Using Technology to Provide Higher Education for Refugees

In: Transnational Perspectives on Innovation in Teaching and Learning Technologies
  • 1 University of British Columbia, Canada
  • 2 University of British Columbia, Canada
  • 3 University of British Columbia, Canada
  • 4 University of British Columbia, Canada
  • 5 University of British Columbia, Canada
  • 6 University of British Columbia, Canada
  • 7 University of British Columbia, Canada
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1 Introduction

This chapter reports on the experiences of The University of British Columbia (UBC) as a partner in the delivery of a secondary teacher education program in Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya. We focus on the use of technology in program delivery, but also explain how the unique context of Dadaab influenced decisions about how various technologies were used in program delivery. We believe it is important to share the lessons learned in this project with others who may be considering working in any of the growing number of refugee/displaced persons contexts around the world so they may benefit from our experience.

The program described herein is part of a multi-institutional partnership administered by York University in Toronto, Canada, operating under the name “Borderless Higher Education for Refugees” (BHER). The partnership includes, in addition to York and UBC, Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, Windle Trust Kenya and World University Service of Canada. Funding for the project comes primarily from what is now Global Affairs Canada.

The program was designed primarily for practicing secondary school teachers, few of whom had any formal teacher training. The credential to be offered to students completing the program is a diploma awarded by our partner, Moi University. Moi and UBC are each responsible for delivering half the courses required for the credential.

University programs in Kenya are primarily exam-based, meaning that students receive partial credit for their performance during classes, but the bulk of their course grades are based on exams which are often held several months after courses are completed. This was one of several significant differences between practices at Moi and UBC that our instructors had to take into account when planning instruction. More will be said below about the evolution of our relationship with Moi.

2 The Role of Technology in Education for Refugees

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR, 2016) there are currently more than 65 million people globally who have been forcefully displaced from their homes. They live either as refugees or, in their own country, as internally displaced persons. The priority of aid programs in the past was to ensure the children of refugees continue their education and acquire at least basic literacy skills. As much as that is important, it has become evident that that is not enough to address the needs of the displaced. It takes years for youngsters to enter the workplace and begin contributing to the economies of the countries to which they migrate. On the other hand, those who are capable of working and hope to pursue – or are in the process of obtaining – a professional or trade qualification are usually precluded from pursuing this goal. They are often left with no opportunities to continue their education, and are unlikely to get well-paid jobs and begin providing for their families.

As stated in another report from the UNHCR (2014), “…the need for higher education for refugees is increasing exponentially with the global increase in displacement and a higher number of refugees completing secondary education.” Technology is seen as an enabler of diverse learning opportunities and as a connector between those who need education and those who provide it.

Although technology may reduce barriers, it can also create them. The differences in technological infrastructure around the globe are only one side of the coin. This side can be relatively easy to address – assuming that there is funding for it – by opening computer labs, improving Internet connectivity, and so on. The other side of the coin is much more complex and less “easy to fix.” It relates to digital literacies. Definitions of digital literacies are numerous, but the most current ones take into consideration not only the ability to use a tool, but the skill to use it within a sociocultural practice (Goodfellow, 2011). This line of thought connects back to the concept of situated cognition, theorized by Hutchins (1995) and Lave and Wenger (1991). McIntyre (2014) argues that the notion of “digital divides” distinguishes between those who can and those who cannot function in a digital environment. Even in developing countries with fewer laptops per capita, digital literacy skills are not necessarily less developed. The use of mobile technologies can, for example, be far more advanced than in developed countries due to the lack of other options and the need to be creative.

Ito et al.’s (2012) “connected learning” approach argues for more comprehensive and heuristic knowledge building that is not limited to formal education. It includes learning that happens in informal settings within the social context, which is very evident among learners in the refugee camp in which this teacher education project was conducted. Community leaders emerge over time and, as in our project, those who were part of the program take on the role of providing information and sharing instruction. This approach enables us to see learning as culturally defined, embedded into practice and framed by social relationships. The three contexts of learning identified by Ito et al. (2012) – peer-supported, interest-powered and academically oriented – play a crucial role in delivering this program. Learners see education as their only (or almost only) way to leave the camp and go back to a “normal” life, so they are highly motivated to acquire skills and knowledge that can better their lives. They are well aware that obtaining recognized credentials opens opportunities for employment. The only way to make “education work” in an environment with scarce resources is to rely on each other and the collective.

