What kinds of EdTech solutions can benefit conflict-affected children? In this three-part series, Aisha Schnellmann speaks with EdTech leaders about new apps and programs, the impact EdTech could have beyond formal education, and overcoming the unique challenges of reaching children in difficult circumstances. In part one, Aisha introduces some EdTech solutions and considers the features they have in common.

During times of war and conflict, education falls quickly in the hierarchy of needs, behind food, safety, and shelter. But if the urgent issue of access to education for children living in conflict zones is not addressed, an estimated 222 million school-aged children and adolescents could experience intractable learning losses.

“Education gets hit very hard when there’s disruption caused by a crisis.”

Atish Gonsalves

“Education gets hit very hard when there’s disruption caused by a crisis,” says Atish Gonsalves, Global Lead for Research and Innovation in Education at the International Rescue Committee. “It’s tough to catch up on learning losses, which can have knock-on effects on many aspects of a child’s life, including their ability to return to the formal education system, as well as their health, livelihood, and life expectancy,” he explains. Francesco Cavallari, founder of non-profit Video Games Without Borders, who developed the EdTech solution Antura and the Letters in collaboration with partners including Cologne Game Lab, believes that countries could lose an entire generation to learning losses. “There could also be a long-term impact on post-conflict recovery and rebuilding efforts,” he adds.

Creating EdTech for conflict zones

EdTech solutions could play a major role in turning the tide. To find out exactly how EdTech might help, I spoke with leaders from several international EdTech companies and a global humanitarian organization that are developing learning apps and virtual resources for children affected by the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

Cavallari’s smartphone app, Antura and the Letters, aims to strengthen the foundational native Arabic literacy of Syrian refugee children through game-based learning. It also supports native Afghan language literacy and currently offers children an introduction to eight additional European languages designed for Ukrainian refugees. It’s a single-player game designed to improve both letter recognition and vocabulary. Refugees were involved in the design of the app. “And it can be played offline,” explains Cavallari, “so it is accessible even when internet connections are poor.”

Storyvoice, a Scholastic-owned digital platform that hosts free live, interactive storytelling events with award-winning children’s authors and illustrators was initially developed in refugee schools for Syrian children in Lebanon to help them practice reading English, a foreign language used widely in the Lebanese school system.

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While Storyvoice has been growing in popularity in mainstream education circles, it continues to provide children in conflict zones with the benefits of shared book reading, including improved literacy and cognitive skills as well as socioemotional development. The sessions are in English and can be accessed through a smartphone app or on a computer. Mike Clarke, co-founder of Storyvoice and Senior Director of New Media at Scholastic, tells me more. “When we originally created Storyvoice, it was to provide an entertaining and educational read-aloud experience for children – like the Syrian refugees attending school in Lebanon – who aren’t in a position to access these types of resources at home or the benefits that arise from reading with others.”

Clarke explains that the interactive element of the platform’s approach encourages dialogic reading, whereby adults and children discuss the book together. “This also keeps reading exciting for the children, and helps them to feel like they are a part of a global community at a time when that may be most difficult,” he says. During development, Storyvoice worked closely with two local partners: the Kayany Foundation, and the NGO Teach for Lebanon. However, familiarity with the English language is useful to children beyond the classroom as well. As English is a common lingua franca used worldwide, the ability to communicate in English can help refugees navigate foreign environments and connect with resources outside their communities.

“To be effective, EdTech that is specifically designed or adapted for conflict zones has to function in challenging environments.”

Kris Jagasia, co-founder and CEO of EdTech solution Off2Class, agrees that English can open up a lot of opportunities. “The question is, in a conflict area, how do you assemble a pool of educators who are able to teach English as a Second Language?” he says. Off2Class is an EdTech solution focused on building teacher capacity to teach English as a Second Language. The EdTech company’s software toolkit, platform, and content have been used to equip Syrian teachers with skills and training to teach English to other educators and children in their own communities. Off2Class was developed and implemented for this Syrian project in close collaboration with the Ismaili Muslim community of Canada.

Stories with Clever Hedgehog is a digital multimedia space that offers free e-books, games, and other fun virtual resources created for families fleeing the conflict in Ukraine or who are still in the country. Project Director Roberta Michnick Golinkoff is leading the team, which is based at the University of Delaware. “We asked ourselves, how can we help families cope with their current circumstances and remain linked to their home of origin while they are displaced?” she says. The resources are in both Ukrainian and English so that the learning experiences connect children to their home country.  

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What these EdTech solutions have in common

To be effective, EdTech that is specifically designed or adapted for conflict zones has to function in challenging environments, such as areas with reduced or outdated digital infrastructure and unstable power supply. “Connectivity is a big challenge for EdTech in conflict zones,” explains Jagasia from Off2Class. All of these solutions were built to function in environments with limited resources. “While developing Storyvoice,” Clarke says, “we had to build our app to support old smartphones and adapt to contexts with poor internet connections.”

