Digital learning in emergencies

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Digital learning in emergencies, also often referred to as distance learning in emergencies, refers to research, methods, tools and practices related to a rapid transformation of educational practices and modalities as a result of sudden and far-reaching disruptions in organizational or social structures, as seen during the COVID pandemic, but also occurring in disaster and war impacted regions throughout the world where educational structures and resources are scarce or unstable.

Digital learning, also known as E-learning [1] is utilizing electronic technologies to access educational curriculum outside of a traditional classroom. E-Learning as “electronically mediated synchronous and asynchronous communication for the purpose of constructing and confirming knowledge[2]. On the other hand, Garrison (2011) defines E-Learning as the appropriate organization of ICT for advancing student oriented, active, open, collaborative and life-long teaching-learning processes [3] . According to Nycz and Cohen (2007) E-Learning is important for building a technologically well-educated workforce. The learning is also good for achieving society’s need for continuous and lifelong learning which is possible to deliver in more convenient ways. As such, E-Learning is viewed as an opportunity and an effective way of delivering materials to previously unreachable students with previously unavailable access and presentation methods[4] such as the refugees scattered all over the world.

The past decade has seen a variety of emergency situations including earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear disasters, hurricanes, typhoons, Ebola outbreaks, cyclones, the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and other accidents and conflicts. Many of these emergency situations cause disruption to learning, as educational buildings are damaged, and/or schools are forced to close due to emergency conditions. The most recent emergency situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, created the largest disruption of education in history (United Nations, 2020), affecting 94% of the world's student population and 99% of those in low and lower-middle income countries (UNESCO, 2020). Schools closed as social distancing measures were put in place to slow the spread of the pandemic. With the absence of the physical learning environment, teachers turned to remote instruction with technology as part of a crisis response protocol to remotely continue education (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020; Rapanta et al., 2020; Thompson & Copeland, 2020).

Definitions of key terms

The definitions of some of the key terms related to Digital learning in emergencies are as follows:

Education in emergencies

Education in emergencies is based on the concept of "education as humanitarian response" [5] [6] Education provided in the conflict-affected and fragile contexts where humanitarian intervention inevitable is called “education in emergencies” [7] Education in emergencies offers “structure, stability and hope for [the] future during a time of crisis” [8] as “"quality education provides physical, psychosocial and cognitive protection that can sustain and save lives” and “helps to heal the pain of bad experiences, build skills, and support conflict resolution and peace building"” [9]


E-learning or electronic learning is an umbrella term that refers to all types of training, education and instruction to sharing information and creating knowledge. E-learning facilitates and supports learning through the use of digital technologies. It gives the users to learn anytime, anywhere with few restrictions. It occurs on a digital medium, like a computer or mobile phone and covers a wide set of applications and processes such as web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, and digital collaboration. It includes the delivery of content via Internet, intranet/extranet (LAN/WAN), audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, and CD-ROM. E-learning enables us to use emerging technologies such as the Internet, learning management systems (LMS), and other mediums to create interactive materials that increase knowledge retention, among other benefits. It often involves greater user interactivity through the use of audio, video, interactive text, animations, and graphics. It can be self-paced and can occur in or out of the classroom or at home. However, according to Sangra, Vlachopoulos, & Cabrera (2012, p. 154), “there is a risk in adopting an inclusive definition of e-learning because this definition connects its different elements and features, which can obstruct the understanding of the concept” [10].


Mobile learning or m-Learning is learning based on mobility often through mobile devices like smartphones, iPads, other tablets, laptops, notebooks and wearable technologies, i.e. MP3 players. Thus, it refers to learning that takes place on a hand-held device. However, M-Learning can occur anytime and anywhere. The movement from desktop to portable devices has had a big impact on the development of online learning content. Instructional designers increasingly need to develop responsive mobile learning content that can adapt to the many devices learners now use to facilitate learning and teaching.