According to a survey completed at the start of the program in three of the five camps at Dadaab, out of 89 respondents, 69 (77%) had mobile phones, 27 (30%) smartphones, and 19 (21%) had laptop or notebook computers. The ubiquitous presence and use of mobile devices among the students in this program could lead to the assumption that they are well-connected and adept at using this form of technology. However, based on a recent study in Kenyan refugee camps by Dahya and Dryden-Peterson (2016), there are significant gender differences in how this technology is used and in the opportunities available to men and women for engaging in educational programs. Because one of the goals of the larger BHER project was to promote greater gender equity in Dadaab, we had to be sensitive to all the implications – and possible unintended consequences – of our technology decisions.

3 The Broader Context

3.1 Dadaab Refugee Camp

Before getting into more details of this project, it is important to provide some additional information about the context. Dadaab was established in 1991 and is located in a semi-arid region of eastern Kenya approximately 90 km (56 miles) from the Somali border. It is a complex of five camps housing (as of 31 August 2016) about 277,000 refugees. Of these, 95% are Somalis, 4.4% are Ethiopian and the remainder from other countries in the region. This number is down from a total of nearly 500,000 in 2011 during the height of the inflow from Somalia. About 37% of the camp population is children between the ages of 5–18.

As of November, 2016, the Government of Kenya was actively working to close all the camps by May, 2017. The government faced increasing pressure to close the camps in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall in September, 2013 and Garissa University College in April, 2015.

Those currently in the camps who chose to do so can be repatriated to Somalia or relocated to other camps in Kenya. Although some students have completed the program described in this chapter, another currently-enrolled cohort still has an extended/summative practicum and additional coursework to complete. The repatriation/relocation process promises to seriously challenge the participating universities to help students complete program requirements – and technology will no doubt play a very important role.

3.2 Principled Engagement through Networking

The University of British Columbia aspires to be a “globally-influential” university. This aspiration set the stage for our decision to respond to a request received by our then-President to assist in the professional development of teachers in Dadaab’s secondary schools. We recognized that no university becomes “globally influential” without engaging in challenging projects in parts of the world that they may know little about. Our involvement in Dadaab began in 2008 prior to the large influx of Somali refugees escaping civil strife and drought and before the major terrorist attacks – claimed by Al-Shabaab – in Kenya.

One of the co-authors of this chapter is from Kenya and we have had several Kenyan students graduate from our faculty and return to Kenya. These colleagues were very important members of our planning group, helped us gain perspective on the benefits and risks of becoming involved, and in developing a strong working relationship with colleagues at Moi University, our university partner in the design and delivery of the program. The role of networks and the importance of various human and non-human actors – including technology – in the success of international collaborations have been highlighted elsewhere (e.g., Boud, Dahlgren, Abrant-Dahlgren, Larson, Sork, & Walters, 2006). In relating the details of complex collaborations it is easy to forget the key role played by human relationships and the bonds of trust and respect that are necessary to persist in the pursuit of an innovative and noble idea under challenging circumstances.

During the time this program was being planned, the Association of Canadian Deans of Education was developing what became known as the Accord on the Internationalization of Education (ACDE, 2014). This document captures many of the principles that we support in making decisions about international engagement, but also provides a useful summary of the risks involved in such engagement. Of particular note in relation to the Dadaab project are two risks:

Risk of personal and social disruption. The disruption or marginalization of individual identities and cultural practices, or indeed broader social disruption, may be the unintended consequences of widespread internationalization activities. Activities that aim to intervene in or build knowledge about communities without a deep critical analysis of the economic, social, cultural, and political factors that frame the positions of helpers, visitors, and researchers vis-à-vis the recipients of the activities are particularly problematic. (p. 6)

The risk of (neo)colonization. The attempt to export educational practices and norms may have an impact similar to enforced social and economic colonization: the subjugation of one group to the power and control of another, and the elevation of a predominantly imported mode of thinking above all other forms of knowing. (p. 6)

Although neither of these risks had been fully articulated at the time we were deciding whether or not to engage in this project, the concerns they raise were clearly part of our deliberations. They are mentioned here because we have had to be mindful of these risks throughout this work and weigh many of our decisions based on these principles. We entered into this partnership with limited understanding of the circumstances confronting prospective students, of the norms and traditions of our Kenyan partner institutions, of the political tensions within Kenya that would continually buffet the project, of the cultural and spiritual practices of Somali Muslims, or of the potentially disruptive influence of our presence and program on the lives of our students. We have had to be “quick studies” as the project progressed and constantly adapt to challenges as they arose. We expected that our engagement in this project would be a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone involved and it has certainly lived up to that expectation as the remainder of the story will demonstrate.

