Educating Refugees: The Value Of Digital Platforms And Mobile Technology

Malcolm Woodfield

Natural disasters, racial and religious persecution, and wars take a great toll on humanity. Populations in affected areas often find themselves in untenable positions within their own countries. Too often, they have only one option to save their loved ones and themselves: to flee their homeland in search of a safer place.

The UNHCR reports that the war in Syria has displaced more people than ever. Currently, there are more than 50 million refugees worldwide, and that number is growing every day.

Education is essential for brighter prospects

Half of all refugees are children under the age of 18. Surveys show that most remain displaced for approximately 17 years. Moreover, their access to education is sporadic or even non-existent. This limits their potential to integrate into their new countries. It also reduces their employment opportunities. Knowledge workers are critical in developed countries and are becoming important in developing countries.

Of course, children aren’t the only ones who need education. Displaced adults also need to learn their host country’s language and systems. Those who are not skilled or educated need help acquiring marketable skills and knowledge, or they’re likely to end up on the bottom rung of society, with few prospects.

The difficult challenge of delivering quality education

Despite an increasing need for effective ways to deliver quality education to refugees, there are significant challenges. Education takes a back seat to more pressing concerns like food, shelter, and safety. And though there are millions of refugees in camps, millions are also on the move. Classroom teaching is impossible while people are transient. Yet abstinence from learning takes a toll on refugees’ development.

Another serious challenge has always been lack of funds. Books and other learning materials are expensive. Bringing in teachers, often from overseas, to work in refugee camps is also costly, but today we also face different challenges.

Digital platforms and mobile technology offer innovative solutions

More than 6 billion of the 7 billion people on our planet have access to mobile phones. Even refugees, who often leave almost everything they own behind, can usually afford inexpensive smartphones. That means they have access to knowledge, as long as they have an Internet connection.

Exciting new educational opportunities for young refugees

A 2014 survey that examined the use of mobile phones in a Syrian refugee camp found that 86 percent of the young people in the camp owned a mobile phone. More than 50 percent accessed the Internet one or more times each day. Most were looking for news and information.

Despite the mobile network coverage, the camp often lacked electricity, which hampered computer and tablet use. The camp’s vocational center, however, offered limited Internet access, which enabled more than 100 young refugees to graduate from an IT certificate program. This will greatly enhance their employment options.

Smartphone use and easy access to the Internet forms the core of most new education initiatives. The Financial Times reported that Save the Children wants to provide wi-fi and technology for refugee children.

Libraries Without Borders provides an “Ideas Box,” which offers a power source and a portable media center to refugee camps and other underserved areas. Assembly takes approximately 20 minutes and yields a 1,000-square-foot space. Reconfiguring the packaging provides desks, and computers, screens, e-readers, and other educational equipment are also available.

UNHCR reports on a 2014 initiative between the Vodafone Foundation and the Learn Lab that established 13 Instant Network Classrooms in a refugee settlement in Dadaab. The classrooms were in six primary school and three secondary schools. Four vocational training centers also established classrooms. The classrooms each received a backup generator, solar-powered batteries, a set of tablets, and a mobile network. Finally, they got a suite of content and online resources, as well as training options for coaches. Refugee and humanitarian organizations have applauded the system, which allowed teachers to focus on the subject matter rather than IT issues.

Adult refugees benefit from smart apps and online education

When it comes to educational programs for adult refugees, there are two groups to consider: adult refugees with an education who need to integrate into their host country, and uneducated adults who need an education to improve their employment opportunities.

CourseTalk and USAID recently launched a new initiative that will bring online education to displaced young adults as well as those in the developing world. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are a key part of this initiative, offering free information to anyone with Internet access.

According to The Atlantic, Germany has seen an influx of Syrian refugees in the past year. To help them integrate, the German government is developing German-language smartphone apps. Private companies are also developing apps that offer information such as how to find housing or apply for refugee status.

Online digital platforms are powerful tools for refugees

Humanitarian and government organizations acknowledge the vast potential of digital platforms for educating refugees. Easy access to knowledge has the potential to transform the refugee experience. Better language skills and improved labor market potential will make integration much easier.

To learn more about digital transformation, see Higher Education and Research: Reimagined for the new economy.


Malcolm Woodfield

About Malcolm Woodfield

Malcolm Woodfield is the Global Vice President, Head of Industry Business Unit Education & Research, at SAP. He manages a global team accountable for the overall business, market, customer, and revenue success of the Higher Education / Public Services portfolio (including all Applications, Analytics, Mobile, HANA, and Cloud) globally.