Paper Airplanes-Language and Skills Accessibility for Refugees

Emerging as a response to the Syrian crisis, Paper Airplanes is a digital solution to refugee education access. Paper Airplanes provides personalized tutoring through Skype, matching refugee students predominantly in the MENA region with personal tutors. We focus on providing English, Turkish, and computer coding courses to refugees no matter where they are, providing instruction and fostering cross-cultural dialogue. It is a 501(c) 3 registered nonprofit organization. 

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How Can You Help?

  • Connect us with funding and resources
  • Join our team
  • Join our Board of Directors
  • Give us business planning and strategy advice
  • Provide backend coding/programming expertise

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About This Innovation

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Paper Airplanes is a recently registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 21 unpaid staff and hundreds of volunteers.

How does your innovation work?

Paper Airplanes focuses predominantly on English, which is the major language of regional and international universities, as well as most major job sectors.  Our main program is the English Tutoring Program, providing students in crisis areas with free English courses through Skype. We have three additional pilot programs, aimed at diversifying our services while relying on the same successful model of our English program.

How it Works:
1) Students and tutors apply separately online. They go through a light screening process and then are hand-matched by our staff.
2) After going through an orientation, they are virtually introduced and meet for 10 weeks over Skype. Our volunteer tutors rely on a four-level curriculum to provide personalized instruction.
3) Students take a diagnostic, a midterm, and a final English exam. Many students receive additional assistance in test-specific training.
4) Students continue until passing through our Advanced curriculum, at which point their English has reached a high operational level. 

Why It Matters: Teaching English provides a medium for pairs to learn about each other, the cultures they come from, their passions, families, dreams, and how current events have effected each other. Our lessons are as much about fostering cross-cultural understanding as they are teaching English. We hope to bring tutors and students closer together for lasting relationships beyond the virtual classroom. We hope to help students obtain general English acquisition, as we recognize its importance in higher education and employment, and its relative inaccessibility. We also provide additional test-specific resources supporting students taking the TOEFL and IELTS exams. 

Pilot Programs:
This winter, we launched three additional pilot programs: the Turkish Tutoring Program, matching Turkish tutors with Syrian refugees in Turkey; the Youth Exchange Program, matching Syrian and American high school classrooms for English conversation and resource support; and Women in Coding program, teaching Syrian women Python and JavaScript. 

So far we have served over 1,000 students, and hope to continue providing useful skills and languages through Skype to those who need it most.  

What Evidence do you have that your Innovation works?

So far, our team has conducted surveys before and after each 10-week term of instruction. Our Fall 2016 English Program results displayed the following highlights:

  • Students
    • Over 80% satisfaction rate
    • Over 73% said they felt comfortable using English in a professional or university setting
    • Over half of our students want to continue participating
    • Over 600+ applicants in three days 
  • Tutors
    • Over 98% said the Syrian crisis felt closer to home after tutoring a Syrian student
    • 9/10 said their leadership and mentoring capabilities were improved after tutoring 

Our data collection will continue improving as our organization grows in capacity. However, initial results show high levels of satisfaction, understanding, and language acquisition. 

Do you have current users or testers?

Yes -- currently, Paper Airplanes has over 330 students enrolled in its programs. 

What is your strategy for expanding use of your innovation?

We continue to receive a high number of applicants from both the tutor and student side. However, we have reached our institutional capacity limit, and need to focus on organizational sustainability. Currently, our expansion is four-fold:

1) As a recently registered nonprofit organization in the United States, we hope to begin paying our volunteer staff for their work. Four of our current staff were former students in the program, and we particularly want to support their personal growth. We hope to use a mix of private donors, corporations, and middle-sized grants to sustain our operations.

2)  To form private partnerships with major online educational companies like Blackboard and Coursera, to provide our users with an easier and more comprehensive learning platform. 

3) To provide funds for our top students to take their English proficiency exams.

4) To then expand the number of students we serve to over 1,000 per 10-week term. 

Next Steps

Our next steps are as follows: 

1) Raise an initial $10,000 to fund student English exams and three part-time staff positions, two of whom are former refugees
2) Begin reaching out to press for increased coverage of our organization
3) Improve our educational platform by partnering with private corporations like Blackboard and Coursera
4) Raise an additional $20,000 through private funders and grants to pay full-time staff members and develop a test-prepration course for students
5) Expand our student base to over 1,000 per term.