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Virtual Education in Conflict Zones

LONDON – Educating refugees and children in conflict zones is one of the biggest challenges facing the international community. Their schools have been reduced to rubble. Their teachers have fled or are struggling to survive. Their libraries have been looted or burned.

Fortunately, solutions are possible. After all, these days, compelling lectures and well-stocked libraries are available at the click of a button. A bold pilot project, sponsored by the Dubai-based MBZ Foundation, reflects this reality. The best coursework on offer – in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and literature – can be loaded onto a mobile phone and placed in a student’s hand. If the 58 million children who are currently unable to attend school cannot be brought to a classroom, then the classroom must be brought to them.

Aid groups are already blazing the trail, using the Internet to provide Syrian refugees with educational opportunities. The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, for example, is holding an international competition – called eduapp4Syria – to develop smartphone applications that “can build foundational literacy skills in Arabic and improve psychosocial wellbeing for Syrian refugee children aged five to 10.”

Similarly, in Lebanon, the Beirut-based non-profit organization Sawa for Development and Aid, has developed NaTakallam, a service that offers unemployed Syrian refugees a chance to work as Arabic tutors. And in Egypt, the Nafham platform allows its users to upload educational videos on topics in the country’s K-12 public school curriculum.

From abroad, the British Council offers online courses in English, through a program called “FutureLearn.” And the Silicon Valley-based NGO ReBootKAMP and UNICEF’s Raspberry Pi coding classes offer young refugees a chance to learn computer programming.

The Internet is being used to help refugees pursue higher education as well. The European Union is funding a three-year e-learning course to prepare 3,100 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon for university. And the American nonprofit The University of the People has offered 10,000 Syrian refugees a tutor-supported online university education.

These efforts prove that, with the press of a button and the swipe of a finger, two million refugee children in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan could be offered the opportunity to continue their studies. The advantages of online learning are manifold. Prefabricated schools are expensive to ship and often unsuited for real learning. As these become less of a priority, funds will be freed for providing appropriate learning materials and on-site tutors.

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This shift in emphasis opens opportunities for contributions by the private sector as well, revolutionizing how education is provided in conflict zones and other emergency situations. The Khan Academy, Google, Apple, and roughly 50 other companies have recognized this need, providing some $70 million in funding, low-cost tablets, online education programs, and assistance with logistics. And in September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company would work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide Internet access to all refugees.

History shows how much broad coalitions that transverse the private, public, and nonprofit sectors can accomplish. Private companies are often well positioned to deliver goods more quickly and less expensively than public institutions, allowing the latter to focus their efforts elsewhere. Examples of this dynamic include the startups and multinationals that have joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help find a cure for Ebola and entrepreneurs using solar panels to provide off-grid electricity to remote villages in Africa.

But when it comes to providing education for out-of-school children, making the most of the opportunities provided by technology will require a clear, overarching vision. Efforts must be coordinated so that initiatives do not compete or interfere with one another.

Already, UNHCR has established a task force in Jordan to explore how information and computing technology can be leveraged to provide refugees with greater access to higher education. The Global Business Coalition for Education has offered to coordinate educational organizations and their private-sector partners. And in the lead up to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, private companies have already begun to mobilize resources and harness their capabilities in the service of innovation.

When the library at Alexandria burned in 48 BC, humanity did not crawl back into caves and stop learning. What went up in smoke was only the physical manifestation of human knowledge; the desire for discovery and progress remained intact. When the flames died down, our ancestors set out to recover the knowledge that had been lost.

That experience has been repeated throughout recorded history, and it should inform our response to the destruction of libraries and schools in Syria. Instead of asking the country’s children to accept the end of their education, we must help them rebuild – with the most modern tools at our disposal.

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

By Gordon Brown

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