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Business News/ Opinion / Virtual education in conflict zones

Virtual education in conflict zones

Aid groups are already blazing the trail, using the Internet to provide Syrian refugees with educational opportunities


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 well-being for Syrian refugee children aged five to 10".

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.

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 programmes and assistance with logistics. And in September, Facebook chief executive officer 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 non-profit 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 elsewhere.

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.

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 is former prime minister of the United Kingdom.

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Updated: 22 Feb 2016, 01:49 AM IST
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