Keith Coughlin, one of the four British teachers who visited a school in the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. How can the development, humanitarian, entrepreneurial and education communities ensure that technology has an impact on refugee education? Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY-NC

Refugees and migrants forced to flee persecution, war or economic instability often put education aside for a time — focusing instead on their basic needs for survival. But even when these individuals and families begin to think about learning again, access to quality education can be hard to come by.

Refugee camps often lack teachers and are rarely set up to provide formal curriculum based education. Even schools in destination countries can find themselves overcrowded with students and lacking in teachers and supplies.

Thousands of refugees are flooding across Syria’s border into neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, civil war continues to displace thousands in Somalia, and refugee camps are turning into permanent homes for generations of families. But technologists and education champions are looking for new and innovative ways to intervene through tech to ensure a quality education.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation has launched a competition for smartphone-based applications for the education of Syrian refugee children. And speaking on Capitol Hill recently, U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment Eric Postel emphasized the need for new innovation and technology for the education of refugees.

“We can use new methods, new partners, new technologies, new approaches to finance, to be more efficient, and have better outcomes in our collective efforts,” Postel said.

From satellite and solar devices that remotely beam the best qualified teachers into overcrowded schools, to interactive radio instruction for migrants on the move, technology has the potential to make quality instruction available to refugee and migrant populations otherwise at risk of falling months or years behind.

What makes the difference between a gimmick and a potential game changer, and how can the development, humanitarian and education communities ensure that new technological solutions for refugee education have a real impact?

Here are seven tips:

1. Know your audience and find out what’s in-demand.

Refugees and migrants come from a variety of socio-economic, educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and depending on where they are on their journeys, have access to different levels of existing technologies.

Refugees, for example, might not have more than their cellphones with them. Children and young adults often don’t have access to any technological devices. Refugees in camps might have cellphones and perhaps Bluetooth technology, and there may be a radio station nearby, some of them set up by the United Nations or other aid groups.

Understanding what technologies migrants and refugees have access to, and what they know how to use is a good first step in introducing education interventions that work, according to Simon Richmond, international technology adviser at Education Development Center.

Education materials that are accessible through existing mediums can be more easily adopted on the ground and sustainable, compared with more high-tech interventions, Richmond explained.

EDC has had success implementing interactive radio instruction for internally displaced people in Somalia. Under this model, supported by USAID, regularly scheduled educational programs are broadcast on shortwave and FM bands, reaching radios in schools in rural communities and learning centers in IDP camps.

Understanding the education goals of migrants and refugees is another critical part of building a useful curriculum, pointed out Rachel Christina, director of international basic education and literacy at EDC. For example, for refugees in camps intent on settling down in another country, there might be an opportunity to begin teaching them the language spoken in that country — a proactive intervention that could ease their transition to a new home.

And beyond access to technology and education goals, basic considerations such as language of instruction and level of instruction have to be considered as well.  

2. Combine gadgets with training and coaching.

Whether it is basic technology like radio in refugee camps, or more high-tech interventions such as satellite-powered distance learning, or tablets and laptop computers in overcrowded classrooms, appropriate training for instructors and facilitators is necessary.

Technologists and development professionals shouldn’t forget that teachers who aren’t used to using certain technologies will feel out of place if asked to do so without appropriate training.

“An adult who is sitting in front of a classroom of 12-year-olds who are challenging them and … maybe learning the technology a bit faster than them, is not going to use that technology. They are going to feel embarrassed,” Rebecca Spotts, deputy director of education at World Learning, told Devex.

Spotts added that appropriate technical training for teachers and facilitators in the classroom improves digital literacy, and gives them the confidence they need to teach and manage children in a classroom — or refugee camp — full of new gadgets.

3. Think of refugee education as a chronic problem.

The average time someone spends living as a refugee is 17 years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That often means 17 years without access to consistent, quality education. And while donors often treat refugee education as an emergency situation that requires quick money instead of sustained funding, there is slowly beginning to emerge a shift in mindset according to Kurt Moses, director for policy and information systems at FHI 360.

“It’s only now beginning to be appreciated what it means to have an entire lost generation of children,” Moses told Devex.

Eric Postel of USAID emphasized the need to think of a refugee’s access to education as a persistent challenge that requires new solutions, making reference to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where generations of Somali refugees have now lived.

“When three generations have lived there and they still don’t have any education, obviously we have to do things and think about things differently,” Postel said at an event on Capitol Hill.

When developing technology for refugee education, think about how it might be integrated into a long-term education system for people in more permanent situations of transit — and make that case to donors.

4. Make tech that lasts.

Technology in classrooms and other refugee settings is susceptible to break when energetic children get their hands on it. And depending on the context, other factors such as dust, rain, extreme weather or even theft can spell the demise of a gadget. Making tech sturdy sets it up for better success.

5. Calculate cost at scale.

Technology can be expensive, and scaling technology for a large number of students, teachers or facilitators can make it exponentially more expensive. Avoid surprises by keeping a budget and planning ahead.

“Use rough numbers early on and make sure that you’re within reality for what you want to accomplish,” Cliff Schmidt, founder and executive director of Literacy Bridge, told Devex.

Literacy Bridge is perhaps best known for creating the Talking Book, a light and durable audio computer that disseminates lessons to adults and youth in rural and impoverished parts of the world. The organization is in discussions with “a major international organization” about bringing Talking Books to a refugee camp, Schmidt told Devex.

6. Build off success in other settings.

When looking to scale technology for refugees and migrant education, it helps to have proven the effectiveness of that technology in another setting.

EDC’s radio instruction program in Somalia, for instance, was born from a pilot program in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Literacy Bridge’s Talking Book gained notoriety delivering health and farming lessons in rural West Africa. And in its efforts to provide distance learning for students in overcrowded schools in Jordan and Lebanon, the Varkey Foundation is drawing on its past experience in Ghana.

In Ghana in 2014, the Varkey Foundation, with funding from the U.K. Department for International Development, launched a distance learning program designed to use satellite-equipped schools and solar-powered computer technology to provide quality instruction for girls in rural and low-income parts of the country.

The implementation of that program subsequently lead the Varkey Foundation to launch a new distance learning teacher training program in January called Train for Tomorrow, which uses the same technology to train teachers across Ghana from a TV studio in Accra. Now the foundation hopes to put this technology to use in schools in Jordan and Lebanon.

“In our case, our platform has been successful in a particular context ... and through our experience we have learnt a great deal that can be applied in the refugee situation,” Vikas Pota, CEO of the Varkey Foundation, wrote to Devex in an email. “What our learnings in Ghana have done is to provide a baseline on how we can deploy our platform to reach a large number of students in a resource constrained environment.”

7. Make great content.

The best education technology in the world won’t be used if the content it disseminates isn’t compelling or of high quality. So make a content plan that takes into consideration the learning needs of the people you want to reach, their language, and even stories that might resonate with their cultural backgrounds. Then, as Schmidt of Literacy Bridge told Devex, “get quick feedback” to make sure it’s working.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.