Digital learning is any type of learning that is accompanied or facilitated by technology or by instructional practice that makes effective use of technology. It gives individuals some element of control over time, place, path or pace. In other words, it is a learning method based on the use of new digital tools to enable learners to learn in a different way, whether it be face-to-face, distance learning (asynchronous or synchronous) or Blended learning. It is therefore not simply a question of digitizing educational content but of a set of educational methods.


Hybrid learning [11]is an educational approach where some individuals participate in person, and some participate online. Instructors and facilitators teach remote and in-person learners at the same time using technology like video conferencing. With hybrid learning, the in-person learners and the online learners are different individuals

Online Learning

Online learning [12]encompasses a wide range of educational activities, tools, and resources that are delivered via the Internet. These can be schools in which the large majority of curriculum is delivered online, and interaction between students and teachers, and between students, is mostly or entirely at a distance. Online learning can be the online component of specific activities in mainstream classrooms, such as students using instructional math software for an hour per week in a class that otherwise uses face-to-face teaching, group activities, and a range of similar approaches that are common in traditional schools.

E-learning and digital learning: what differences?

E-learning and Digital Learning are two terms that have been misused by many people and as a result, there is sometimes a tendency to oppose them or to consider digital learning as a kind of enhanced e-learning. In reality, however, [E-learning] is only one important pedagogical modality of [Digital learning], which in turn encompasses all online learning methods and techniques. In other words, digital learning is the digitalization of the entire learning experience including social learning, virtual meetings with professionals, online exams, networking with alumni, professionalization workshops etc.

Further differences are mentioned here

The intention

Some resources would use the term “e-learning” to refer to education and learning within an educational institution. Others pertain to “digital learning” for corporate learning or training. With increasing mobility by the workforce coupled with the remote nature of today’s work, digital learning has become an overarching practice that encompasses all forms of training among business organizations.

The design

The presence of several tools, platforms, Learning Management Systems, and applications has made it possible for employees to build their skills and train with a slew of activities. Self-learning, meetings, immersions, classroom training, feedback mechanisms, and progress tracking have become standard practices in most corporate training. This type of learning – also known as blended learning – enables learners to obtain a more holistic way of learning. It can even be done regardless of where the students and the teacher are; geography does not matter, and in this sense, distance learning takes place.

Digital learning encompasses the aforementioned design, where digital tools and platforms are combined with other offline formats to provide a holistic view of learning. E-Learning, however, will only pertain to the “fully online” aspects of the above, specifically the use of online tools in a remote environment.

The Interaction

While both digital learning and e-Learning allow student and teacher interaction, the difference lies in whether they are face-to-face or not. Digital learning may involve the use of digital devices to facilitate learning, regardless of whether the students and the teacher are in the same room or not. This means that students may be using tablets along with other students and the teacher in a traditional classroom setup.

On the flip side, e-Learning is a “fully online” learning experience, which means that the practice is remotely done – the learner and facilitator are in different places and can communicate through online tools and platforms.

Digital learning or Digital Education

  • Digital learning is an instructional practice that ultimately helps students. It makes use of a broad range of technology-enhanced educational strategies. It includes blended learning, flipped learning, personalized learning, and other strategies that rely on digital tools to a small or large degree.
  • Learning can be through collaboration, producing material, participating and contributing to discussions and decision making.
  • It provides interactive learning resources, digital learning content (which may include openly licensed content), software, or simulations, that engage students in academic content.
  • It provides access to online databases and other primary source documents and the use of data and information to personalize learning and provide targeted supplementary instruction.
  • It creates online and computer-based assessments and allows for rich collaboration and communication, which may include student collaboration with content experts and peers.
  • It could be hybrid or blended learning, which occurs during direct instructor supervision at a school or other location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery of instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path or pace.
  • The proper implementation of digital learning broadens, strengthens, and deepens student learning through the use of technology as a cognitive tool for problem solving, conceptual development and critical thinking, which allows them to interpret, organize, demonstrate and manage their knowledge.
  • Digital Education is an umbrella term for any education that is conducted at least partly in, with or through digital technologies. This includes the use of technology in traditional classrooms, blended learning and education that takes place entirely online.

