From radio to AI: Seeking solutions to support learning for refugees, migrants and IDPs

If the current pandemic has forced countries around the world to rethink and be creative in finding ways to ensure learning continuity, the different modes of distance learning that are being explored should be carefully considering equity and inclusiveness. How could technology be used to reach out to some of the most marginalized populations, such as refugees, migrants, and internally displaced persons? UNESCO wants to hear from you!

May 15, 2020 by Jonghwi Park, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning
4 minutes read
Somali refugee teacher Amina Hassan gives an English lesson to Grade 5 students over the radio at Dadaab camp in Kenya.
Somali refugee teacher Amina Hassan gives an English lesson to Grade 5 students over the radio at Dadaab camp in Kenya.
Credit: UNHCR/Jimale Abdullahi

While you are reading this sentence, one person somewhere in the world will be forcibly displaced from their home. That is one person displaced every two seconds. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the worldwide number of people forced from their homes stood at a staggering 70.8 million (equivalent of the total population of Thailand or the UK) in mid-2019.

Refugee learning crisis

Given that most refugees spend 4 to 5 years in exile, the lost years of learning for children and youth and the consequent disruption in developing their foundational literacy and numeracy skills can significantly derail their future learning opportunities and social integration.

Adult refugees also show a desire for learning. A survey in one of the largest camps in Jordan found that the majority of men and women had a strong interest in attending skills training and that they would enroll in programs if they were available.

The Covid-19 pandemic further complicated their situation. When finding soap is a luxury and social distancing is simply impossible in the crowded camps, schools and learning centers had no choice but to close down.

The longer the marginalized are out of school, the less likely they are to return, leading to more serious issues such as social unrest, child exploitation, teen pregnancy and sexual abuse. Concerns about educational continuity also persist for settled refugees and migrants. For instance, in-class integration courses and education services for refugees and migrants have been suspended in many European host countries.

Using their lifelines

The current pandemic, however, has a silver lining with respect to education and learning. It has forced the education system to rethink and be creative in finding ways to ensure learning continuity. Different modes of distance learning are being explored with careful consideration of equity and inclusiveness.

One wonders, then, whether and how technology could reach out to some of the most marginalized populations, such as refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Research undertaken with 500 refugees found that they ranked water, phone and food as essential, in that order, meaning that they prioritize staying connected above food, clothing and health care. Refugees, whether on the move, in camps or after arrival in a host country, consider mobile phones a lifeline for their survival.

Tapping into technology many refugees already possess, the use of mobile phones for learning is already a reality. Some examples include AI-powered micro-learning for low literate adults to develop skills, an adaptive reading program for girls and women, and a multi-partnership program with Blockchain-based applications to recognize learning gained in refugee camps in Uganda.

What about those refugees, migrants and IDPs with limited access to internet and high-tech applications? There are many examples where low-tech solutions such as TV, radio and phones have served the purpose.

For instance, in a refugee camp in Kenya, a community radio station is used to broadcast lessons to 10,000 primary and secondary students who are affected by the closure of 22 camp schools. The Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe (EPALE) provides free phone tuition services beyond literacy learning and meets the common needs of adult learners, such as filling a welfare form and helping children on home-based learning.

Call for cases: Radio to artificial intelligence

In response to the growing interest in seeking innovative solutions to ensure learning continuity for refugees, migrants and IDPs, UNESCO, through the Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), has launched a call for cases. In line with the UNESCO Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy, the project aims to analyze success factors, identify challenges and document measures taken to overcome them. The ultimate goal is to produce evidence-based recommendations for policymakers and program providers who wish to design holistic and relevant interventions for this vulnerable population.

Attention will be given to both low- and high-tech solutions for developing and retaining foundational skills, such as literacy and numeracy, along with other competencies for life and work, including digital skills.

Interested organizations such as national authorities, NGOs, private sector, researchers, and any other relevant entities are invited to submit their cases by May 29, 2020 to UIL.

The submission form is available in Arabic, English and French. A report with policy recommendations is expected to be published in early 2021. The project is supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).

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