Interview: Technology is no silver bullet

Displacement is ever more frequently occurring. Conflicts are increasingly severe and the number of displaced people is on the rise. In 2016, sixty-five million people worldwide were displaced by war and conflict. This refugee crisis means that a very large number of children will be left with no education or insufficient access to education.

As of September 2017, there were 17.2 million refugees worldwide under UNHCR´s mandate and half of them were under 18 years old. The vast majority is hosted in developing regions, with more than a quarter in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey.

6.4 million refugees have school-age and, in 2016, only 2.9 million were enrolled in primary or secondary education. These statistics mean that the majority of children did not attend school, which translates into 1.5 million refugee children in primary school-age and 2 million refugee adolescents away from secondary education. The ones enrolled in school were struggling to stay and be successful.

The global school-age refugee population has been growing at a pace of around 600,000 children and adolescents each year, since 2011, meaning that an additional 12,000 additional classrooms and 20,000 additional teachers are in need annually. Gender wise, girls remain particularly disadvantaged, with fewer girls than boys attaining an education.

Comparing with global non-refugee children, refugee children are 5 times more likely to drop out of school. 90 percent of non-refugee children have access to primary education, contrasting with only 50 percent of refugee children. In secondary education, the contrast is even sharper, with 82 percent of non-refugee adolescents attending lower secondary school, against only 22 percent of refugees. One per cent of refugees attend university as opposed to 34 percent of adolescents worldwide.



These are the numbers we know of, as many refugees are living outside organised refugee camps and organisations´mandates.

These statistics reveal the challenges ahead and how the demand for education is naturally grown in these settings.




The right to education has been acknowledged since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948, and has since been a priority in development goals, being Goal number 4, of the Sustainable Development Agenda: “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.

Education is of utmost importance to refugee children. It provides them with the necessary hard and soft skills they will need in the future—in their home countries when they return or in their host communities—, it cultivates social cohesion and self-reliance, it helps them overcome trauma and it can even give them access to life-saving information. Education gives them the possibility of developing the skills acquired and to dream of a future where they pursue productive and fulfilling lives.

As UNHCR pointed out, the education of these young refugees, is as well crucial to assure the peaceful and sustainable development of their host communities or the prosperity of their own countries.

Failing to provide them with education will expose them to the most exploitative things, such as child labour, early marriage, recruitment into terrorist groups, and the list goes on.

Adequate solutions are necessary to guarantee that disruption to education is minimised.

I am particularly interested in how technology could contribute to a better education for these children.




My interviewee is Jackie Strecker, from UNHCR.

She has kindly answered to some questions regarding this problematic and on how she feels about new technologies applied to these specific education settings and its importance to providing for better results.


  • With humanitarian crises happening ever more frequently and the number of displaced children increasing every day, what do you think are the main barriers/challenges to providing education both in displaced situations and in refugee camps? 


A refugee classroom is like no other, and many students will require extra support to integrate into the national system. Refugees experience a host of administrative and legal barriers in accessing education. Missing school documents and certificates, or lack of recognition in their country of asylum, may mean they are denied access to national systems. They may also be required to pay the same high fees of an international student. Many young refugees will have missed months, or even years, of education before fleeing their countries, and many will be required to study in a new language, and will require flexibility and continued support if they are going to successfully integrate into national systems.

In camp and displacement settings, a shortage of qualified teachers and resources create poor learning environments. Without adequate support, teachers struggle to give the students the educational and psychological support that they require. In some displacement settings, refugees are geographically isolated from education institutions, and mobility restrictions prohibit them from traveling to receive their education, creating the need for distance learning opportunities. To overcome these barriers, creative thinking is required. However, education in an emergency situation does not mean “emergency education”, solutions need to be durable, long-term ones that allow students to overcome these barriers and gain access to quality, life-changing education.


  • What importance do you attribute to technological tools (mobile phones, laptops, apps, etc.) as opposed to more traditional methods, in providing an adequate education in those settings? 


There is a danger to orienting programming around any type of specific technology (for example mobile phones, laptops, app, etc.). Technology should only be regarded as a tool, and not a solution in itself. In practice when looking at educational challenges we have noted that different technologies can be incorporated into a broader solutions development, but these need to equate to a more holistic or systems-based approach – which leverage a variety of resources/tools – one of which can be technology. In this regard, we have found that technology can help promote connections between education actors both locally and globally; can ensure enable access to a greater number and more dynamic educational resources/content;  provide an opportunity to orient classroom pedagogical approaches around more child-centred approaches (including inquiry-based, or self-paced learning models); and enable more timely and effective access to tertiary education services – for example providing tertiary access in locations where local universities are not located.