Accessible digital learning in emergencies

The types of impairments and facilitators for people with disabilities

For all learners to access education from the digital learning platforms, there is need to remove all the barriers that may hinder people with disabilities accessing the digital content. According to the Inclusive-ICT-report (2021), a fully inclusive digital learning school should make all educational content and activities used accessible to all the students, regardless of their difficulties. The reports add, "unfortunately, full educational inclusion is often a remote ideal, especially in middle- and low-income countries. The consequences of this lack of inclusion are dramatic and prevent children with disabilities from having access to the full range of digital educational content and activities, with strong repercussions on their access to quality education." According to UNHCR (2021), Persons with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized groups in crisis-affected communities. In situations of forced displacement, persons with disabilities are at heightened risk of exploitation and violence; and face numerous barriers to accessing humanitarian assistance including education. ICT supporting the inclusion of children with disabilities in education states 5 conditions that must be put in place to ensure optimal use of digital learning in emergencies by children with disabilities. These conditions include:

Condition 1: School infrastructure

To access digital learning, the devices have to be connected to electricity power, fibre cables or solar. Many schools, especially in rural areas and refugee camps, are not connected to the electricity grid or have limited access to quality electricity that do not damage the device. Some advance devices such as the tablets and smart phones may require internet connection which is expensive especially in most of the low-income countries and some children may not afford.Cluster teaching and learning centres that could serve as learning resource centres for students,equipped with adequate infrastructure for distance learning solutions such as free internet, television, computers will increase access to teaching and learning.

Condition 2: Procurement of good quality devices

Cost is one of the main barriers to using digital learning platforms in schools. Commercially available screen reading or symbol generating software can make a real difference to the lives of learners with disabilities, but it is often too expensive. Furthermore, some of the ICT found in schools in the countries covered by the study do not correspond to the learners’ needs and, lastly, the availability of accessible digital content in local languages is extremely rare.Usage related costs inhibit utilisation among poor households. In the development setting,households would prioritise purchasing meals over purchasing internet data for bundles. Internet service providers, in parthership with government agencies, will go away in crafting mechanisms for providing subsidised internet bundles to teachers to enable them to play active roles in distance learning solutions.This should go hand-in-hand with strategies for making electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets used for distance learning affordable to poor households.

Condition 3: Digital skills

Most teachers, students and parents in the refugee camps have had very little exposure to digital learning platforms and have very few digital skills. This is a major barrier to the use of digital learning in the classroom and for distance learning. A certain level of literacy is also an essential prerequisite for learning how to use certain ICT. Because of low literacy rates among family members or carers on the use of education technology devices at household level that reduce the chance of their children being reached by distance learning solutions, the home support that can be given to these children in learning and developing the necessary digital skills is limited.

Gamification in Digital Learning in Emergencies (Kahoot as an example)

Kahoot! is a remarkable digital tool that can easily be used to leverage the productivity in the classroom, students' engagement, and their educational attainment.

This digital learning platform has attracted plenty of educators, students, and teachers. The users of Kahoot recently exceeded thirty million users throughout the world. This free online platform depends on creating the content by users and it is based on behavioral design methodologies. According to the studies, students in classrooms are very interested in using this pleasant platform, they enjoy using Kahoot! as a game for fun and learn. Students learn more from a game than from other forms of learning (Bowler, 2012).

The interactive environment and ongoing feedback from teachers and supervisors. This mechanism can be very effective in equipping learners in the emergency contexts with beneficial knowledge and psychosocial support and providing professors with the opportunity to adapt and tailor their educational process based on student understanding on quizzes and other activities on Kahoot in different disciplines, with benefiting from anonymous participation which inspires students to engage more in the learning actions.

Instructional experts Gagne & Driscoll (1988) explain that one of the first elements needed for learning is to gain students’ attention. The music, colors, and excitement brought by Kahoot! encourage student focus and can excite a classroom. Kahoot as an instructional game's platform has obtained tremendous acceptance within the pandemic time, while previously the most challenge was lack of time, unknown, insufficient experience, or doubts regarding the scholarly merits of such activities.