These technologies also encourage playful learning. “Kids learn best when they’re engaged and having fun,” elaborates Golinkoff from Clever Hedgehog. The playful approach is also designed to benefit children’s mental wellbeing and encourage older children to use these solutions independently. “Most phones come with pre-installed games that kids already play,” explains Cavallari. “So we’re competing with the best commercial games in the market for the time and attention of these kids.”

Most of these solutions have been co-created with local communities. The International Rescue Committee identifies and incubates local EdTech companies in conflict zones. Gonsalves explains that this humanitarian organization provides companies with support, including resources and expertise, so they can design solutions for their own communities. 

Unlocking the potential of EdTech during conflict

Despite the challenges, EdTech has the potential to narrow gaps in education by connecting children to opportunities to learn as they shelter in foreign countries, reside in refugee camps, or even live their lives in the shadow of war. What impact could EdTech solutions have beyond education? And how can EdTech overcome the unique challenges of such difficult circumstances? I explore these questions in parts two and three.


Atish Gonsalves, Global Education Research & Innovation Lead, International Rescue Committee
Atish Gonsalves is a social technologist, entrepreneur and the Global EdTech Innovation Director at IRC’s Airbel Impact Lab. Atish is also the Founder of Gamoteca, a collaborative digital platform that enables organizations to create their own mixed-reality learning gamesWith a background in software engineering, AI and human-computer interaction, Atish’s experience includes leadership roles at technology and international non-profit organizations including the United Nations. Atish has implemented a number of successful EdTech solutions that have helped democratize learning for millions of learners in difficult contexts.
Twitter: @atishgonsalves
IRC Lab: https://airbel.rescue.org/
Gamoteca Website: https://www.gamoteca.com/

Kris Jagasia, CEO & Co-Founder, Off2Class
Kris Jagasia is the co-founder and CEO of Off2Class, responsible for directing company strategy and vision. He has built the commercial teams at the company including, sales, marketing and customer success.
Launching in 2015, Off2Class focused on creating high-quality content and resources to save teachers time and power language learning for the digital-first student. Rather than simply converting course books into basic web products, as was the case with many traditional publishers, Off2Class focused on re-imagining content and tools for the needs of online teachers.
Kris developed the product’s unique go-to-market strategy, building a strong customer base with institutions (schools, universities) while also still selling directly to teacher entrepreneurs.
Twitter: @Off2Class
Website: https://www.off2class.com/

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Project Director, Stories with Clever Hedgehog
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff is known for her research on language development, the benefits of playful learning, the effects of media on children, and early spatial development. She is currently the director of the Child’s Play, Learning, and Development laboratory at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE, USA. She lectures all over the world and is passionate about the dissemination of educational and developmental science for the betterment of children and families’ lives. A member of the National Academy of Education, and having won numerous awards for her work, Roberta is committed to making a difference in the lives of Ukrainian children disconcerted and displaced in this time of war.
Website: https://www.ebooks4ukrkids.org/
Twitter: @KathyandRo1

Francesco Cavallari, Founder & President, Video Games Without Borders
Francesco Cavallari has 20 years of experience in the games industry having held both technical and leadership positions at Ubisoft. In 2015 he founded Video Games Without Borders, a nonprofit organization and a global community of people who believe in digital games to change the world for the better. Francesco supervised the development of “Antura and the Letters”, a smartphone game to improve literacy among Syrian children that are out-of-school because of the conflict. winner of several international awards. The game is completely free and open source and it has been adapted to learn a foreign language with the goal to also help Afghan and Ukrainian children.
Video Games Without Borders: vgwb.org
Antura and the Letters: antura.org
Twitter: @FrancyCavallari

Mike Clarke, Co-Founder, Storyvoice and Senior Director of New Media at Scholastic 
Mike Clarke is the co-founder and host of Storyvoice, Scholastic’s online platform connecting authors and kids through weekly live read-aloud shows. Launched as a tool to help Syrian refugee children in Lebanon practice reading, Storyvoice has grown to help over 800,000 kids across forty-plus countries experience the joy and benefits of reading with others. Prior to Storyvoice, Mike led a UN-backed innovation lab in Lebanon focused on refugee communication technology and helped launch multiple impact-driven hackathon programs with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before his work in Lebanon, Mike spent four years leading product teams at two venture-backed startups in New York City, USA, and Chennai, India. Mike has a BA in political science and religious studies from Union College in Schenectady, New York, and is a former Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar, completing graduate coursework in international relations at the University of Cape Town and Arabic language training at the American University of Beirut.
Website: https://www.storyvoice.live/
Twitter: @storyvoicelive

Improving access to education for conflict-affected children around the world is an urgent and continuing topic of concern for us at BOLD. This series is a part of a larger conversation that we will continue to explore and share important insights into.

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