4 History of the Project

Answering a call made by Marangu Njogu, the Executive Director of Windle Trust Kenya to World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and University of British Columbia President Stephen Toope, the Faculty of Education at UBC considered offering a teacher education program in the Dadaab refugee camp. Recognizing our strong linkages with Kenya through UBC Professor Samson Nashon, a Kenyan national, and our ongoing professional partnerships with faculty members at Moi University, a small group of faculty from both universities visited Dadaab in 2008 to consider possibilities. It was then that our universities imagined offering a two-year Moi University Secondary Teacher Education Diploma Program delivered jointly by Moi and UBC. Thus began the work of co-designing a program specifically for Dadaab refugees and their host communities. Between 2009 and 2012, a joint program with unique courses was designed and approved by Senate committees in preparation for the launch of the program in 2013.

Simultaneously to UBC and Moi taking up this call for teacher education in Dadaab, York University was studying the feasibility of designing and delivering a two-year program for primary teachers in Dadaab in partnership with Kenyatta University. Learning of each other’s intentions, we joined forces to submit proposals to what was then called the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), later renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and more recently, Global Affairs Canada, through our two Canadian universities. After independent competitive internal and external processes, a York University driven proposal was approved under the name “Borderless Higher Education for Refugees” (BHER). The BHER proposal included both two-year teacher education programs yet went further by offering a transition year between high school and first year university as well as several three- or four-year degree granting programs in Education, Health Care and Geography.

The BHER Consortium (see BHER, 2012) represents a network of academic and non-governmental organizations desiring to share available educational assets where they are needed most by creating and delivering online/onsite courses and programs that meet international standards. Ideally, these programs are transferable within unique yet similar circumstances among refugee camps and other marginalized or remote communities hosting refugees. The ultimate goal of the BHER Consortium is to offer refugee children and youth an improved quality of education that underscores peace building and socially inclusive communities within their host countries while increasing the likelihood of successful repatriation to their home countries. In order to achieve this goal, the BHER consortium places great emphasis on: (a) improving the equitable delivery of educational opportunities to male and female refugees and their local host communities; (b) creating a variety of programs (certificates, diplomas and degrees) that enhance the employability of young men and women, and (c) building capacity among academic consortium members for offering programs to refugee and marginalized populations.

The BHER Consortium has worked hard to embed several important features in the programs offered within and across the consortium. These include:

  1. Stackability: Following the principle of 30-credit certificates laddering into 60-credit diplomas with further laddering opportunities into 90 or 120 credit degrees, allows students tremendous potential for extending their professional development.
  2. No tuition charged to refugee students: The BHER-related programs do not charge tuition with external funding covering the cost of instruction and administration.
  3. Blended use of educational technologies: Onsite and online courses include various forms of educational technologies with increasing reliance on distance learning.
  4. Reciprocity of credit recognition: Through formal agreements, partner universities agree to recognize and award credits for courses offered by BHER partners.
  5. Portability: Should alumni relocate to other jurisdictions or their home countries, they should be able to use the credits they have earned toward further educational opportunities.

While these features figure prominently across all BHER-related programs, there are unique attributes that deserve recognition in this chapter. The Moi-UBC partnership led to a jointly-delivered Moi Diploma in Secondary Teacher Education. Regular and annual BHER consortium meetings enhanced the design and implementation of this program yet the actual program offered to students (2014–2017) is uniquely based on our commitment to courses on peace education, special education in marginalized communities and Islamic studies, among others, and practicum experiences designed to create sustainable professional development of teachers. This required the design and development of unique courses not currently offered at our respective universities. Designed specifically for Dadaab, they attempted to address the particulars of the geographical region, refugee and host cultures and their concerns as vulnerable communities. This stretched our academic communities in demanding yet very positive ways. Moreover, recognizing the likelihood of limited funding for the continuation of the BHER programs encouraged us to reimagine the practicum learning experiences of our students, many of whom are incentive teachers in the camps. The only credential needed for incentive teachers has been the completion of high school.

