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Leveraging EdTech to Support Learning Opportunities for Refugees

“Education is really one of the things that suffers most and that’s robbed from students who are displaced or are refugees.”

Michelle Manks, Senior Manager, Durable Solutions for Refugees at the World University Service of Canada

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, over ten million Ukrainians have fled their homes to seek safe haven, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. And according to UNICEF, children comprise 4.3 million of this figure—more than half of the 7.5 million children in Ukraine.

While Russia’s war has captured most media bandwidth, Ukrainians are not alone in experiencing displacement due to conflict. People in Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan, for example, have also been uprooted from their lives.

Along with leaving home, refugees also lose their access to livelihood and educational opportunities normally available to them. So in these times of crisis and healing, how can refugees continue to access and support learning opportunities for themselves and their children? And what role can EdTech play in supporting their learning?

We spoke with an expert working with refugees and displaced populations to better understand programs, technologies, and policies influencing these people’s access to learning opportunities.

Meet the Expert: Michelle Manks

Michelle Manks

Michelle Manks, Senior Manager, Durable Solutions for Refugees at the World University Service of Canada
Michelle Manks is the Senior Manager of Durable Solutions for Refugees at the World University Service of Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education and empowerment opportunities for youth worldwide.

Manks holds a master’s degree in peace studies and conflict resolution from the University of Ottawa, as well as a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Acadia University.

Q & A with Manks on EdTech Solutions for Refugees and Displaced Peoples How does displacement affect students and what does this mean for their access to educational opportunities?
Manks: There are several contexts to consider. First, there are newly displaced populations and their educations are interrupted with a gap in time before they can re-enter into education.

But then there are also displaced young people who were born in refugee camps or who are very young when they were displaced. They live and grow up in refugee camps where the education they have access to is the camp education. And I think the context in which a student finds themselves impacts their access to education differently.

In newer crises like we saw at the beginning of the Syrian conflict and now with Afghan youth and with the Ukrainian students, they’re obviously no longer able to continue their education. And often the neighboring countries are not equipped to respond quickly to their educational needs and to get them reintegrated into an education system, especially when there’s mass displacement.

There’s advocacy globally to shorten the delay in these students’ re-entering education to 30 days, but in practice, it can take months or years. And the longer a student stays out of school, the lower the likelihood is of them returning to school, especially in certain contexts and as they get older. So that’s one risk.

There’s also a language factor to consider. So if you take the Ukrainian crisis right now, these students are switching education systems, where things are done differently, and may also need to join a system in a different language. So then there is the language learning component. That may further set a student back after they might have already been out of school for a few years.

Education is really one of the things that suffers most and that’s robbed from students who are displaced or are refugees in acute situations.

In a protracted situation, sometimes students don’t have the right to study locally because the host country doesn’t allow it, or they can study, but then the documents won’t be recognized. So students may go through the secondary education system, but at the end of their studies do not get to take the final exams and therefore do not receive a certificate for further studies. And when international institutions, universities, colleges, or even local ones require you to have specific documents, that means that your education ends at grade 12 or the related level.

Sometimes workplaces will require you to have an education certificate in order to work. So there are many, many considerations regarding educational access and its implications.

And that’s why I think education should be intentional about creating opportunities for refugees in particular and thinking about refugees as a vulnerable population when we’re thinking about equal access to education. This is really important because they have very different challenges than other students. How have technology and online education been used to support refugees in these crises? And what does this look like in your own work with displaced peoples?

Manks: It really depends on the context. In some recent events, I would suspect that Ukrainians in the recent crisis may have better access to technology to navigate opportunities than those that had to flee Afghanistan or who were still stuck in Afghanistan.

Early on in a displacement crisis, the infrastructure doesn’t always exist in the country of asylum for refugees to be able to access these types of opportunities.

So for example, in the refugee camps in Kenya, which have been there since the early 1990s, these displacement situations are so protracted that they’re almost cities of their own. They have technology hubs, computer labs, and even a remote university. They have different resources at their disposal and although there’s still not enough to meet demand, at least they exist.

Whereas in other contexts, you would not have those same resources and infrastructures yet because the conflicts are new. If you look at West Africa and internally displaced people or refugees who are spreading out across West Africa, you see that the conflicts haven’t been protracted long enough for the same kind of infrastructures to become established.

In the work I do for our program, we do a combination of physical submissions and online submissions when we recruit our students for our educational programs for refugees to Canada. So people could apply through an online application or a paper application. This is usually what we do because if you only offer the electronic version, it will exclude a large number of students who just don’t have access to technology, or perhaps to computers or to the internet.

