Learning on the run: using ICT for education in emergencies

Photo 1Natural disasters, extreme weather, bombings and protracted armed conflict can destroy schools and undermine the normalcy of school life. Given the complexity of how education is impacted by emergencies, innovative solutions are needed to ensure that disruption to education is minimized. Mobile learning in such settings – the theme of this year’s Mobile Learning Week – can bring vital relief to children and youth deprived of an education, and teachers tasked with the job of providing it.

First let’s remember the way that education is affected by emergencies, so that we can better understand how ICT can fill the gap. Most visibly perhaps is the physical destruction of schools. To get an idea of the scale of destruction this can involve, flip back to our 2016 GEM Report, which showed that schools were used for military purposes in 26 countries between 2005 and 2015. In Iraq, 85% of schools were damaged or destroyed by fighting during the conflict of 2003–2004. By 2016, the Syrian Arab Republic had lost more than one-quarter of its schools.

Next, of course, is the adverse impact this has on the teaching force, without whom, of course, organized teaching and learning is impossible. During the Rwandan genocide, more than two-thirds of the teaching force in primary and secondary schools was killed or fled. In Nigeria, 19,000 teachers have been forced to flee since 2009. In Colombia, 140 teachers were killed over 2009–2013. Quite apart from losing members of the teaching force, teachers who remain may become de-motivated and lose opportunities to participate in training programmes due to a lack of security, and facilities.

Last but not least, over the last decade, the problem of out of school children has been increasingly concentrated in conflict-affected countries, where the proportion increased from 29% in 1999 to 35% in 2014. In short, in such circumstances, teaching and learning in traditional classroom settings are often severely affected and other means of providing quality education are needed.

Can ICT fill the gap?

Data collection and communication: To answer this question, we need to remember that ICT comes in various shapes and sizes. ICTs aren’t just useful to improve learning for individual students in classrooms, for example, but also because they help coordinate all those working to help rebuild education systems post-crisis.

ICTs can also provide crucial monitoring and information. They can be used to collect data, such as by surveying teachers, which can be shared with all those working in a crisis setting. OpenEMIS Refugees developed by UNESCO, for instance, tracks education data in emergency settings, and has been used in Jordan to collect information on displaced children attending schools.  Using ICTs to coordinate response and disseminate information is immediate, and extremely cost effective.

Even the media has used ICT to give voice to people’s experiences during emergencies and map their whereabouts in spatial terms. Al Jazeera’s Somalia Speaks project uses crowdsourcing and SMS to enable thousands of Somalis to express how armed conflict in Somalia has affected their lives. Responses were translated into English and plotted on a map. “The conflict has interrupted my education repeatedly over the past 20 years. I had to move from one to town to another, and go many years without education. Now that I’m about to graduate from high school I face uncertainty. There are no accredited universities around, and I don’t have the means to travel abroad,” said one.

Learning through the madness

2ICT can serve as a conduit for learning in post-war situations as well. Research has shown that mobile learning will not work when it is ‘Parachuted in”, unconnected to schools, but is instead incorporated as part of more comprehensive education responses. UNESCO in Iraq took this approach in 2013, integrating mobile learning solutions into the education services at all levels already being provided.

One of the reasons ICTs work in such settings is that they can easily facilitate access to remote learning resources, to experts and curricula. Through the Internet, a vast amount of multi-media learning materials in almost every subject and topic can be accessed from anywhere at any time. Even when internet infrastructure does not exist, people can use mobile phones for e-learning, where content is delivered via text messaging or local servers.

Studies from Liberia have shown that mobile learning can improve student motivation too, and so bring greater involvement in the learning process. Many researches believe that this is because ICT increases student engagement by shifting pedagogy from teacher-centred to student-centred learning.

One education level that particularly benefits from mobile learning is higher education. As was highlighted in the recent GEM Report paper with UNHCR, only 1% of refugees have access to higher education. Refugees face many obstacles in accessing traditional higher education, such as lack of documentation providing recognition of prior learning, and not being able to afford tuition fees or learning materials. Since 2010, however, several organizations have begun to offer online higher education for refugees, bringing them access to resources and tutoring they otherwise would not have.

Another major advantage of ICTs in emergencies is the accessibility they provide to training for otherwise deserted teachers. The International Rescue Committee launched ‘Connect to Learn’ in Iraq targeted forcibly displaced Syrian teachers and gave them access to teaching and learning, while also addressing the needs of children experiencing psychosocial distress.

Networks: When used effectively ICTS can help strengthen communication among teachers and among learners, and between teachers and learners. Free instant messaging applications, such as Whatsapp, are widely used for communication between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and among students, for example. Such networks can then become a learning community and provide students and instructors with a sense of belonging to  a friendly, interactive learning environment. They can participate in chat room and forum discussions, produce and share digital visual content on mobile devices, mobile phones, flip cameras, iPhones and the iPod Touch. Text messaging can also be a safe learning space, enabling people to hear quickly about danger near schools.

Cost effective: Radio and television were used for years as an cost-effective way to disseminate education to remote populations, and people deprived of education in emergencies. They have been used successfully to reach out of school youth in a number of countries, especially in Mexico, via the Teleseundaria Project, and in China, with the TV University system, which churned out over 100,000 graduates per year. Iraq also used TV with its Iraqi Edu TV channel, to reach out of school, IDP and refugee students.

Online teaching and learning resources can also be provided for free, often via Youtube. Teachers can help identify appropriate and relevant content, in different languages, and pass along these links to students.  Virtual libraries and e-books, especially in higher education, can substantially reduce the costs of acquiring expensive textbooks, journals, and reference materials.

One size fits all is unlikely to work

Clearly, as with all ICT based education initiatives, if there is no electricity, or enough computers, then the accessibility and scalability of ICT interventions are limited. However, providing education in crisis cannot be done with one single approach. Complex settings, diverse requirements, and constantly evolving crises call for a flexible, and innovative approach to the many challenges. Assessing the benefits that ICTs in their various shapes and sizes can bring to the table is a must.

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  1. Hello! Thanks for the very insightful post! I am an LSE student currently conducting research on ICTs incorporation in education for marginalized children (refugees, IDPs, with disabilities). Would anyone able to help me by sharing docs or over a discussion? Thank you!

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