We designed two practicum experiences loosely conceived as formative and summative in nature. The formative practicum encouraged students and teachers to meet regularly to discuss their teaching practices with the hope of creating sustainable learning communities within and among schools. This placed tremendous value on local knowledge and, as a result, served to reach beyond the program to involve the teaching staff at each school. It also recognized the early teaching experiences of the incentive teachers. Moreover, the nearly spontaneous use of WhatsApp, an application for mobile phones, enabled all those involved in the practicum to share ideas quickly and positively across time and space. When the students started their summative practicum, they were not only well prepared, they were integrated within a learning community of educators continually rethinking their teaching practices. This unintended yet welcome outcome has already yielded tremendous benefits for student teachers and teachers alike and will go a long way to sustaining the community if the BHER consortium is unable to continue offering its programs.

Over two-dozen instructors have been involved in offering the Moi/UBC program. While each has shared his or her expertise, we are certain they would be the first to say they, too, have grown immeasurably from their experiences in offering the program. The insights gained about refugee and host community needs, experiences and potentials will undoubtedly influence future course and program development at our universities, beyond the programs offered in Dadaab. Our BHER partners at York, Moi and Kenyatta universities, as well as Windle Trust Kenya and WUSC, would undoubtedly have equally compelling experiences to share.

5 Stories of Teaching in Dadaab

Two of the co-authors travelled to Dadaab camps in February 2012 to conduct workshops with its secondary teachers. Six months earlier, they visited Dadaab camps as members of an eight person-team – seven from the UBC Faculty of Education and one from Moi University. As future curriculum designers for courses within the Moi/UBC diploma program, they wished to understand the camp environment, the existing curriculum, and the issues and challenges of teaching and learning in the camps.

This team met with students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members and NGOs who shared their insights. The team met parents dedicated to their children’s education. Parents shared the fact that they traded food rations to support building a new community school. They spoke to students with high aspirations, who, when asked about their dreams, said they wanted to be doctors or pilots. They met passionate teachers committed to teaching even with few opportunities for higher education or professional development.

Their second visit involved different goals. There were now three members – two from UBC and another colleague from Moi University. This group hoped to have an extended experience in classrooms, to begin building trust with refugee education stakeholders, and, most importantly, to further constructive relationships with the refugee teachers, administrators, and Windle Trust Kenya in this time before the programme commenced.

Unfortunately due to extreme security measures they were not able to visit schools within the camps. For their workshops, the teachers met them outside the camps within secure UNHCR facilities. While the instructors arrived with a planned, half-day workshop for a dozen teachers, their hosts told them – on the way to the location – that all teachers wished to attend; teachers from each camp expected a two-day experience. They quickly shifted their plans in the van, looking up occasionally out the windows at the desert landscape, the Dadaab marketplace, all so different from home.

They began the first workshop with introductions. As part of their new plan, they then asked the teachers to organize themselves in small groups and dialogue around the question: “What is a metaphor that describes teaching for you? Teaching is like…” (One teacher reminded them that perhaps they were asking for a simile!)

Creating metaphors and dialoging about teaching continued for the remaining camp workshops as well. Over a period of six days, they engaged the teachers in professional development workshops from each of three camps: Hagadera, Daghaley, and Ifo. Seventy-six teachers attended the two-day workshops. Some were experienced teachers, many were not. Without opportunities for higher education they teach themselves methods and mentor each other on what to teach along with strategies on how to teach.

During the workshops teachers spoke of the challenges they face in classrooms throughout Dadaab camps – challenges that require creative and innovative responses. Few educational resources for students meant sharing materials, pencils, paper and textbooks. No electricity in classrooms and homes meant searching elsewhere for electricity for charging mobile phones and providing light for late night studies. Limited opportunities for teacher professional development meant relying on colleagues for support and advice. Few teaching materials meant emphasizing oral teaching strategies along with structured chalkboard writing so all students could have access to the curriculum.

As workshop leaders in Dadaab, they, too, experienced some aspects of these challenges. Their reliance on visual materials – either PowerPoint presentations or photocopy printouts – challenged their pedagogical resourcefulness. Their workshop agendas, teaching notes, and information they intended to share on the status of the teacher education diploma program sat trapped on their laptops.

By the afternoon of the second day, they asked if it was possible to access electricity. They moved to another classroom with an electrical socket powered by solar panels located on the classroom roof. While there was plenty of sunshine, the issue became enabling the socket to work. By the third day, they moved to a different NGO compound where the sockets provided the electricity they needed. Using construction paper taped to the walls as their chalkboard and a data projector to share information on the program, they completed the remaining two workshops for teachers in Daghaley and Hagadera camps.

