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April 2, 2018,   5:33 PM

The Lebanese Tech Startup Connecting Students And Teachers To Arabic

Claudine Coletti


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Siroun Shamigian, cofounder of online Arabic learning platform, Kamkalima, discovered her calling in teaching when she was still studying herself. Today she is using technology to change the lives and lesson plans of Arabic teachers and students across the Middle East.

In 2014, when biology teacher and technology enthusiast, Siroun Shamigian, saw her colleagues in Lebanon struggling to teach Arabic to their K-12 students, she decided that she had two choices: accept the status quo, or do something about it. “I’m not the type of person that just accepts things,” she laughs.

Fast forward to January 2017 and Shamigian, together with advisor and co-founder Nisrine Makkouk, were officially launching their web-based Arabic learning platform, Kamkalima (meaning “a few words”). Designed to provide Arabic teachers and students with tools, papers, stories and general support both in and out of the classroom, the online resources have since been welcomed by educators across Lebanon and the U.A.E.

In October 2017, Kamkalima made it to number 20 on Forbes Middle East’s list of “50 Startups To Watch”. Most recently, in February 2018, Kamkalima was announced as one of the MENA finalists in the 2018 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition created specifically to identify, support and encourage projects by female entrepreneurs. “What stood out to us is the innovative way in which the platform has emerged as an invaluable tool for both students and teachers of the Arabic language. It exemplifies the potential for technology to revolutionize education by creating meaningful and engaging avenues of learning outside of the traditional classroom set-up,” says Olivia Bertaux Lazare, Senior Programme Manager at Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards.

At its launch just over a year ago, Kamkalima was being offered for free, with 17 schools in Lebanon and the U.A.E.—roughly 5,000 students in total—onboard. By the start of the next academic year in September 2017, the team had converted 80% of those free trials into paid accounts. Since then they’ve signed up another 15 schools, and they’re in talks with another seven. The service is paid for per student at a cost of between $16 and $28 per year; admin and teacher accounts are free. The software is purposely kept affordable so that it is accessible for all schools, not just the ones that can afford it.

It has been, and continues to be, a passion project for Shamigian. The discovery of her entrepreneurial streak has been a recent development. The calling towards teaching came decades earlier, in the 1990s.

As Lebanon recovered from war, teachers were in demand. In 1991, aged 18, Shamigian was approached by the principal of her old high school, Yeghishe Manoukian College in Dbayyeh, to see if she’d be interested in coming back to teach an elementary class—mostly Biology, but also English, Chemistry and Math. Saving for college at the time, Shamigian said yes, thinking that it was a temporary way to make some money and help her community before moving on. Things didn’t quite go to plan. “I fell in love with teaching in the first year,” she admits. She earned her Bachelor of Sciences degree in Biology but remained in teaching for the next 24 years.

She spent six years at Yeghishe Manoukian College before moving on to Eastwood College in Kafarshima for a further six years, eventually climbing to Head of Science at City International School in Beirut. As she fell more in love with her vocation, Shamigian became equally enthralled with the technological revolution that was starting to transform the world around her. Gradually she began introducing it into her teaching—and her colleagues noticed. In 2012 she was appointed Head of Education Tech, with a remit to replicate her modern approach across the school. Shamigian began training the school staff and fellow teachers on the use of technology in education, running workshops on basic skills from opening an email account, to using twitter to engage students.

It was at this time she began to notice that the teachers in the Arabic department were having some real problems. There was very little content available online, little guidance for lesson plans, few articles to share—things that teachers of subjects like English and math take for granted. Another barrier was that the tools she was giving workshops on operated with the Latin alphabet and therefore did not support the Arabic language. “There was a growing frustration among the teachers—they would see how their colleagues were learning and developing and using cool stuff with their students,” Shamigian explains. “And it was frustrating for me because I couldn’t help them.”

After two years she decided enough was enough. She started putting down ideas, initially just for her school, to see if she could build something that could help change her colleagues’ lives.

In 2014, she and co-founder Makkouk, submitted their plans to an MIT Business Plan competition. “At that stage I didn’t know what startup or entrepreneurship meant, I had to find out” Shamigian laughs. They ended up winning the idea stage for the female-led projects.

This proved to be a turning point. Realising they may be onto something with a wider appeal, Shamigian spoke to her school’s principal. He encouraged her to take two years off to see where it could lead, and assured her she would always have a place at the school if things didn’t work out. That was all the push she needed. Shamigian quit her job and registered Kamkalima.

As with most startups, the first year and a half was a challenge. With no investment, the team started out using savings to develop the initial product. They hired someone to help run focus groups with students and teachers, followed by a lawyer and a graphic designer. In 2015, an angel investor approached them to buy a small share in the fledgling company, which helped to support testing in a handful of schools in Lebanon. In October 2016, they received $400,000 in seed investment from venture capitalists IM Capital and iSME. They hired inhouse developers to build the software. Three months later, they launched.

Today the nine-strong team is receiving registration requests from across the Middle East. Shamigian is currently on the lookout for new investors to help her expand—she hopes to double the team to 18 people. “We decided our model is working, so let’s scale and build a team for that,” she says.

The tool itself is constantly growing. As a platform for educators, Kamkalima is designed to “make them superheroes”. Focus groups revealed that although students love to read, they find the Arabic curriculum outdated. Students end up reading Arabic translations of English or French books because that is the content that is relevant to them. Kamkalima makes a digital library available to teachers with customizable lesson plans designed around Arabic texts of differing levels of difficulty. It also provides questions for students, with the system correcting answers and creating a report so the teacher can see what has been picked up and what might need reteaching. “This is our number one kit because teachers are finding it extremely easy to assign homework and get it systematically corrected,” explains Shamigian.

For the students the platform provides support with writing assignments, not just giving them vocabulary words, but also helping them form ideas. Once they log in they can access videos, articles and a “Bot” to guide them. As the student writes, the Bot gives them tips—for example, he detects repetition and advises them on story and character development. It also embraces elements of social media to encourage students to engage with each other on their work, giving options to like friends’ stories and offer opinions. Teachers can even publish students’ work onto the library.

Looking ahead and more tools are already in the pipeline, such as automatic plagiarism detectors and assignments to help with listening and speaking skills. Student apps will be released so they can receive and respond to notifications on their mobile phones. Plans are also in place to set up a support network so that all teacher requests can be responded to within 24hrs.

Although she has no plans to take up her principal’s offer and return to full-time teaching anytime soon, Shamigian stays connected to her roots, training every one of the teacher-users herself. It’s a personal touch that is unlikely to ever be replaced by a Bot. “There’s a saying: technology will never replace teachers; teachers who use technology will replace those who don’t,” Shamigian tells me. “That’s our motto.”

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