outside their routine in the desert. For instance, learning a new language like English opens the door for many opportunities that refugees would not have access otherwise. We visited one youth center from NRC where they provided weekly online classes using Duolingo and Edraak for English and First Aid respectively.

It was eye opening to see how excited and invested the refugees are in the learning centers. Gender equity is still a big challenge, but it’s inspiring to see how the youth is moving the needle on that. Out of the 11 people using the computer lab, only one student was male. As a matter of fact, girls are the most invested in studies in Jordan, as expert Mayyada Abu Jaber has said: “Girls generally perform better [in school] than boys.”

One of my sketches, this one is from the computer lab. Out of the 11 people using the computer lab, only one student was male.

Access to the internet is restricted to computer labs and schools inside Za’atari. But people have their individual phones and they still use them without any connection, as offline devices. It’s common to download content, consume offline and use that as a tool to complement their studies.

During our visit we talked with students, teachers and nonprofit volunteers. It was fascinating to hear refugees’ stories first hand. Another volunteer and I sketched the interviewees during the field study since most of the refugees don’t want to get photographed because of potential persecution in Syria. I met a girl who was super invested in taking online classes from the Arizona State University. Among the others who had to translate our conversations, she was the one to jump in and start to speak in English with us. We learned that she comes to the computer lab to study English and to have live video sessions to improve her conversation skills.

Another sketch: A Syrian girl who was super invested on taking online classes from the Arizona State University

Edraak solution and how technology and good UX can empower people

We learned about how people use technology by both interviewing them and also by being embedded with the Edraak team. We merged with their Engineering and Product teams in a very smooth and incredibly collaborative way. It was fun, and very quickly we acted as one team, working closely together.

We had two teams tackling different problems during this trip. One was focused on the experience of teachers and parents and how it connects with students. My team was focused on a separate K-3 app for kids. Our goal was to consider all the challenges of the region: How might we design an engaging game-like experience for K-3 in the context of MENA region?

We had a very intricate and extended work process inspired by Design Sprints. In the first week we focused on meeting Edraak members, understanding the problem with a series of lightning talks and reviewing past studies. We also visited some schools to get familiarized with the problem we had to tackle. In the second week, we jumped into the ideation phase—generating multiple ideas, sketching, and then narrowing down by the end of the week into a final prototype that we tested with many kids during the third week. Our visit to Za’atari happened by the end of the 3rd week and we finally compiled all our results into a product requirements document, a final prototype, and a consistent plan for execution.

During our prototyping phase, I also got more familiar with design for kids. The first thing I quickly learned: kids will care much more about the emotional aspect of design—the UI plays a strong role on keeping them comfortable or anxious. After our first school visits and after reviewing the market space, all of the designers, researchers, engineers, and product managers sat together to define our Design Principles.

We defined the Design Principles as:

  • Fun and game-like — Our K-3 experience needs to be thrilling and rewarding. Kids around 6 to 8 years old are surrounded by stimuli, including fun games on their phones. To incentivize them to choose Edraak and not another game, we need to bend our educational approach.
  • Kid-friendly interface — The experience should include age-appropriate language, colorful UI, bigger tap targets, and consistent defensive design on error states — including how to avoid errors and dead ends.
  • Storytelling based — Storytelling is nothing new, and still very popular among kids. They get involved in stories that inspire and those stories help to generate role models that will determine their future.
  • Personalizable — Kids love sandboxes. With games like Minecraft, kids can create their own world from a blank slate.
  • Mobile only — As we saw while visiting schools and Za’atari, phones are usually the only personal computer device for kids and even for many adults.

With these principles in mind, we opted in for a cartoonish design that also didn’t look too childish for a 8 years old, but was welcoming enough for them to feel engaged.

Testing with real kids in Jordan

Our research wasn’t limited to Za’atari camp. We also talked with 20 kids ranging from 6 to 8 years old in public schools and we hosted some interview sessions at the Edraak office. Among the things we learned:

  • Reduce text and add narration if possible — I was very careful to keep tap targets at a minimum of 48dp, allowing tiny fingers to comfortably tap on icons. But once we put it in front of kids, the results were surprising: they completed the flow very quickly. The first version we tried had a lot of text based on our storytelling assumptions, but kids didn’t read the text. So we included a narration for each question and made the copy shorter. The kids were much more excited with that new version.
  • Avoiding RTL and LTR confusion — Another clear problem was around the RTL (Right to left) interface. As Arabic is a RTL language, all the text is right aligned, but some of the icons also need to be flipped. For example, the back button in apps with left to right languages points to the left, but in RTL UIs where it should point right, some apps will keep it to the left. To increase the confusion, sometimes apps will not provide translation, or users will keep the phone in English as a way to learn a new language. In that case again, the back button will point to left or right depending on the app. To avoid that, we used a home icon to take the user to top navigation and avoid having a potentially confusing back button.
Our prototype after 3 weeks

Technology is not “the” answer, but it can help

With all the learning from this trip, going to Jordan and Za’atari made me think a lot about the role of technology in education, especially for displaced communities. There are a lot of priorities where technology might fall short, like access to clean water, physical protection, green spaces, and human connection. These basic needs sometimes can’t be filled by life in a refugee camp. But at the same time, it was clear that technology was already being used by refugees, as it is very useful for any other person in the world.

The internet was a major means of communication, learning, and access to the outside world. For many of us, internet and technology is just an additional way to connect people and information, but for some people this is the only way to experience the external world. With that it is clear why Internet is now a human right as UN says. So with all the limitations, it still feels that there’s a lot of room to think how technology can positively impact displaced communities. And even if nobody really thinks about it, they are already adapting tools that were not initially designed for them. So, know your user!