Innovation transforms education for refugee students in Africa
Tablet computers and mobile networks are bringing the latest in online education to students in refugee camps, and it’s firing up their interest in learning
By: Catherine Wachiaya in Dadaab, Kenya | 14 March 2017
Dekow Mohamed was still buzzing days after her role model, the Nobel laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai, visited her school in the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya last May.
“You can’t imagine how excited I was when I saw her, face to face,” says Dekow, a refugee from Somalia. At age 18, she is a year younger than the Pakistani activist, who escaped an assassination attempt after defying Taliban bans on girls going to school.
Malala’s story spread around the world and inspired millions of people. But it might have passed Dekow by if not for an innovative initiative called Instant Network Schools, or INS, which brought online education and connectivity into her refugee camp school.
Selected schools and community centres are kitted out with a “digital box” that includes a set of computer tablets, solar-powered batteries, a satellite or mobile network, and a suite of content and online learning material. Teachers receive IT support and ongoing training.
Since the initial pilot in Dadaab in 2014, the programme has been taken up by 31 centres in four countries in the region: Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It grew organically from a partnership between UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Vodafone Foundation, which had been working in schools in Dadaab. Seeing the huge gaps in resources and connectivity in the camp highlighted how mobile technology could improve the quality of education in such remote areas.
More than 65 million people are currently uprooted by wars and persecution worldwide, including more than 21 million refugees. Half of them are children, far too many of whom are missing out on an education. According to a UNHCR report, only 50 per cent are enrolled in primary school, 22 per cent in secondary, and one per cent in tertiary education.
In Africa, which hosts more displaced people than anywhere apart from the Middle East, millions of refugee students are struggling to catch up with their education. Innovations like INS help to provide as much continuity in their education as possible.
Even when they are at school, refugee children in Africa often learn in extremely tough conditions, in overcrowded classes with limited resources. UNHCR, through programs like INS, is helping to bridge some of these gaps and reaching thousands of students like Dekow.
“Learners understand best what they see, rather than what they hear, and we used to hear about lots of things that we never knew,” she says. “But when the tablets arrived, even our teachers were wondering at how we were participating. We are in a position to respond to difficult questions without even going back to our notes.”
Jacqueline Strecker, a Nairobi-based coordinator at UNHCR’s Innovation Lab, says the idea is to take a holistic approach bringing technology into the classroom. “We wanted to use it to help improve teaching through higher access to relevant teaching material and up-to-date information that teachers could use, and add educational videos and pictures for students into the mix.”
She adds: “It taps into UNHCR’s commitment to ensure high-quality education by enhancing classrooms and having refugees benefit from digital material. We hear from students and teachers that the programme has increased motivation on both sides. Teachers are also more excited to come to schools, and they feel like they are supported.”
Gadafi Mohamed, a teacher in Hagadera camp in Dadaab, highlights the additional interest stirred by having Information Communication and Technology, or ICT, in the classroom. “Before we embraced ICT, many learners were not even coming for classes because of lack of interest,” he says.
“Since we started using ICT there have been a number of improvements. It is basically visualizing things other than teaching from the textbooks, and the students have really developed their interest.”
The Instant Network Schools is one of eight projects from seven countries featured at Africa Shares, a three-day forum in Geneva that shows how refugees can be assets to the communities who host them. The event, which runs from March 14 to 16 and is hosted by UNHCR, emphasizes that innovation is widespread across the continent and that refugees are actively engaged in successful initiatives.
Projects include Malian refugee artisans in Burkina Faso, a children’s reading initiative in Ethiopia, a Rwandan energy-saving stove project, a Zimbabwean poultry project, a Malawian Microsoft connectivity scheme, and urbanization and subsidized gas initiatives in Niger.
What cuts across all of these projects is the community-based approach that UNHCR and partners have taken. Refugees are central to each, and they can exercise their existing skills while learning new ones.
“UNHCR’s greatest asset is the fact that we’ve got communities that are highly resilient and very creative,” says Strecker. “Allowing them to use their creativity to take charge of such projects and own them is what’s really important.”
Equally important is the fact that refugees in Africa are inspired to use innovation to create home-grown solutions. For Dekow, innovation has not only enhanced her education experience, it has motivated her to be like her role model.
“Malala told us to speak up,” she says. “I thought that she had a great message because her message and my dream correspond to each other. My dream is to become a lawyer and convey the message of education to my society so that one day, we can all become great in this world.”
'Education in Emergencies and Crises' is the theme for Mobile Learning Week, UNESCO's flagship education conference being held in Paris March 20 through 24. The conference will bring together experts and policy makers from around the world to explore how to strengthen inclusion in education and preserve the continuity of learning in conflict and disaster contexts.
This year, UNHCR is co-sponsoring the conference, with an emphasis on how technology can help give refugees quality education, even in the face of an emergency.