Photo by the UK Department for International Development, CC BY 2.0.

Today, one out of every 113 people on the Earth today is an asylum seeker, refugee, or has been forced to move within their own country due to conflict, crisis, or political persecution. Having left their homes and support networks behind, educational opportunities for these people are often sparse to nonexistent.

Before I started working at the Wikimedia Foundation, I supported education projects for Syrian refugees in Jordan. I’ve also worked with refugee teachers and schools in Lebanon and Malaysia. My experiences have made one thing clear: for refugees, education represents stability and gives them hope for the future. In 2016, I wrote about Mahmoud, a young teacher living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. He said:

When I first arrived [to Zaatari], I thought our stay would be temporary, and that soon enough we’d all be back home. When that appeared to be far-fetched… I gathered up the neighbourhood’s children and conducted classes for them. I felt like I needed to help the children, since they weren’t getting their education anywhere else.

Late last month, educators, tech professionals, and policy makers came together in Paris for Mobile Learning Week, an annual four-day conference that this year was devoted to people like Mahmoud and the problem of “education in emergencies.” Mobile Learning Week, held at UNESCO‘s headquarters and co-hosted by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, examined how information and communication technologies can help provide learning opportunities for these displaced people.

With Wikipedia being synonymous with learning, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikipedia Education Program (WEP) engages educators around the world to empower their students to edit on Wikimedia projects—contributing not only to knowledge production, but also to student learning around vital standards in digital and information literacy, and 21st century skills.

We have a lot to offer in terms of helping people globally, from policy makers to classroom teachers, achieve the goal of “education for all.” For the education team, Mobile Learning Week was a golden opportunity to learn more about needs and trends in education technology, advocate for the Wikipedia Education Program, and to foster relationships with potential partners.

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“[Information and communications technologies have] the potential to change the world by promoting access to education and digital skills.” –Brahima Sanou, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau

The conference was rife with themes that overlap with our work with the Wikipedia Education Program. Chief among these was the importance of knowledge production—recognizing the value of local knowledge and creating resources that are relevant to the people of a community. The Education Minister of Norway committed to developing a framework for digital literacy that includes components on young people developing their own content, something that several people agreed with. Rosalind Hudnell, President of the Intel Foundation added that “The key is not to just have young people use technology, but to create technology. We need to rethink how education is being delivered. We need to train young people for the jobs of tomorrow. Young people will be job creators.”

A cornerstone of the Education Program is that programs are designed and implemented on a local level, helping to increase contributions to Wikipedias in their local languages and ensure that the participants are invested in them. For example, program leaders in the Philippines hosted Waray language edit-a-thons in local high schools and universities, and in Israel students at a Jerusalem college wrote articles about Shtetls that were destroyed in the Holocaust. In a sense, we are already leading in this field.

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Another major theme of the conference was that of the importance of teacher education, on which there is somewhat of a disagreement on this topic among educators and tech developers. A tech company’s representative said at the conference that “if technology can replace a teacher, then it should”—but for educators, this exemplifies a lack of understanding on what actually happens in schools and classrooms: students are actively taught what is in curriculum, but they also learn what is not in the curriculum, and they each have their own background, needs, preferences, and abilities.

There is no computer program that can replace a good teacher; the problem is that, around the world, putting a good teacher in the classroom is a significant challenge. This is where technology can help, and Mobile Learning Week demonstrated this by highlighting teacher training programs that used simple technology to help teachers meet the needs of their students, even in refugee camps, some of the most under-resourced places in the world.

We can help in this area. One point made by Ita Sheehy, a Senior Education Officer at the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, was the importance of improving teachers’ digital competencies. Many students, regardless of background or current status, are digital natives; their older teachers are not. The Wikipedia Education Program improves the digital competencies of educators; this conference has made us think about how this happens and if or how we can measure it.

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One final topic consistently discussed at the conference was the importance of recognizing learning and certification. Steven Duggan, the Director of Worldwide Education Strategy at Microsoft, said that “Formal education cannot bear the strain of the refugee crisis. With informal education everything begins with the teacher. This is why Microsoft provides a global community for teachers to collaborate, with training and free software.”

With Microsoft’s training programs, teachers can become certified on their technologies. I see this as an opportunity for us as well. I hope the education community will think more about what are the competencies needed to successfully use Wikipedia in the classroom, and I hope  my team can strategize a way to certify teachers in these competencies.

The need to recognize learning was reiterated by Roland Kalamo Lyadunga, a refugee learner from the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “You learn for yourself, but you need to prove to others what you know. A refugee’s life is unpredictable, they need to be able to continue with their education wherever they go.”

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Mobile Learning Week presented the challenges of achieving “education for all” within the context of education in emergencies, and the unique opportunity to use technology to help solve them. The problems and solutions are not only relevant to situations of conflict and crisis, and we have taken away many useful ideas for the Wikipedia Education Program.

Beyond that, it was clear from these discussions that what our program leaders are already doing is addressing some of these problems, and that we need to better measure and communicate our impact.

Nichole Saad, Program Manager, Wikipedia Education Program
Wikimedia Foundation

You can find more themes and outcomes from the conference in our full report in the upcoming edition of “This Month in Education”. More information on Mobile Learning Week—including video streams of the policy forum, presentation documents, and the conference program—can be found on the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week website.

This post misstated the nationality of Roland Kalamo Lyadunga. He is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not South Sudan.