When technology speaks Arabic

These series of events were to become the stepping stones of the birth of Kamkalima.
by Yehia El Amine- YehiaAmine

30 November 2017 | 14:02

Source: by Annahar

This snapshot is taken from KamKalima's explainer video showed on their official YouTube account.

BEIRUT: Think back to 1998.

Siroun Shamigian stands in a classroom and delivers her biology lessons to students, who look more engaged than others due to adding one, out of the ordinary, feature to her teaching method; a PowerPoint presentation.

The addition of this illustrative teaching method, which in retrospect seems fundamental, grabbed the attention of her students, mainly because children tend to be more responsive to visuals.

“Technology always helped me engage with my students and get them to understand the material I was delivering on a much deeper level,” Shamigian told Annahar.

But a PowerPoint was not the only trick she had up her sleeve. As years went by, she started using software such as Web 2.0 Tools and virtual labs to consistently keep students engaged in the hour she shared with them.

The school then noticed.

“The school’s administration, who took a notice of my teaching methods, realized that they were working; so they asked me to give workshops for other teachers to integrate technology into their lessons,” she said.

Shamigian took it a step further by teaching them how to use a myriad of software, from email to Twitter, in classrooms to improve engagement between students and teachers.

While the majority embraced change, others complained, especially Arabic teachers, since back then there were barely any Arabic-friendly software or content online.

“The Arabic language was nowhere to be found online, and it was unlike any other subject because of that," she added. Other teachers could readily find resources and tools online, but Arabic teachers had to prepare from scratch. If they wanted to enrich their teaching, they needed to search online offline and digitize content themselves, and suffered from lack of access to freely available tech tools.

According to various estimates, less than 10 percent of total global online content is in Arabic, and less than 5 percent of global digital content is hosted in the MENA region; although native Arabic speakers represent around 420 million worldwide.

“I decided to fill that gap,” Shamigian told Annahar.

These series of events were to become the stepping stones of the birth of Kamkalima.

After leading a number of focus groups with multiple Arabic teachers, Shamigian was able to hone in on the woes of teaching the subject. 

At first, Kamkalima focused on the hardest part of Arabic education, which was writing since “it contains a lot of components of the language from grammar to vocabulary and structure.”

Shamigian decided to build the platform to be visually pleasing since children more often than not respond much better to everything visual; it pushes them to interact and engage more with the content they are working with.

“We started giving teachers lesson plans for writing based on research that would help teach students on a much deeper level while integrating a correction rubric to aid teachers in correcting student writing,” she added. 

Shamigian’s love for technology acted again, but this time in other forms.

“We decided to add another feature, which was a bot called Fahim, that gives advice to students as they are writing their essays, and helps them by providing word suggestions to minimize redundancy and resources such as grammar rules and linksto related articles,” she said.

The platform kept improving and expanding its content; the most prolific was a “reading and comprehension” section, as well as adding a digital library that includes a huge number of stories and articles from various outlets. 

These stories were molded with lesson plans, and whole sets of questions to help students fully analyze texts.

But that was not enough.

“We wanted to add articles and stories that weren’t available elsewhere, and that are targeted toward children and other young students, so we hired freelance writers and storytellers, to ink out narratives and characters that can kids identify with and relate to,” Shamigian told Annahar.

Currently, the platform is home to 100 copyrighted stories and adding six every week, coupled with a full lesson plan to each of them. “Teachers have the ability to confirm questions, change and customize lesson plans to their preference, and later assign it to students, which follow with an assessment report of their work,” she added.

Kamkalima’s business model is subscription based with prices being between $14 to $20 per student a year, which schools can either integrate into their tuition fees or can pay for if the school has a technology budget that needs to be filled. 

The startup is currently running in two countries, reaching almost 10,000 students and having 180 Arabic teachers on board. 

Shamigian highlights that one of the main obstacles that she had to leap over was being taken seriously in the tech scene for being 'just' a teacher. “We were underestimated a lot at first, especially due to the fact that we were teachers, and some of us had no tech experience whatsoever,” she said, adding “but now they do take us seriously.”

Interestingly enough, the motto of Kamkalima is “teachers come first,” since Shamigian considers that “we can’t reach every student, but if we empower teachers, they can do the same to their students on a much better brick and mortar perspective.”

The startup has its eyes set toward expanding its market to reach three or four countries before summer, while adding more features on their platform to include all Arabic skill sets, such as hearing and spoken Arabic, as well as convert their digital library into sets of audiobooks.

“I want to expand into the university level, not just from grade four till 12 in order to become the Arabic educational platform of the region,” Shamigian told Annahar.

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