How technology is transforming MENA youth’s education

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As back-to-school season is approaching, now is the ideal time to reflect on the latest innovations in technology and how they might enhance the way youth in the MENA region learn in the coming academic year.

Edtech has been on the rise around the world, with platforms such as California-based Khan Academy making inroads as far away as Yemen.

Yet while online education platforms for adults have become common, the work of two edtech startups based in the MENA stand out because they help children.

Edtech for kids

TeachMeNow.com was launched in May 2015 in Dubai, by serial entrepreneur Thea Myhrvold. With roots in both Europe (Norway) and the Middle East (Iraq), and having spent some of her childhood growing up in the MENA region, Myhrvold was motivated to turn her online tutoring concept into a reality in an Arab country, and contribute to the regional tech industry's success.

Thea Myhrvold is an Edtech leader in Dubai. (Image via Thea Myhrvold)

TeachMeNow.com allows a student in one country to be tutored live by an expert in another. Courses include languages, mathematics, among various others. The cost varies as tutors set their own fees and schedules.

The approach has proven particularly effective when it comes to learning languages. Myhrvold pointed to cases where Arab students in MENA were able to improve their Spanish language skills thanks to tutors based in Latin America, at $25 per hour.  

This exemplifies the benefits of the sharing economy: one person utilizes a skill to generate income, while another gains access to a much sought-after service that costs less than it does in traditional formats. According to Myhrvold, TeachMeNow.com is realizing a 20 percent upsell: If the teacher sets his/her rate at $10 per hour, TeachMeNow.com charges the students $12, and takes the $2 as profits. TeachMeNow also offers tutoring sessions ‘by the minute’, so the students don’t have to pay for an hour by default, and save money by paying for the exact tutoring time they need.

Myhrvold is not stopping there. She told Wamda that TeachMeNow.com will soon add a host of other options to its already successful solo tutoring model. “We are about to release a group session feature, where several students can do a group call with a teacher or an expert. This will allow us to scale the reach of the training," she said. The platform allows teaching up to five people in different locations instead of just one person. Myhrvold  revealed that within a few weeks, TeachMeNow.com will be able to tutor up to 20 people at once. This is beneficial for students if studying at the same level or they are in the same class preparing for a big exam but are not family members and live in different homes. The teacher and the platform get paid for every additional tutored person.

Young students who are not Arabs, and still want to learn Arabic in Dubai can also benefit. “We have certified courses now, from institutes like the Arabic Language Centre, an Arabic language school in Dubai,” Myhrvold pointed out.

A chief principle that guides TeachMeNow.com is that the startup must evolve alongside its users. As the youth of the region - who constitute a large portion of the population - grow up and pursue their careers, TeachMeNow.com will adapt and improve so that it continues to meet their needs.

Myhrvold also wants to target different demographics, and people at various stages of their careers. “We are launching ExclusiveMentor.com, a version of TeachMeNow.com just for career advice and coaching,” she said.

Start them young

For Amro Abu-Hmaidan, a Jordanian entrepreneur in Dubai, the inspiration for an edtech startup came at home.

"As a parent of two curious kids growing up,” Abu-Hmaidan told Wamda, “I found the lack of engaging and inspiring Arabic content troubling.”

After being disappointed that his young children did not have access to dynamic literary content in Arabic, he decided, together with Lana Al-Jayyusi, to launch 3asafeer, which means ‘birds’ in Arabic. “I built a website with stories I've written and illustrated. I was doing it on the side while having a job. After a couple of months I was overwhelmed by the response: parents, teachers, and most importantly kids were hungry for great content,” recalled Abu-Hmaidan.

“The teachers’ part I didn't anticipate,” he said, referring to the positive reaction on the part of professional educators, “and it was the area where we can add the most value: making Arabic literacy education more engaging and helping teachers monitor, guide, and assess their students.”

Tu parles français?

Amro Abu-Hmaidan is honored by Seedstars World in Bahrain. (Image: Amro Abu-Hmaidan)

Following the launch of 3asafeer, Abu-Hmaidan is planning to double his digital library from 200 to 400 titles, international reach, and language offerings. "We're growing rapidly, serving hundreds of schools around the world. What we think is more interesting is the amount of reading that happens on the platform on a monthly basis. In a month we would have over a million and a half stories read over the platform, with kids spending over 75,000 hours of reading.” He continued: “This year, we'll also start serving content in French."

Abu-Hmaidan, who shares 3asafeer content on SoundCloud and describes himself as a storyteller, focused on helping teachers become super-teachers, and readers blossom into super-readers. He recently received a welcome boost: 3asafeer was named winner of the Transforming Education Prize at the 2017 Seedstars World MENA Startup Competition.

The $50,000 prize he won will have an immediate impact on his plans to scale 3asafeer.

He said: "Winning always feels good; it gives validation to the team that their work is appreciated globally. For me it was really exciting, because with the prize money we're aiming to create a lot of new inspiring and engaging content, and tackle a new challenge: making literacy education fun and engaging in new languages in Africa."

Feature image via Stockvault.

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