Through the workshops, they found that teachers’ relationships with each other as colleagues and community members enabled the formation of a teaching community capable of responding to and inquiring into each other’s teaching practices with respect and humor. And they did so with relatively limited access to technology. Although many teachers used mobile (but not smart) phones during this workshop series, they did so mainly to keep connected with family or to conduct business rather than for teaching. Yet, teachers were keen to learn how to improve teaching beyond what they learned from mentoring and experience, and remained open to new ideas and strategies.

Although teachers were eager to begin the teacher education program at this time, it was another two years before these UBC faculty returned as instructors with the program approved by both UBC and Moi.

As instructors in 2014, they offered two courses in Dadaab at the BHER Learning Centre: Principles of Teaching and Curriculum and Instruction in Mathematics Education. Before arriving, they understood that the use and role of technology in the camps had improved since their visit two years earlier. Internet access had improved, and the BHER Learning Centre included two new computer labs. They designed elements of their courses to be online so that teachers who were unable to travel to the Learning Centre could access course materials. Course contact hours were partly covered with assignments given before these instructors arrived in Dadaab with the expectation that students would email completed pre-course assignments to them before they arrived. They emailed course outlines and assignments to students and uploaded these to UBC’s learning management system, Blackboard “Connect.”

Although teachers had access to the computer lab, and all had the opportunity to learn basic technology skills through a prior pre-program course, the instructors received few pre-course assignments either uploaded to the course website or by email. It was difficult to understand why this was the case until the instructors arrived in Dadaab.

The teachers were very excited to learn through technology. However, they came to the class with varying levels of experience working with technology. Some teachers’ schools had internet connectivity; some did not. Some teachers could access computers in their camp’s market area; others could not. Nonetheless, when one assignment asked students to work in small groups and submit a collective write-up, students responded in innovative ways. The person with the best keyboarding skills took leadership of the keyboard while others, sitting around the computer, offered ideas or directed discussion. Once the assignment was emailed to the instructors, they heard students remark “Now we feel like true university students. We’ve created an assignment and emailed it to the instructor!”

The instructors also invited students to participate in a digital storytelling response to the question: What does it mean to teach and learn in Dadaab? Students discussed the question in small groups. They were given a digital camera, iPad or iPod to film their group’s response. That evening, the instructors collated the responses into short digital movies. Playing back the movies stimulated discussion and reflection. Students witnessed themselves as teachers, communicators, and educational technology innovators.

During these courses, many challenges required high degrees of flexibility and improvisation. The Learning Centre photocopier under repair meant no printed handouts or course outlines as expected. Some of the course materials were accessible online, but required students to access the course website. Some problems were technical in nature and could be solved with the assistance of the on-site technician.

Others were cultural and required innovative solutions. For example, access to the course website requires a UBC campus-wide login (CWL) user-name and password. Students had created CWL accounts during a previous UBC course but many could not login to the system. With few opportunities to use their CWL accounts, the students could not recall either their user names or passwords.

This challenge required creating new accounts that involved a sign-up process using a UBC student number, first and last names, and birthdate to confirm identity. Entering such information sounds straightforward to us here in Canada, but not all cultures celebrate birthdays, and for displaced persons, records of birthdates are often left in the home country. Thus, not all students knew or could recall the birthdate they had given when initially registering for their CWL, while many students used January 1 as their designated birthdate. In addition, many students shared the same first and last names making it necessary to refer to students using their three names rather than only two. Sometimes students changed the order of their names to distinguish themselves from others with similar names. Thus, a first and last name could vary. Finally, setting up an account password required creating responses to multiple security questions such as: What was the colour of your first car? What is your favourite video game? or Where did you go on your first vacation? Such questions represented a particular social-cultural context outside the life experiences of students in Dadaab. This caused multiple issues for students seeking to verify their student identity while re-applying for their CWL accounts. In the end, deflated and frustrated, many students simply could not access the course websites or resources.

The use of technology for teaching and learning in Dadaab during this visit was challenging. Nonetheless, teaching without reliance on technology positioned both instructors and students as problem solvers exploring the potential of educational technology in this challenging context. Without technology, the instructors drew more on oral teaching strategies, like those used by the students. Face-to-face conversations, small group dialogue, and shared work on the improvised chalkboard permitted a close listening to the students, a listening perhaps not possible through an online environment. In the end, the instructors taught with a mix of strategies. As the students used email to send assignments, computers to type-up assignments, and iPads to create digital stories, they experienced the possibilities of technology.