The importance of competition-based education:

Most teachers acknowledge that it is a challenge to keep the students’ motivation, engagement, and concentration over time in a lecture. This increases in the crisis and emergency situation. Lack of motivation can result in a reduction of learning outcomes and a negative atmosphere in the classroom [13](O. L. Liu, Bridgeman, & Adler, 2012). Burguillo (2010) speaks to the importance of competition-based learning to achieve stronger motivation for students to increase their performance. Gagne & Driscoll (1988) conclude that informing students of the objective and then stimulating recall provides opportunities for learners to support their short-term memory recall and meta-cognitive abilities. James Paul Gee argues that well-designed video games are efficient learning machines, as they motivate and engage the players in such a way that they are learning without being aware of it (Gee, 2003). Games can be beneficial for academic achievement, motivation, and classroom dynamics (Sharples, 2000). Kapp (2012) states that for an educational game to be successful, it needs the right context, the right cognitive activities, meaningful challenges, and feedback.

Such eLearning tools add positive energy, support concept exploration, and add fun to the classroom, which seems to translate into increased comprehension and motivation. Perhaps most significantly, the “gamification” of learning increases student engagement by appealing to all students, even the most introverted, combining both a cooperative fast-paced learning environment and friendly competition (Kapp, 2012).

Student Feedback:

Kahoot! can also be used to elicit responses from students related to opinions or beliefs with no right or wrong answers. Student responses can then form the basis for further discussion.

Clark and Mayer (2008) note that the benefits gained from the use of new technologies will depend on the extent to which they are used in ways compatible with the learning process. Utilizing Kahoot! helps to support student metacognition by providing immediate feedback. Kahoot! also offers the opportunity to not only assess students’ conceptual understandings but also support the construction of new knowledge and understanding through further explanation during or after the game. Raymer (2013) reinforces that engagement and learning go hand and that you cannot have one without the other.

Challenges of using Kahoot:

The challenge is that many professors lack the opportunity, experience, or understanding to utilize digital games within their classrooms, especially in the fragile contexts. Becker (2007) notes that instructors cannot be expected to embrace games as a tool for learning unless they have a sound understanding of the potential of games and the confidence in their abilities to employ them.

The main challenges mentioned by students include technical problems such as unreliable internet connections, hard to read questions and answers on a projected screen, not being able to change answer after submission, stressful time-pressure for giving answers, not enough time to answer, afraid of losing, and hard to catch up if an incorrect answer had been given. Further, the main challenges mentioned by teachers include getting the difficulty level of questions and answers right, problems related to network connectivity, scoring based on how quickly the students answer reducing student reflection and cause some students to guess without thinking, that some students can have a problem with failing a quiz, and some teachers find it challenging to use the technology.

Condition 4: Medical and rehabilitation support

Determining the necessary services and tools requires the support of a multidisciplinary team. Limited access to health and rehabilitation professionals (physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc.) remains a barrier to diagnosing a disability and identifying the kind of digital device and software suited to the child’s needs, as well as to making the necessary adaptations to the child’s home and school environment (e.g. through space planning and furniture adapted for digital learning).

Condition 5: Coordination to ensure the correct use and maintenance of digital devices

Some pilot programmes have noted the absence of any clear protocol between the different stakeholders (such as the Ministry of Education, regional authorities, non-governmental organizations, maintenance technicians, teachers, pupils, parents, etc.) defining their specific roles and responsibilities. There are also some outstanding issues on reconciling digital learning and ethics in inclusive education.

Condition 6:Gender roles

In medium and low income countries,households respond to financial shocks by varying education resources allocated to girls.[14] A 2020 survey on social economic impact of Covid 19 showed that girls were more affected because they had to respond to household chores in the absence of a female adult at home.[15]

Guidelines to Creating Accessible Content in Digital Learning in Emergencies

To create accessible content for all people with and without disabilities, a few guidelines have been put in place depending with the different types of impairments so as to enhance accessibility. The WGBH Educational Foundation has laid different guidelines for each specific kind of impairment.

