We are being approached by quite a few commercial companies who want to offer us online learning for use in emergency education settings.
In principle this sounds like a good idea. It is potentially a very cost effective way of getting teachers to children, and it allows for a much broader curriculum breadth. Online resources cannot eradicate the need to place teachers in the field, but there is a strong argument for thinking that online resources can supplement teachers and can therefore play a part in extending education.
Unfortunately, there are a number of barriers which are not always easy to resolve. Firstly, and most fundamentally, we have found that electricity is not always available in the refugee camps. Even when camps have electricity, it is not always made available for education. And even if the electricity extends to a classroom, it is not always a dependable source of electricity.
Planning lessons which require electricity has to be done with care, and with a back-up lesson always available, which does not require electricity. This adds a level of potential complexity to plans which involve using online learning in emergency education contexts.
Another issue which we have struggled with is the robustness of IT equipment and the maintenance needs which arise. Children seem to be very hard wearing on physical equipment. We see this in mainstream schools where physical maintenance can be constantly ongoing. This is not necessarily because children are deliberately damaging their facilities (although that does, of course, occasionally happen). Even with the best will in the world, children are just hard wearing on their environment.
There are a range of different reasons advanced as to why children should be so hard wearing. Some people say it is because teenagers are under going such rapid changes to their bodies, that there is a lag in their developing changes to their physical coordination. Advocates of this viewpoint maintain that it explains why teenagers can be more clumsy and liable to use excessive pressure or force on equipment.
Whatever the reason, those who work in schools will be familiar with the way that IT equipment gets worn and damaged. Keyboards lose keys, mice get broken, connections get bent and cables fall out and go astray.
Running IT projects in refugee camps needs to take this into account. This can be done by providing specialist toughened equipment, but that can cost significantly more than standard equipment. If standard office equipment is being used then there must be a robust IT maintenance plan. Otherwise a project will be launched with a lot of enthusiasm, but then gradually grind to a halt as equipment breaks and there is no plan for how to replace and maintain it. We have seen this happen several times with refugee projects. In one sad case we saw a couple of dozen tablets placed in a camp and within a month the project was struggling to cope with damaged and lost equipment.
We think that there is a definitely a place for IT based projects in the camps, but they need a lot of careful planning and appropriate resources allocating to deal with hardware issues.
A slightly different approach to IT issues has been put to us by companies offering to digitalise educational materials, or turn lessons into mobile phone resources. Once again there is something important in this, and we are sure that it will become a part of long term solutions to emergency education. But there are a lot of issues which need discussing and resolving before embarking upon these kinds of arrangements.
For example, we receive resources and materials from donors which are intended to support the disadvantaged and displaced children who we are working with. If these resources are placed into other software then there can be issues of Intellectual Property and copyright which need careful articulation. It would not be fair or appropriate if freely volunteered support ended up being used to create profits for a third party commercial company.
We think that there is definitely something important in these kinds of proposals but they will take time and focus to bring to fruition. At the present juncture we do not have the time and capacity to devote to longer term projects like this, as our focus is upon the more immediate delivery in the field. We have placed this on the to-do-list as something which we know that we need to return to.