Although some relatively sophisticated technology was available to teachers in the Learning Centre, these instructors wondered about its relationship with camp culture and the extent to which technology could be integrated into teaching practices. Certainly, teachers could learn about teaching using technology in the computer labs, but with very few computers in camp schools, what opportunities would they have to extend this learning to their own students? They grappled with balancing desires for teachers to have opportunities to learn with technology and the potential challenges of creating and sustaining such learning conditions.

The teachers do, however, have access to and are very adept at using mobile phones to access and share information, as well as to make and receive payments (without banks). While access to the internet is difficult, access to mobile phones is not. With this in mind, these instructors are currently pursuing pedagogical possibilities of using mobile phones and the use of WhatsApp for sharing information and course organization, as well as for engaging students in dialogue and problem solving. This platform is familiar to people in the camps who have found their own ways of engaging this technology.

Within a short period of time, these instructors witnessed large changes regarding the access and use of technology within the Dadaab camps. As such change continues, they believe the use of mobile phone education is an organic and promising approach to teaching and learning in the camps.

6 Straining the Boundaries of ‘Flexible Learning’

A decade or two ago, providing higher education to students in Dadaab would have been impossible without creating a “mini-campus” in Africa and moving the faculty members to that location. Today, due to the flexibility of technology-mediated learning, the first cohort of elementary and secondary Dadaab teachers celebrated the completion of their programs in August 2016. Use of information technology enabled learning in an often insecure, environmentally challenging context, not bound by geographical limitations. Blended learning designs of course offerings underwent a number of modifications and adaptations. The challenges were diverse and manifold, from digital infrastructure on the site, through access to devices and applications, to highly variable computer literacy skills.

The project started with basic research on the conditions unknown to most of the members involved in it. Temperatures in these regions (eastern Kenya and Somalia) range from 30–40 degrees Celsius with frequent dust storms. The approved funding allowed for the building of the Learning Centre. Due to security concerns, it had to be located on property on which Kenyatta University was constructing its own Dadaab campus, far away from the five camps that constituted Dadaab. The design of the Centre included two computer labs with internet connectivity and three classrooms. The average size of each class was 60–80 students. Donated new desktop computers with LCD monitors were installed along with a server, digital cameras and LCD data projectors. The Centre needed glass windows to protect equipment from dust and air conditioners to deal with the heat…both of which were rare in Dadaab. What we imagined as project instructional spaces from our comfortable location in Canada was far from what was available on the ground. Smooth operation of the Learning Centre without power cuts or connectivity issues had been a daily challenge. To reset the router, for example, someone needed to enter protected space where the telecom tower was located. The majority of the students had rarely used computers. The “jumpstart program” had to be in place to help students develop computer literacy skills as well as strengthen their academic English. There was little time for students to study deeply in either of those areas so they started the program with a variety of understandings about what online or blended learning meant.

The natural inclination in North America for delivering such a program would be to rely on UBC’s standard learning management system, BlackBoard “Connect,” as the instructional platform. Based on discussions with the other partner universities in Canada and Kenya and the early technical challenges of managing the Learning Centre our Educational Technology Support team initially decided to use Moodle as a “common” platform. In the meantime, collecting student information, such as email addresses, or creating login IDs and passwords suddenly became an enormous problem for the administrative systems of UBC. In a culture with a long tradition of oral history and the custom of sharing everything, including knowledge, the idea of individual email addresses or login accounts was considered very odd.

Although a substantial budget was allocated for delivery of the program, there was little funding available for technology besides what was available in the well-equipped computer labs. It was not possible to purchase additional digital tools like tablets, for example, that were issued to students in some programs offered by other partner universities. To honour the traditional lecture-heavy instructional style that most Dadaab students were accustomed to, and to maximize the students’ extraordinary ability to memorize huge amounts of information, we decided to make frequent use of lecture captures. These were to be made available on the computers in the lab prior to the arrival of students for the start of each class. In addition, we were considering using a low-cost technology – MP3 players – to provide students with audio versions of the lectures, which they could listen to at any time, even on the way to the Learning Centre. Although podcasts are not considered an innovative technology in many contexts, they may be both innovative and useful in others (Gachago, Livingstone, & Ivala, 2016). Gachago et al.’s research argues that “… mature students, whose home language is an African language, found podcasting most useful” and furthermore, “that regular podcasts of difficult, content-heavy lectures seem to have attracted most engagement” (2016, p. 869).

We determined that synchronous class interaction through platforms such as Skype was not a good option to deliver the bulk of course content. A live connection would make the session more engaging and would allow students to ask questions in real time and feel more connected to the instructor, but access to the computer lab was not reliable and internet connectivity was not always stable. This meant curriculum that relied heavily on synchronous sessions could not be delivered if there were technical difficulties. Instead, we relied on asynchronous course delivery on platforms that were mobile compatible.

