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Displaced Syrians Learn via Smartphone Intranet

Syrian adolescent girls use a smartphone outside a technology lab in Damietta Governorate, Egypt. (Photo by Shehzad Noorani / UNICEF) Posted for media use

Syrian adolescent girls use a smartphone outside a technology lab in Damietta Governorate, Egypt. (Photo by Shehzad Noorani / UNICEF) Posted for media use

WASHINGTON, DC, February 24, 2021 ( News) – Distance learning has become routine for many students during the COVID-19 lockdown, but for thousands of young Syrians living in refugee camps distance learning has been an impossible luxury. Yet, an innovative project established in one camp allows internally displaced schoolchildren to communicate and pursue their education using smartphones – without the need for internet or computers.

The name and location of the camp have not been disclosed for security reasons.

It was Mohammed Youssef, projects manager at the private development consulting firm Chemonics International based in Washington, DC, who created an internal network to enable pupils to connect in the camp, which lacks fundamental infrastructure, even electricity.

“After exploring alternative technologies, we created a local internal network through which we succeeded in making direct audio calls,” said Youssef. Students can use the network to connect to a chat application, creating a virtual classroom, without needing to be connected to the internet.

The 10-year-old conflict in Syria has destroyed access to education along with local governance, homes and livelihoods. The conflict has already deprived more than two million Syrian primary schoolchildren of their right to education, according to UNICEF.

Youssef forged ahead with the Injaz education project despite difficulties that include a lack of necessary equipment to establish the network and a shortage of computers. He designed the system to work on mobile phones which are available to almost 80 percent of the camp’s occupants.

The Injaz program assists children and young people in northeastern Syria with limited or no access to education since the start of ISIS occupation. With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and other international donors, Injaz supports remedial education, social and emotional learning, school rehabilitation, and vocational training through sub-awards to community-based organizations and local governance entities.

These projects reach students in both formal and informal education settings, including in camps for internally displaced persons

At first, lack of equipment limited Youssef’s network to only a small number of students within a confined region. Students overcame this by attending classes in shifts – morning and evening. Within months, equipment became available that enabled the whole camp to be connected at any time.

‘Vital and interactive’

Members of the Injaz team then taught children how to use the new smartphone system through a series of online videos, and adapted lessons to suit the technology and distance learning. Teachers  underwent training on distance learning and online interaction with students.

One teacher at the camp who wished to remain anonymous said, “The local intranet has relinked students to their teachers, allowed students to access information anywhere… while making the process more vital and interactive.”

He highlights some challenges, however, such as some parents lacking experience in dealing with the intranet, and old-fashioned cell phones that cannot support the system.

The smartphone intranet is supplied with solar panels to provide a continuous electricity supply and it relies on open source technologies and programs.

This put the total construction cost at somewhere between $US 2,000 and 3,000, with almost no operating costs.

The technology has allowed more than 1,000 Syrian students of all ages to access education services throughout the COVID-19 lockdown which began in March 2020 and has only recently ended.

The smartphone network innovation was granted a global development award last year, winning “best in presentation” at the annual conference of the Society for International Development.

“Now, after proving the validity of the idea in the camp, we are planning to expand intranet solutions to provide distance learning within 15 more camps,” said Youssef, adding that a practical guide on how to create the system is being prepared for future crises.

Mohammed Rizkallah, who teaches at the the American University in Cairo graduate School of Education, said distance learning will remain even after the pandemic has run its course, saying, “School closures after COVID-19 shifted the whole education process into distance learning, and this reality persists.”

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact