edtech solutions in humanitarian contexts

What is the future role of technology in education in humanitarian contexts? 

The current panorama of the technology industry is witnessing the rise of newer technological solutions to a growing array of fields. Recently, a flourishing demand for tech has originated in the  education space. What role do tech solutions have in the future of education? And how can tech help resolve the pressing issues of equitable educational access and quality? Ed-tech, referring to education technology, introduces technological tools into education (Builtin, n.d.), an approach that has existed for more than 25 years now, and is in constant evolution (Weller, 2020). In the humanitarian context, ed-tech has been developing to support educational attainment for disadvantaged groups around the globe (Koomar et al., 2020). As a wealth of solutions have been advanced to tackle educational problems, a discussion on the emerging practice of ed-tech in humanitarian contexts is unequivocally facilitated by looking at examples where new devices have been introduced and the results  they produce.   To date, four technological resources advance the humanitarian efforts of ed-tech solutions : mobile phones, tablet devices, laptops, and radio. The following discussion provides a case analysis of the use of such solutions in humanitarian context to better contextualize their use and their impacts.

Apps, videos and computers in educational programs in humanitarian contexts: examples from around the world.  

Mobile phones and tablets enable the use of Apps, Short Message Services, and Games. “Curious Learning” is an example of the use of Apps for education in humanitarian contexts (Koomar et al. 2020). The objective of these Apps is to enhance children’s literacy skills. One of their most important Apps, ‘Feed the Monster’ supports early reading and spelling, and it has been translated into forty-eight languages (Curious Learning, n.d.). This organization has been working with other partners to spread their technology in African countries and Nepal (Curious Learning, n.d.). Other phone applications are provided by EduApp4Syria, which Syrian children can use for Arabic lessons and psychological support (Norad, n.d.). Mobile phones have also been employed for teachers’ education. In 2012 Nokia mobile phones were delivered to use videos to train teachers in Haiti (Carlson, 2013). 

Other studies and programs have been developed in some countries which suffer from conflicts. In India, mobile phones have been used in education to incorporate videos into teaching. They have also been utilized to download educational games in languages and literacy learning adjusted to the school program (Carlson 2013). In Pakistan, UNESCO encouraged girls’ literacy learning through mobile phone messages in 2000 (Carlson 2013). 

Laptops have also been successfully used to deliver education in humanitarian contexts. Computers allow  access to educational platforms online such as Nafham which provides several educational videos (Koomar et al. 2020). Additionally, knowing how to use a computer is a considerable educational outcome in itself. For instance, the Community Technology Access (CTA) uses laptops to teach  fundamental ICT skills to individuals with low access to technology.  In Kenya, CTA opened a center in a refugee camp with twenty computers, offering many educational courses (Carlson et al., 2013). In 2012 UNICEF launched the Raspberry Pi for Learning Initiative (Pi4L) using an affordable single-board computer to teach digital skills to students and teachers, focusing particularly on Lebanon, as a response to the 2011 Syrian crisis (Education Global Practice, 2016) (UNICEF, 2014). 

Another device used in conflict and unstable contexts to deliver education is radio. Interactive radio instruction (IRI) has been used for a long time and consists of audio learning activities provided ‘by radio, audio cassette or MP3 player’ (Carlson, 2013, p. 20).

One recent example is the Somali Interactive Radio Instruction program which ended in 2011 and involved broadcasting different learning content on the radio or sharing the content to teachers and students via media players (Koomar et al., 2020). Another similar program was developed in South Sudan until 2012, with radio programs delivered on different topics. However, the audio was in English, and the teacher had to translate the content (Carlson, 2013).

Putting Ed-Tech In Context

Ed-tech solutions can be analyzed according to different outcomes, such as increasing access to education material or positive impact on children’s learning. In 2018, a research by Save the Children found that it is unclear whether there exists a  direct and causal relationship between  access to  Ed-tech and improvements in children’s learning outcomes, because  the relationship might be complex, depending on the quantity of technology and the type of technology used. Thus, these factors must be taken into consideration when assessing the impacts of ed-tech solutions in emergency contexts (Save the Children, 2018).  

Studies about the effect of mobile phones on education learning in conflict situations are still limited (Carlson, 2013). However, the available evidence shows that mobile phones or mobile devices, such as tablets, can be cost-effective in delivering education (Capgemini Consulting, 2019). Most of the people in displacement have a mobile phone and they take it when they flee (Capgemini Consulting, 2019). On the other hand, some phones do not have enough storage to download learning material, and the screens might be small, becoming difficult to use for studying (Carlson, 2013). Tablets are believed to have higher potential. They can be utilized without an Internet connection and they possess higher storage capacity compared to mobile phones allowing  the download of a higher number of learning applications (Carlson, 2013).

Conditions inside a camp on Lesvos

The CTA program shows that ed-tech programs can have substantial positive impacts, but they are limited by the quality of the technological environment in which they are implemented. CTA has had positive impacts because of the diversified educational activities for students and teachers (Carlson,2013). However, in the case study of Kenya, the program suffered from limited energy and a poor Internet connection (Carlson,2013). 

The use of radio to deliver education is particularly advantageous since it can easily reach anyone in any country using MP3s if necessary and can be adopted formally and informally (Carlson, 2013). Increasing  evidence shows the positive impact that radio can have on educational outcomes in conflict contexts, particularly in situations with internet and electricity shortcomings (Burde et al., 2015). However, also different constraints might arise. This method seems more suitable for language subjects, but teachers might not have the language skills to use audios as supportive language teaching (Carlson, 2013). This was the case with the Radio Instruction program in Sudan, where teachers were not trained to translate the audios from English (Koomar et al., 2020).

What are the next steps forward for ed-tech in humanitarian contexts?

Policy evaluation of ed-tech efficacy is still limited, but evidence points to encouraging results in a variety of settings (Save the Children, 2018). Some solutions might also be new, thus being too early on in their stage to be evaluated. However, as a general rule, considering the logistical challenges  of the humanitarian contexts, the focus should be on developing ed-tech which are context and needs specific (Capgemini Consulting, 2019). This might mean that the ed-tech solution must integrate devices, softwares and pedagogy seamlessly (Capgemini Consulting, 2019). Ed-tech solutions need to consider that introducing technology in education, especially in a humanitarian context, can also be difficult because of digital illiteracy  which can affect both teachers and students (Capgemini Consulting, 2019). This is a barrier that should not be overlooked.

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