Even though the primary learning management system used by UBC is Blackboard “Connect,” very soon we decided that it would not be the best or most effective platform for Dadaab. A Moodle installation at Dadaab was moving too slowly and the courses could not be designed fast enough for the start of the program. Instead, we used WordPress ( as the platform for this project because of its ease of use and mobile compatibility. Course material was posted on a WordPress-based blog and the commenting feature was enabled so students could post their assignments or ask questions. It was also possible to password-protect specific sections of the blog and keep parts of the blog accessible to the public. A common password was used and shared with the Dadaab students so they did not have to create and remember individual usernames and passwords. The program blog has a short, easy-to-remember URL. For the first offering, each course was set up as a section in the program blog. Going forward, each course will be hosted on its own blog space and be linked to the main program blog. This new organization will make it easier to manage ongoing student submissions and comments.

The methods of presenting content varied. In some courses, it is presented in video with supplemental text instructions for submission of assignments. We used screen-capture software to produce some of the lecture videos. The software recorded everything displayed on the screen as well as the audio and video from the computer’s microphone and webcam. The instructors would open their teaching material (such as PowerPoint slides, a website, or a Word document) then speak about the content as they worked through the teaching material. This process streamlined the lecture video production in three ways. First, instructors could utilize the material they were already using in the face-to-face version of the course, or modify it for this particular program. This eliminated the need to write out the course content in text. Before commencing recording, instructors could update the material using software they were already familiar with, without assistance from a media specialist. Second, the instructors were trained on how to use the software so recording could take place whenever they had time. Third, the recording equipment needed was just a laptop with a webcam and a USB microphone. This meant that instructors could record the videos in their own offices or homes without needing to record in a studio. Since the screen capture software recorded the webcam and audio as the instructor was going through the teaching material, the instructor’s facial expressions and body language were also captured. This made the video more lively and engaging to the students. The software also captures cursor movements and a highlight can be added to the cursor so the viewer can more easily follow. This is similar to an instructor using a laser pointer in the classroom.

We realized captioning could improve comprehension by reinforcing spelling and eliminating spoken accents. Closed captioning could also be made available as a transcript so students could read and search through text in addition to listening to and watching the video. Creating closed captioning for videos did take extra time and money, but was reported to be quite useful to the students.

As students watched videos available on the blog, they could post questions and submit assignments on the same platform. The instructors could interact asynchronously with students by replying to a blog comment or use WhatsApp. The use of WhatsApp was an organic development. As discovered early on, most of the students not only had their own mobile device but also had WhatsApp installed on their phone. This application allows one-to-one and one-to-many conversations, so instructors could send a message to a specific student or add all the students to a group and send a group message. In the second offering of the program, one instructor used WhatsApp to send a short welcome video prior to the course start date to pre-establish a relationship with the students. After we recognized the ubiquitous nature of WhatsApp, our technology support team worked with instructors to take advantage of all the features available to enhance instruction and ease communication with students.

The entire BHER project also found it essential to have people “on the ground” in the camps who could help students solve technology problems and also check in with those who missed classes or were considered at risk of dropping out. Maintaining the equipment in the computer labs in the Learning Centre was essential since many students relied on the labs for completing course assignments, but assistance was also needed in the camps. As the project progressed, more and more schools in the camps acquired internet access. Although not always reliable, it provided another way for students to complete coursework, especially when the camps were on “lock down” because of security concerns. But having someone available in the camps who could problem solve with students has been essential to retention of students.

Ito et al.’s “connected learning” approach advocates the use of technology for learning that is “socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity” (2012). UBC has learned its way through a challenging project that has clearly been an example of “connected learning,” but the story is not over. In the final section of this chapter, we summarize the primary lessons we have learned thus far with the hope that our experience will be useful to others who accept the challenges of supporting the learning of the mobile, the displaced and the marginalized.

7 Lessons Learned

It is dangerous to enter a project like this with any fixed pre-conceptions about refugees as learners. We knew that most of those in the Moi/UBC program were secondary school graduates but many of them were also regarded as esteemed leaders in the refugee community. They were talented, highly motivated learners who were deeply committed to their teaching and to their community. Once we realized their leadership roles in the community, we were able to recruit them into key roles in promoting and sustaining a collaborative learning environment.

