Asafeer Education Technologies, a Dubai-based educational technology (“edtech”) startup that provides online learning resources focusing on enhancing Arabic literacy skills of school kids, was awarded the Transforming Education Prize at the annual Seedstars Summit in early April.
The concept of building an audible Arabic digital library came to founder and CEO Amr Abu-Hmeidan when he was having difficulty finding good-quality educational content for his two kids.
“I enjoy telling stories to my kids… storytelling is the most ancient form of education that has the power to convey educational messages in a way that is relatable to kids,” Abu-Hmeidan told ITU News. “The problem with our education system today is failing to spark kids’ curiosity.”
Quality education is particularly crucial for the fast-growing youth populations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Despite the increased access to education, the quality of learning in MENA countries is still below the level expected given the region’s per capita income, according to studies.
He began working to create content for children in the local community, and soon found that the content not only resonated with kids, but parents and teachers as well. As such, the startup is gaining more attention and has grown exponentially since its launch. Children spent 49,866 hours on the platform reading over 1,000,000 stories in the past month (April 2017) alone.
Partnering with 60 schools in seven countries, Asafeer’s user base is primarily in the MENA region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Jordan. However, its impact also extends to children in diaspora communities around the world, “they [communities with limited access to Arabic content] are the ones that are really passionate about it,” said Abu-Hmeidan.
But Abu-Hmeidan told ITU News that instead of building a technology, he is building a solution to a problem.
“As a tech startup, people are usually surprised why we are focusing on innovating the content rather than the technology,” said Abu-Hmeidan, “I want to create a simple technology that delivers the value.”
Through its digital platform, Asafeer is able to give teachers, parents and kids easy access to quality educational content at a lower cost compared to books, with the added advantage that it is accessible to anyone anywhere, provided that they have an internet connection.
The platform is designed to engage not only students, but also teachers and parents. It provides research-based resources for teachers and parents to support effective teaching methods for Arabic reading skills, and allows teachers to monitor and track students’ learning progress with data-driven insights and benchmarks compared against classmates. Asafeer also works with teachers to understand other ways their service can add value in the classroom.
Every story is created from scratch though a collaborative effort by a large team of education consultants, teachers, authors, illustrators, and voice actors from around the world.
Education is not a one-sided solution, “you can’t create change in a vacuum,” Abu-Hmeidan said. “We collaborate with people from Egypt, the US, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Syria, and also Syrian refugees in Germany.”
How? By taking advantage of cloud collaboration, the startup operates on a flexible structure. Utilizing ICTs not only eliminates physical distance, it “adds an additional dimension to creativity,” says Abu-Hmeidan. “Using Skype is still as intimate as if you’re sitting in an office together … it gives you space to work, especially for creative people.”
Asafeer’s ambition is to break down gender stereotypes and inappropriate labelling that still exist in the society and traditional education curriculum.
Asafeer’s team is working to increase the amount of gender-neutral educational content for kids in the Arab World. It is also working on nurturing children’s emotional intelligence, a capability that is largely overlooked in schools, “even though it [emotional intelligence] is recognized as an important indicator for children’s future success, which is what education is meant to achieve,” said Abu-Hmeidan.
NOTE: The development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is crucial for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including quality education (SDG 4) and gender equality (SDG 5). Find out how ICTs can help achieve UN’s SDGs here .