Content for People with Visual Impairments

According to WGBH Education Foundation, when creating digital content for People with visual impairment the following guidelines are to be considered:

People with low vision

Computer users with low vision often depend on the ability to enlarge or otherwise enhance areas of on-screen information. Screen-enlargement software can be tremendously helpful. To make on-screen information easier to see, content developers can:

  • increase the contrast between text and the background.
  • place text over a solid-color background. A patterned background can make text harder to discern.
  • create consistent layouts for all screens and dialogs within the program.
  • provide access to tools via a menu bar.
  • follow line-width guidelines when drawing lines on screen. Use the line-width information provided by operating system settings. This will ensure that the learning application will increase all lines proportionally should a user choose to enlarge the view.
  • allow the user to zoom in on or magnify portions of the screen.

People with color blindness

To improve access for colorblind users, content developers can:

  • make color coding a redundant or secondary means of conveying information.
  • ensure that the program will run in monochrome mode.
  • use variations in contrast and brightness in addition to color variations.

People who are blind

Content developers can do much to support screen-reading software and to help blind users perceive and understand screen content.

To support screen reading software, developers can:

  • use system standard on-screen controls whenever possible.
  • define tools in toolbars, palettes, and menus as separate items, and avoid creating single graphics containing multiple objects. When tools and other objects are kept separate, the screen reader is better able to identify and name each tool for the user.
  • embed descriptive text in graphic images in such a way as to make the text known to screen-reading software. This addresses the problems that can arise when text is rendered as a graphic image and cannot be read by software.
  • assign logical names to controls, even if the name is not visible on the screen. Screen readers can access this information and use it to describe the type and function of the control on the screen.
  • track the system cursor with the mouse, even if the cursor is invisible. This allows the screen-reading software to detect the mouse position when customized highlighting or focusing techniques are in use.
  • use consistent and predictable screen and dialog layouts.
  • avoid the use of "help" balloons that disappear whenever the hot spot, or focus of the mouse, changes. Locking the help balloon in place lets user move the cursor and continue to read the balloon.
  • provide keyboard equivalents for all tools, menus, and dialog boxes.

People with hearing impairments

According to WGBH Education Foundation, when creating digital content for people with hearing impairment the following guidelines are to be considered:

To increase the accessibility of software to users with hearing impairments, developers can:

  • provide all auditory information visually.
  • provide captions with all multimedia presentations.
  • ensure that all visual cues are noticeable even if the user is not looking straight at the screen. Important information should catch the user's attention, even through peripheral vision.
  • support the Windows Show Sounds feature that allows a user to assign a visual signal and caption for each audio event.

People with physical impairment

According to WGBH Education Foundation, when creating digital content for people with physical impairment the following guidelines are to be considered:

To increase the accessibility of software for people with physical disabilities and ensure compatibility with assistive technologies, developers can:

  • avoid timed responses or, when they cannot be avoided, lengthen the time allowed for a user to respond.
  • provide keyboard access to all toolbars, menus and dialog boxes.
  • allow the user to access helpful features already built into the operating system, such as Sticky Keys, Slow Keys and Key Repeating.

People with Language and Cognitive Impairments

According to WGBH Education Foundation, when creating digital content for people with language impairments and cognitive impairments the following guidelines are to be considered:

The degree of impairment within each of the categories can range broadly, from minimal to severe. In general, digital content designed should be user-friendly as possible to improve accessibility for those with language or cognitive impairments.

To improve accessibility for people with language and/or cognitive impairments, content developers can:

  • allow all message alerts to remain on screen until dismissed by the user.
  • make language and instructions as simple and straightforward as possible, both on screen and in documentation.
  • use simple and consistent screen layouts.


11. Research gate,

12. Edubrite, (2021) What are digital learning and e-learning, and how do they differ?

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