Ensuring the full inclusion of women and equal access to technology are major and continuing challenges. Addressing the goal of enhancing gender equity had to be approached with great sensitivity given the cultural norms and practices of the largely Somali Muslim community. The social roles assigned to women who were eligible for BHER programs made recruitment and retention challenging. We learned that no single strategy would work; that multiple and sustained approaches were necessary to address the particular needs of women students including, for example, soliciting funding for sanitary supplies and solar lamps, so women could study in the evenings after their domestic responsibilities were completed. The project also set aside space in the Learning Centre to be used by those students who were also nursing mothers. These various strategies were needed in combination to address the complex personal circumstances of students in the program.

Discovering directly from the learners how they use technology in their day-to-day activities is the best way to establish a base for incorporating technology into instruction. We made several false starts when deciding about how to use technology. Knowing that well-equipped computer labs would be available led us to assume initially that we could rely on our campus learning management system for the online portion of courses. When student access to our system became an issue, we tried “standardizing” BHER programs on the Moodle platform by installing it in the computer labs, but that had another set of problems. Although we knew that mobile devices – and the WhatsApp application – were ubiquitous in the camps, we were slow to realize their potential to connect with students and to support instruction.

Universities working in refugee settings must be ready to adjust/adapt to the changing context. This often requires flexibility in the application of policies and procedures to the specific circumstances encountered “on the ground.” The continually changing security situation in Dadaab, for example, requires constant adjustments to courses, processes and expectations. We, like our other partners, had to “negotiate” within our own institution when events in Dadaab…and in the lives of individual students … required adjustments – and occasionally exceptions – to standard practice. The example given above of UBC’s inappropriate “security questions” for Dadaab students resulted in an institutional-level change wherein new questions were crafted that avoid assumptions about students coming from a particular cultural or social-economic context.

The complex of camps that make up Dadaab are widely scattered and all are some distance from the project’s Learning Centre. Although there is a transportation system in place, it is not free and does not operate when the camps are in “lock down.” This created challenges for the project because if the transportation system was not running or was not affordable for students, they could not come to the Learning Centre. This is another example of the importance of understanding the local context and the complexities of student movement between where they live and where learning resources are located. In order to address this issue, we had to mount a separate fund-raising campaign – and call on assistance from the UNHCR – to facilitate student movement to the Learning Centre to attend face-to-face instructional sessions and to use the computer labs.

Refugees expected to learn in a non-native language learn best when orally-presented material – including those presented in video form – is made available for students to review multiple times. We learned, in fact, that providing textual and non-textual information using multiple distribution channels (including USB drives and DVDs) is the best way to ensure that most students will be able to access and engage with the material. We were always mindful of the privilege native English speakers have in a globalized world where English has become lingua franca.

These are a few of the lessons we have learned thus far in this important project. The creative use of technology has been essential to the successes achieved thus far, but the challenges are not over. We must now learn our way through the threat of the camps closing in near future and students relocating to many other areas. We will no doubt be relying even more on technology as we invent ways to help these “people on the move” complete program requirements from their new homes, wherever those may be!

8 Contributing to the Dialogue

After conducting a recent comprehensive “landscape review” of educational projects carried out with various technologies in contexts of conflict and crisis, Dahya (2016) makes the following observation:

The great possibilities of ICT [information and communication technologies] for education in conflict and crisis are entirely tied to the ongoing, thoughtful, complex work of the people teaching, developing tools, designing curriculum, and administering funds for education. Continued communication and exchange across these dedicated people and communities may exponentially benefit the field as a whole. Important to the conversation is a reminder that communities living through the tragedies of conflict and crisis are people with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. In each context, decisions about education, teaching, learning, and system strengthening require partnership and collaboration in and with those communities for whom education is a priority, and for whom ICT already play an important role. (p. 35)

A great deal is being learned about the promise and limitations of technology in educational settings like Dadaab. It does not appear likely that there will soon be a reduction in the numbers of those people “on the move” who need high quality educational opportunities to pursue their aspirations. We look forward to learning more from others who are doing similar work and to contributing to the growing knowledge base about the use of technology in contexts of conflict and crisis.


The project described in this chapter was part of a collaboration between York University, Toronto, Canada; the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada; Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya; Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya; Windle Trust Kenya, Nairobi; and World University Service of Canada, Ottawa; with financial support from Global Affairs Canada. The consortium works under the name of Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) with the main administrative office at York University. We must also acknowledge the support this project has received from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which has overall responsibility for running the camps at Dadaab.


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