The practical realities of mobile technology education solutions in conflict contexts

Geeta Raj

Using technology to continue education in times of crisis and among displaced populations is increasingly being recognised by donors. Geeta Raj designs and implements technology solutions for education in conflict settings. In this article, Geeta examines a recent funding opportunity from the perspective of donors and technology developers.

Children globally are affected by education systems breaking down in conflict and crisis. An estimated 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school due to conflict. Syrian families can often access smartphones, offering a way to reach children and support learning. However, developing and implementing software for education in these settings creates unique challenges.

Donor interest in technology
Donors recognise the potential of approaches like mobile software applications to support education. Since 2011 the World Bank has been encouraging greater use of new technology, and there has been an increase in funding opportunities.

An example is the EduApp4Syria competition. USAID, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology, World Vision, and the Australian government have formed an alliance for sourcing and funding mobile technology for Syrian refugee children. The competition, which opened in 2015, called for open source software applications to help Syrian children with Arabic reading and improve psychosocial wellbeing.

Out of 78 bids in Phase One of the competition, from suppliers in 31 countries, five received modest funding to develop prototype applications. Three were offered contracts for Phase Two, during which 40 Syrian refugee children aged 5-10 living in Norway tested the prototypes. Winners from Phase Two (announced in December 2016 or early 2017) will continue to develop complete apps and games.

Applying the donor-grantee model to technology in crisis
The timeframe in the donor-grantee model, such as that posed by a competition framework, is a key challenge. On average it takes one year to progress through a grant competition from an initial concept to a fully working application. The EduApp4Syria team executed a relatively fast bidding, reviewing and decision-making timeline: just over a year from launch to selecting a winner. This does not include the time it will now take to build the application.

In emergency contexts time is critical as the situation rapidly and regularly changes: target users move, grow older and exhibit changing needs. In addition, the digital device (such as a mobile phone) that will host the application is likely to keep changing. The conflicting time pressures of a competition framework and changes in users’ situation can cause prototypes to become out of date before they are released.

The proposal process can be expensive for companies developing the digital applications. Donors require a functioning prototype as part of the proposal. Developing a written proposal and creating a prototype takes more time and money than it takes traditional non-technology grant bidders.

Donors do not always have detailed understanding of the technical processes involved when they invite developers to bid for funding. EduApp4Syria sought to generate innovation and set broad parameters, encouraging bidders to propose use of varied platforms, such as Android versus Apple or phone versus tablet. However, it is not easy to replicate an application built for one operating system to another. The EduApp4Syria team tried to address this by including experts and experienced computer game and application developers in the review process.

Progress and impact
As Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Education Specialist at the World Bank, has commented “…in 2011, gatherings of people interested in the use of small mobile technologies (like phones) in education in developing countries spent a lot of time talking about ‘the potential’.”2 But why has this apparent potential not been mobilised?

Donors and funders are hesitant to fund expensive technology solutions without promising data on results.3 However, there is usually limited data available on impact, especially as applying technology is new for many educators even in non-crisis settings. Technology is fast-paced and solutions to problems are often identified and put in place as it updates. The type of data donors want may take another three to five years, at which point technology will have changed, rendering most solutions obsolete. Without taking informed risks, stakeholders will not reach a satisfactory point of replicability and scalability.

Balancing availability and effectiveness
Often technology-based interventions, such as education software, is designed using technologies and devices not available to most learners without extra funds. Even in contexts such as the Syrian crisis, where many have access to smartphones, people often cannot keep up smartphone use due to lack of electricity, poor internet access, lack of money for services, and damage, loss or theft of their phones.

Because the situation of displaced and refugee communities is constantly changing, it can be difficult to predict what technologies to use in their education. A solution must be based either on the hardware currently available (which may become obsolete or unpopular in a few years) or on a prediction of what might be used in one to three years’ time. If funders and developers fail to strike a balance between these two approaches, it renders their solution under-utilised or unsustainable.

UNESCO advises that: “As more sophisticated technology becomes available over the next fifteen years, designers of mobile learning projects will need to find a balance between capitalising on the prevalence of low end technology to provide sustainable access in the present and the immediate future, and leveraging the potential of high-end technology to ensure sustainable access in the long term.”

The future
A lack of understanding among donors, developers and education agencies around how to quickly create and deliver effective technology is causing missed opportunities and wasted resources.

We need to better define what mobile technology in education means. We need to close the knowledge gap between donors, developers, and users. Donors should reconsider what they need to make confident investment decisions, while developers should continue refining solutions to generate the highest possible impact.

Technology developers constantly identify successes and use them rapidly to develop further solutions. To use technology’s potential for education in humanitarian crisis, donors may need to take a similar approach to confidence-building and risk reduction.

Geeta Raj was a Senior Program Analyst with USAID for 9 years before starting The Global Sleepover ( where she currently designs and implements technology solutions for education in conflict settings.
Twitter: @geetadhyanaraj

1Open source’ refers to software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified.


Published in: Enabling Education Review 5