  • Which would you say are the best technology tools to give children access to education in both settings? Any new technology that could revolutionise the education sector?  


As noted above, we prefer to look at a program as holistic. For example, Teachers for Teachers has utilized mobile phones and WhatsApp to help enable discussions and remote mentorship – but the tech is just one part of the equation, they are also using other tools like physical learning circles, and harmonized training packs to support the success of the program. So, no I don’t think any tech should be heralded as a silver bullet for revolutionizing the education sector. Each tool’s usefulness is dependent on how it’s applied and the broader programming that it supports.


With this in mind, my interviewee has shared with us some projects she believes are good practices of education that use technology as a tool.




Ideas Box

Started in February 2014, the IDEAS BOX PROJECT tackles the challenges of insufficient and low quality educational resources as well as teacher trainings, in humanitarian crises.

Ideas Box is a portable media centre that spreads out across 100 square meters.

Together with Libraries without Borders, customised programmes and contents were created to meet the needs of the local population, bearing in mind the needs, cultures and languages of community partners.

Involving the community in the design of the project and on the selection of the resources was reported to provide conditions for empowerment. Contents fitted to the necessities of both teachers and students and the diversity of tools was stated to improve motivation and engagement and boost dialogue and conflict resolution. With the Ideas Box, a safe space is created to allow children to better deal with their emotions and experiences.

The organisations reported a 23% increased progression rate compared to students studying in a classical school setting.




You can read more on the project here.


Instant Network Schools (INS)


The idea behind INSTANT NETWORK SCHOOLS (INS) is to provide for a holistic approach to bring online technology and connectivity into the classrooms of primary refugee children and youth.

Selected schools and community centres are equipped with innovation hubs for learning that consist of internet connectivity, solar-powered batteries, an Instant Classroom (digital classroom in-a-box created purposely for the INS programme which contains 25 tablets, a laptop, a projector and a speaker, a 3G modem and batteries), digital content and a teacher training programme with IT support and ongoing training.

Since 2014, the year when the first pilot began in Dadaab, the programme has been implemented in various centres in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic republic of Congo.

The project is a partnership with UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation and has reached around 40,000 young refugees and 600 teachers.



You can read more on the project here.


TIGER (These inspiring girls enjoy reading)

The TIGER PROJECT is a project of OLE international in partnership with UNHCR and International Relief & Development. The objectives of the project are to test how effective is the community based approach to learning being implemented with adolescent girls in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan and how the methodology is successful in supporting their learning goals, increasing their sense of agency and meaning.




You can read more on the project here.


Teachers for Teachers

The key to quality education are motivated and well-trained teachers.

Teachers for Teachers is an initiative that combines teacher training, mobile guidance and peer mentoring.

Initiated in May 2016, has reached primary teachers from 130 primary schools with over 30,000 students and 33 Global Mentors based worldwide.

The training model consists of interactive and practical short-term and long-term trainings, in the form of workshops where both local and international staff conduct in-person sessions with groups of around 25-30 teachers. Topics vary from child protection and inclusion to Pedagogy and Curriculum.

Teachers have expressed that they feel better prepared, more confident and with an increased sense of purpose after participating in the programme.

You can read more on the project here.




I fully agree that technology should only be regarded as a tool, and not as a solution, as I had referred on a previous post.

Assuming that any technology will be always good technology and it will lead to increased learning outcomes, can, most likely, lead to exactly the opposite. There is no quick solution for education (especially in a complex setting as the refugee crisis) so, while there is techno-optimism over the potential of technology, it is essential to understand that ICTs will only benefit displaced children and adolescents if they are custom-fitted to their needs and situation.

Before designing a technology based solution, it is important to focus on the goal, making sure the technology used will add value to what exists already (older technologies might just be more fitting, in some cases), safeguarding connectivity or the possibility of offline usage, using content and resources that are adequate, thinking ahead of the sustainability of the projects (software updates and maintenance, for example) and that it won´t further exacerbate inequality on society (gender-related barriers to access, for example).

Most importantly, the children and adolescent refugees should always be on top of mind and projects should be adapted to their academic level and linguistic needs. In this process, it would be valuable to consult the teachers to make sure contents and curriculum are suitable. Teachers are crucial to the success of the educational projects so it is important that adequate teacher training is contemplated, as well, especially in regards to new technology education tools.

ICT´s are indeed no silver bullet, and a one size fits all solution just won´t work, but with the right approach I think they can indeed be part of educational solutions, leading to improved learning outcomes. If beneficiaries are placed first, technological solutions will work at its best.


What are your thoughts on this matter?