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Solar-powered libraries help Syrian communities rebuild from war

Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria educators visit ASU to meet with SolarSPELL team

April 21, 2023

Devastated by years of civil war in Syria, a group of people establishing their own country is working with ASU's SolarSPELL team to create an education system from scratch.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, a self-governing community that formed in 2012, is highly diverse, with residents who are from many different ethnic and religious groups.

As they work to create a new K–12 school system based on their region’s commitment to democratic principles, tolerance and gender equality, they have turned to SolarSPELL for help.

SolarSPELL is a solar-powered portable library device that was created by Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. She is director of the SolarSPELLSolarSPELL stands for Solar Powered Educational Learning Library initiative, also based at ASU.

The SolarSPELL devices work without electricity or internet connection. Each case includes a small solar panel, a microcomputer and a micro digital memory card, which contains all of the library content and some code that allows it to be accessed by any type of browser. The device creates a Wi-Fi hot spot, and users connect any Wi-Fi-capable device, such as smartphones, tablets or laptops, to access and download the content.

Nearly 500 devices are being used in 15 countries, many in remote areas with little or no electricity or internet. The libraries are filled with content that is customized to the local community’s needs.

Typically, Hosman and a SolarSPELL team travel to countries to train local people on the devices. In the train-the-trainer model, those people then go to the remote areas and teach others how to use SolarSPELL. But the ASU team was unable to travel to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria because the situation in Syria is still unstable. So three educators from the independent region visited ASU for several days in April for training.

The visit capped a busy time for SolarSPELL, which also has expanded to three countries in Africa within the past few months:

• In January, the team traveled to Malawi to launch the SolarSPELL Health Library in partnership with the Malawi Peace Corps Response Advancing Health Professionals program and the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences. The libraries were loaded with nursing and midwifery information. Typically, nursing students in Malawi travel to remote locations for several weeks of clinical experience and must carry a stack of reference books with them. But now they can access reference information via SolarSPELL. The students also can use it to complete coursework that’s required while they are working remotely.

• The SolarSPELL Agriculture Library debuted in Zimbabwe in partnership with Foundations for Farming, a nonprofit that teaches the principles of conservation farming. The team trained the foundation workers to use the libraries to teach farmers. ASU students took the foundation’s content and created interactive lessons with videos – ideal for a population whose literacy level is not high. Lessons included information on how to grow cabbage organically and how to preserve tomatoes after harvest.

• In 2020, SolarSPELL began a partnership with the Peace Corps in which volunteers would be trained to use SolarSPELL. The pandemic suspended that work as the Peace Corps evacuated its volunteers. Now, the Peace Corps is returning to many countries, and SolarSPELL held a training session for volunteers in Lesotho, who then trained schoolteachers in their villages on how to use the education library. Two members of the SolarSPELL team are returned Peace Corps volunteers, including one who served in Lesotho.

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Content in Arabic, Kurdish and Syrian

SolarSPELL became connected to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in a unique way. Last year, one of the initiative’s major donors called Hosman, excited to tell her about the book “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice,” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

“The story is that women picked up weapons and became part of the army that defeated ISIS in northeast Syria,” said Hosman, who also is an associate professor in the Polytechnic School in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

“It’s so well written and gives the spectrum of what women did because they truly valued freedom and independence when they had nothing left to lose.

“Our supporter said, ‘This resonates with me. Why don’t you contact the author and see if she thinks SolarSPELL could be a positive addition to this territory in northeast Syria?’ ” Hosman said.

It took months for Hosman to connect with Lemmon, who agreed that SolarSPELL could be a huge help to the rebuilding region.

Though it is not recognized diplomatically and is therefore ineligible for most humanitarian aid, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has been governing itself and creating an education curriculum. At a recent training session on the Tempe campus, Hosman described how the SolarSPELL libraries have been used in other communities and heard from the visitors how they wanted to load the devices with their own educational content.

“We curate over 90% of the content in our libraries because it’s so labor intensive to create it,” Hosman said. Typically, ASU students find open-access content on the internet. Sometimes users want to have specific textbooks downloaded into the libraries but that can create copyright issues.

“So, it will be wonderful if you have staff to create the content because that’s the ideal. That’s what teachers want,” she said.

The visitors were excited to learn that the libraries can promote self-directed learning among students, especially when they create SolarSPELL clubs.

Bruce Baikie, co-founder and tech advisor of SolarSPELL, told the visitors how the devices have become accessible to entire communities.

“We have several examples where, for example, Thursday evening is community night, and the parents come to connect to see what their students are learning,” said Baikie, a senior sustainability fellow and adjunct faculty member at ASU.

“We had another example where a teacher brought it home, and the students came and did homework outside of his house. What was interesting was the parents also started coming every night.”

Baikie said that in Fiji, student attendance at school increased after the parents had regular weekly access to SolarSPELL and became excited by the possibilities.

All of the content for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is translated into the region’s three main languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syrian.

The newest library is also special for another reason: SolarSPELL worked with Sesame Street to include videos of Sesame Street characters in Kurdish. The videos, available on YouTube, originally were created for refugee children, but most of them don’t have internet connection.

“And that’s exactly what SolarSPELL exists for – people without internet connection,” Hosman said.

“The videos are about tackling big emotions and things kids can benefit from having explained to them by these universally popular characters.”

SolarSPELL continuously updates its libraries in partnership with the users, and students will work on finding more Kurdish content for future versions of the library for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Woman writing on white board in Arabic

Noha Labani, a PhdD student in English from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, writes "geography," "mountains" and "maps" in Arabic on a white board, signifying the features on the home page of the SolarSPELL devices heading to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Labani provided translation during a recent visit of education officials from the autonomous region. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Teaching gender equality

Two of the educators from the autonomous region gave a talk during their visit on how they’re reimagining education after decades of discrimination, ethnic animosity and violence. More than 200 schools were destroyed and nearly 300 were heavily damaged, they said.

“But what should we teach? What kind of society do we need?” said Bahjat Mohammed Hussein, a senior education official in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

“If we teach the same curriculum it’s the same problem,” he said.

The new curriculum focuses on tolerance and inclusivity.

“The curriculum should be based on human rights. How can we learn together? How can we accept the other? We have to undo the mistakes of ISIS.

“There must be human rights, women’s rights and the people have to know that there are different ideas, different ethnicities, different cultures and different traditions. If we want to live together, we have to put all this in the curriculum.”

Gender equality is critical, Hussein said.

“You have to go back in history to see what women have done. They are not less than you, and they can take their part in policy and the economy and education.

“We are starting to change the mentality and as a result for the first time we have girls who play soccer and ride bicycles. Before you couldn’t see such things.”

Dilber Youssef, deputy director of the education and training authority of the region, said she was grateful for the work of so many ASU students on the library. Typically, students work on finding and curating content through coursework or as interns or student workers for SolarSPELL. The newest library included work in translation, which was done as capstone projects by graduate students, including an ASU Online student in Yemen.

“It gives her much hope for the success of the program to see that it is truly by student for students,” said Noha Labani, a PhD candidate in English and student worker for SolarSPELL, who served as a translator during the visit.

Youssef said of the students: “You joined SolarSPELL because you wanted to make a difference and to have a positive impact. You are showing up and you are making a difference.”

Top image: Senior education officials Dilber Youssef and Bahjat Mohammed Hussein (center) from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, learn about SolarSPELL from Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, right, during a training session  in Wrigley Hall on the Tempe campus. PhD student Noha Labani (left) provided translation. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News


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