We work with Canadian student groups and postsecondary institutions to offer scholarships and resettlement to refugees who come to Canada through our program. And we recruit students from specific countries of asylum to apply. We select them and then we match them to a participating institution in Canada. And prior to their coming, we support them with additional resources like language or technology training when necessary.

In certain contexts, like in Jordan and Lebanon, maybe language training for those students is required, whereas in Kenya, English is already the language of instruction so we don’t need to give those students additional language training. For them, we may give computer training.

Prior to the pandemic we always did this training in person. With the onset of the pandemic, we weren’t able to do that anymore, so we had volunteers and alumni of our program doing sessions and conference calls through WhatsApp or other digital groups. Sometimes students would be able to access a computer or visit a computer center and participate in a video call. But this was not always an available option.

Refugees are extremely disadvantaged because they don’t have access to the technology that other people often have. And we really saw the inequities highlighted around the world with the pandemic. Sometimes phones, radios, or other modalities of delivering education in the refugee camps were necessary.

Technology has been useful, but the technological means for delivering education and supporting access to educational opportunities definitely vary widely just based on the population, their context, and needs. What are some of the challenges in advocating for financial or institutional support for these educational refugee programs?

Manks: Many governments and organizations have been prioritizing primary and secondary education for so long. At first, they focused on primary education and then they started dipping their toes into secondary education as the primary completion rates went up. But tertiary education is often forgotten or there just aren’t enough resources to support it. And so we often don’t see a lot of donor resources going towards tertiary education, whether it’s online education, education pathways to third countries, or even access locally through scholarships and other means.

Our program is funded by the Canadian institutions themselves and by Canadian students. The way that each scholarship for a refugee student is funded is through a combination of contributions made by the schools in the form of waivers—like tuition, accommodation, or meal waivers—and then also by student groups.

The students contribute in the form of a student levy or student tax that they agree to pay and that they can opt out of if they want to. But this levy is charged on every student’s fees and then when it’s put together, the total is enough to support a scholarship or many scholarship opportunities for bringing refugee students to Canada and making them permanent residents. There is also a small fee that the schools contribute to the operational costs of the program.

Coordinating these types of initiatives is an essential component of seeing them grow and scale. But this coordination is often underfunded and under-resourced, which may be one of the reasons why these programs are not taking off in some places.

Even though there’s the will of the schools, there’s the will of students to support these endeavors, and there are enough students to meet the demand of postsecondary institutions, the connection is dead. This is because there is no coordinating body to act as the connective tissue and enable the will of the various stakeholders. Do you have any policy recommendations or advice for governments, organizations, and institutions to better support refugee students’ access to educational opportunities?

Manks: Absolutely. There are micro-level policies at a postsecondary institution level and then there are more macro ones at a state or global level.

When it comes to a postsecondary institution policy, having greater flexibility for displaced students and having flexibility on the documentation they need to submit is critical. This is one of their major challenges. When you’re displaced and facing a conflict situation you’re not thinking, oh, let me grab my transcripts and put them in a sealed envelope. Sometimes, also the schools holding their records are destroyed. So flexibility is needed on that front.

Many institutions are starting to do that, but then students don’t know of flexible policies and they think, I don’t have a degree or my transcripts, so I can’t apply for this opportunity.

Therefore, institutions communicating about their flexibilities is another important facet to consider. That or having alternative assessment processes where students can do an interview or a test when they arrive as an alternative for certain documents.

Admissions fees can be also really costly for refugees—or for anyone—but especially for refugees who don’t have the right to work or who have lost everything and have been displaced or whose funds have been frozen.

At a national level, visa policy is one of the most prohibitive factors right now preventing some students from accessing international education opportunities. Students may have had the funds to support themselves, especially if it’s early in a crisis because they haven’t yet had to spend everything to support themselves in this country of asylum.

But a government may reject their study visa because they cannot prove that they plan to return to their conflict-affected country, and so their visa application is rejected.

Countries need to look at more equitable access to study permits and shouldn’t be discriminating against students just because their country happens to be at war for no fault of their own. Countries need to look at displaced, conflict-affected students in a different way.

And these countries also need to be flexible with documentation as not every displaced person has a passport, and they can’t go to their country to get a passport. Or maybe people who were born into displacement are stateless and don’t have a country of origin to get a passport from so that excludes them from all opportunities.

The documentation aspect and the study permit policies are some of the biggest national-level policy issues that need to be addressed.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.