Mobile learning – Empowering refugees ‘where they are’

Mobile learning opens the possibility of thousands of displaced people in Africa having the chance not only to empower themselves individually, but to bring positive change and development to those societies among which they find refuge.

Roland Kalamo, a Congolese university student lives and studies in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The young man, who is also a youth community activist, is pursuing a degree in applied art from a university based in his native land, Congo.

“It is human behaviour to think that everyone is just like you and that we all are the same,” he says. “Yet, the similarities we have as humans are not applicable in all the fields,” said Kalamo as he addressed the opening session of the Mobile Learning Week symposium held in Paris from 20-24 March.

The symposium was co-organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR under the theme of “Education in emergencies and crises”. Its focus was on how technology can provide continuity of education for displaced learners.

Kalamo said learners from calamity and conflict-stricken areas, who mostly reside in refugee camps, have the potential to transform educational practice despite the numerous obstacles they face.

‘Refugees bring change’

“A normal citizen learns to fit into society,” he said. “But a refugee brings change to a society.”

Kalamo, who studies with Jesuit Worldwide Learning’s online tertiary education programme, notes that education is providing him with skills and knowledge, and empowering him as a leader in the community.

Through his studies, Kalamo has learned a lot about peace-keeping and how to interact with both hostile and friendly audiences. While pursuing his diploma, he founded an organisation with other refugees called the Movement of Youth for Peace and Change, which teaches youth at the Kakuma camp in Kenya about human rights, peace building and conflict resolution through training in areas such as cinema and music, language, journalism and sports.

Kalamo now uses his experience with mobile learning to inspire and empower other young people living in refugee camps.

Participants at this year’s mobile learning symposium noted that technology was vital in offering opportunities for higher education learning to displaced people, who include young men and women living in refugee camps in foreign countries. They noted that mobile learning helps in the preservation and continuation of learning in conflict and disaster-stricken areas and contexts.

In refugee camps such as Kakuma, where there is limited learning infrastructure and a rich diversity of languages, students use mobile phones and computers to access internet-based resources which include course curricula and translations of content. Computers are supplied by the learning centre in the refugee camp, while most students have their own mobile phones.

The students commonly download interactive learning apps through online portals that link them to libraries and journals from international universities. Lecturers and tutors have formed instant messaging groups using fora such as WhatsApp and Facebook to engage with their peers in other universities and to communicate with students.

The key feature of the Jesuit Worldwide Learning or JWL model is its collaborative approach to learning for students where online tutors, on-site tutors and peer to peer support contribute to students' academics. On-site staff includes site coordinators, academic tutors and IT support staff. The academic programme of JWL includes both diploma and certificate-level courses. Diploma courses are offered with Regis University, a US institution which partners with them.

Reaching people ‘where they are’

“We have to reach people where they are,” said Mark West, the UNESCO coordinator of the information and communication technology unit. “Our work indicates that mobile technologies offer unique advantages for making tertiary education accessible to displaced people and others on the move.”

Kalamo says that despite the challenges with mobile learning, such as poor internet connectivity, the technology still provides them with an opportunity to invest in their own lives and potential, enabling them to achieve their goals and become who they want to be in the society.

“When a refugee is using mobile learning, they enjoy the same rights as a normal citizen and no matter the circumstances,” Kalamo said. “If they’re alive and have access to internet, nothing will stop them from learning up to PhD level.”

Although “refugees did not choose to be where they are,” according to Ella Ininahazwe, a Burundian refugee student at Austria-headquartered Kepler university, they can use technology to make the most of their situation. She said displaced people can become the drivers of their future as they usually leave their countries with existing knowledge and skills, and mobile learning gives them an opportunity to continue the path to education.

HE sector growth and innovation

Additionally, mobile learning has catalysed innovation and growth in the higher education sector, thus providing meaningful and lasting solutions to the challenges facing refugees and improving the impact of humanitarian interventions, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Other beneficiaries of mobile technology learning include displaced people living in South Sudan and Syrian refugee children. These young people use digital devices such as smart phones to connect with university resources such as lecturers and books to study their areas of interest.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 24 people were forced to flee their homes each minute in 2015, four times more than a decade ago. One in every 113 people globally has been displaced due to conflict or persecution and over half of the world’s refugees are children, many separated from their parents or travelling alone.

“We are witnessing the highest levels of displacement ever recorded,” said Qian Tang, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education. “Higher education is uniquely important in emergency and crisis settings.”

“It is our task to help find solutions to leverage this technology to reach people where they are, opening portals to learning and empowerment,” said Tang. “This is what mobile learning is about: helping our member states and other partners understand how to harness technology to strengthen education and promote lifelong learning, particularly for the most vulnerable.”


As highlighted during the conference, obstacles to education in emergencies include inadequate funding and prioritising of learning in humanitarian aid.

During the conference, the European Union committed itself to increasing its funding for mobile education in emergencies and crises. The funds will support mobile learning in conflict-stricken countries from primary to tertiary levels. Delegates at the conference emphasised that private sector partnerships and funding remain key to increasing the quality and reach of mobile learning, especially access to university education.

On policy matters, the question of how countries can ensure that new mobile technologies support inclusion and equity in education remains critical. Experts of mobile learning in countries, especially in the developing world, need to ensure favourable policies of access and inclusion in mobile education up to tertiary levels.

“Our overall aim is that all refugees and the communities that host them have access to accredited, quality and relevant educational opportunities which are facilitated, supported or enhanced through mobile learning,” said Ralf Gruenert, UNHCR representative in France.

“These new learning environments will prepare refugees and displaced communities to fully engage in the economic, social and cultural world of tomorrow."