By Nafez Dakkak, Executive Chairman of Edraak at the Queen Rania Foundation
Samia was 10 when she left her home for the first time and became a refugee. She was just about to enter 5th grade. Forcefully displaced from her home country, she was unable to pursue her right to an education. Moving from one location to the next, caregivers and teachers at makeshift schools were unable to provide her with the needed resources and support to continue learning. More than 5 years later, Samia is 15 years old and yet to be provided with regular access to formal education. Samia is just one of millions of refugee children around the world.
Today, no part of the world is affected by migration and displacement more than the Arab States. Globally, out of every three displaced people, globally one is from the region. As the Arab States 2019 GEM Report released last week shows, this stark reality has had a tangible impact on the performance of regional education systems – especially when it comes to basic indicators such as enrollment.
Over the past thirty years, states across the region invested heavily in providing access to primary and secondary education (admittedly sometimes at the risk of quality provision). But many of the gains in enrollment have now been reversed – partly due to the refugee crisis. Unless regional and state actors come together with dedicated and innovative efforts the region risks losing out on all its previous investments in education – and most importantly resulting in a “lost generation”.
Our team at Edraak, an Arabic platform for open online education launched by the Queen Rania Foundation, is bringing international and regional entities together to explore how we can play a larger role in providing access to education for refugees and host communities. While initially, we launched the platform with a focus on higher education reaching almost 3 million learners, with the support from key partners like Google.org and the Jack Ma Foundation, we expanded into the K-12 space in 2017. Starting with teaching the foundational skills of mathematics and English language, today Edraak supports over 300,000 K-12 learners with the three functional uses: structured sequential learning material along predefined paths aligned with national curricula; student-centered inquiry-based learning that allows users to search for concepts or skills; and finally a mixture of the first two focused on remedial education. In early 2020, the platform aims to provide refugee and host community learners with access to free English placement tests that will place them into customized pathways towards mastering English – a key skill for the modern economy.
Our experience at Edraak has shown us that technology is no silver bullet but that it can nevertheless provide a necessary part of any global response to the ongoing challenge of educating both host and migrant populations. The scalability, speed, mobility and portability of technology-enhanced solutions promise powerful elements desirable in any education system. However, as it has been documented widely, there are large risks to working with education technology – especially if we forget to put education before the technology (even in well-resourced contexts). There are four key principles that must govern the leveraging of technology in similar situations.
Solve a defined problem first
Technology provides scalability and portability. Yet that is not necessarily always the right remedy to the existing problem. Technologists, entrepreneurs and policy makers must first ensure they have a full understanding of the existing problem, and a solution that remedies or tackles that challenge. Scaling a program in a language that beneficiaries don’t understand (apparently not as uncommon as you’d expect – despite all the good intentions) can do more harm than good.
Be mindful of access
As we’ve argued before at Queen Rania Foundation, the ubiquity of Internet connectivity has led to in some cases a dangerous and uncritical approach to how well-minded technologist and donors develop solutions to the refugee crisis. Technical solutions such as online learning platforms aren’t always the most convenient or desirable for refugee students – although of course they can be made to work. In Jordan, for example, Internet-based solutions work best for refugees outside the camps, where access to technological devices and Internet service is more likely, and are more effective when optimized for mobile phones.
Building on this finding, we’ve worked with local telecom operators to provide internet access at zero cost to learners in Jordan (and are hoping to get other national carriers across the region to follow suit). However, we know that is not enough.
Notably, our research shows that the majority of refugee learners strongly prefer a blended learning approach that includes face-to-face interactions with their instructors. As a rule of thumb, it’s important that actors do not equate access to social media platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook with the ability to learn online. The word “connected” must take on a more thoughtful definition – particularly one that considers refugees’ preferences and abilities.
Make migrant-friendly credentials
Thirdly, it is painfully obvious that when you are fleeing your home, packing your learning certificates is not (and should not) be a consideration – a point the Arab States 2019 GEM Report highlights. Nevertheless, countless refugees around the world are unable to access and continue education or benefit fully from technology solutions because they lack the appropriate educational credentials. Storing student progress on educational platforms like Edraak and others is a step in the right direction – but not enough. Thankfully, there are several ongoing efforts – not least of which by the MIT Media Lab – to leverage different technologies to create portable and secure digital academic credentials.
Make Arabic content, make it free and make it useful
Lastly, there is a general consensus about the disproportionate lack of Arabic content online – most estimates put it less than 1%. In light of the overwhelming number of displaced migrants coming from the Arab States, investing in the creation and curation of high quality Arabic content is an imperative. Recent research shows that refugees become more dependent on the internet as things around them change drastically in the real world. It is important that technologists and other actors create relevant Arabic educational and license it openly when possible. Finally, when creating content particularly for the K-12 level it is important to align it as closely as possible with national curricula and provide the needed scaffolding to ensure teachers know how to leverage it – within their demanding and busy schedules.
Obviously (and painstakingly so), following these principles alone will not necessarily guarantee success in attempting to respond to the largest humanitarian crisis in our lifetimes. It is a long and difficult road ahead but we have no other choice but to dedicate all needed resources to avert a lost-generation – especially making sure that technology plays its part.