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A lifeline to learning: Leveraging technology to support education for refugees

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Background, scope and goals

The issue of provision of education and related services for refugees is complex and multifaceted. With a record number of 65 million individuals who were forcibly displaced worldwide in 2016, the magnitude of the refugee and displacement crises is unprecedented (UNHCR, 2017). Particularly alarming is that children make up more than half of the 22.5 million refugees, i.e. those individuals who fled their countries to seek protection elsewhere. The repercussions in the field of education can be quite severe. Immediate, strategic and sustainable educational responses are required to ensure that refugees and displaced populations have access to equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.

The increased access that refugees have to digital mobile technologies suggests that leveraging these tools more frequently and in a systematic manner could be a source of support for education delivery, administration and support services in refugee contexts. In fact, the number of refugee projects and initiatives that involve the use of mobile technologies is growing. This report analyses current experiences, lessons learned and emerging practices in mobile solutions in the field of education for refugees, with a view towards assessing opportunities and challenges and informing the way forward.
Different, continuously emerging definitions of mobile learning exist. In this report, mobile learning is defined broadly as education that involves the use of mobile devices to enable learning any time and anywhere, with a particular focus on mobility and its unique affordances rather than on technology per se. It includes questions about how mobile devices can support not only learning but also broad educational goals such as effective education administration and information management (Vosloo, 2012, p. 10). A comprehensive interpretation of what constitutes mobile learning includes learning across formal, non-formal and informal settings, and in camps and urban areas. Also, it encapsulates notions of situated and participatory learning, both online and offline, and with a wide range of mobile media while learners are stationary or on the move.

The report focuses on persons who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster and who experience learning during a variety of phases ranging from dislocation and journey to arrival and integration in new, provisional, protracted or more durable host country settings.
However, after initial searches returned only a limited number of papers and projects, some of the arguments have been additionally bolstered with a selective number of studies and reports on groups with characteristics similar to refugees, i.e. people displaced by emergencies and/or fleeing socio-economic hardships.

Approach and structure

To comprehensively capture the potential of mobile technology in education for refugees, the research integrated different methodological approaches including systematic searches of academic databases, selective web searches and semi-structured interviews with experts, practitioners and refugees involved in mobile learning projects and initiatives.
In this report, the analysis of mobile learning projects and practices is structured alongside ten education-related challenges,1 grouped into three main categories:

Individual: Challenges that can negatively impact refugees’ learning and teaching opportunities, as well as their lives beyond the learning environment. These include the lack of language and literacy skills; the disorientation that might be caused en route and during the integration process in new environments; trauma and identity struggles; and exclusion and isolation.

Education system: Challenges that transcend individual education levels and domains and stem from issues in the education system more broadly. These include the unpreparedness of teachers to meet the demands of working with refugees; the lack of openly available, appropriate and adequate learning and teaching resources; and the lack of documentation and certification mechanisms for displaced populations.

Educational levels: Challenges that pertain to the different levels and types of education, including limited access to good-quality primary and secondary education; obstacles to vocational training and labour market participation; and restricted higher education access.