Role of digital Learning in Emergencies

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
Revision as of 17:00, 9 November 2022 by Mikias (talk | contribs) (→‎Definitions)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigation Jump to search


This concerns the role of digital learning in emergencies for internally displaced people (IDPs), refugees and host communities, with special reference to distance education during COVID-19 pandemic.

The last decade has seen a variety of natural and man-made disasters that caused emergencies. These include the worst earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, Ebola outbreaks, cyclones, conflicts, and accidents. The recent covid-19 pandemic was unique. All these emergencies in one way or the other disrupted education at all levels. The school building was damaged, teachers and students were displaced, systems were disrupted resultantly schools were forced to closure. Among these emergencies, the COVID-19 pandemic created the largest disruption to education in history[1], affecting 94% of the world’s student population and 99% of those in low and lower-middle-income countries [1]. Globally, over 1.2 billion children were out of the classroom. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever. Schools closed as social distancing measures were put in place to slow the spread of the pandemic.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calculated 25.4 million refugees globally at the end of 2017[2]. The number of these refugees including internally displaced peoples (IDPs) drastically increased during the last few decades[2]. Major driving forces behind refugee migration at the global and regional levels are socio-political instability, wars, conflicts, and environmental catastrophes[3]. Consequently, migration of the IDPs and refugees phenomena takes place within countries or across countries/continents, respectively[4]. These refugees or migrants face multiple socio-economic challenges in the hosting countries, such as a lack of access to education, health, food, and other supporting social institutions and services[5].


The term digital learning refers to the innovative use of digital tools and technologies during teaching and learning (University of Edinburgh 2018).

The term “Education in Emergency” refers to quality learning opportunities for all ages in situations of crisis (INEE 2020).

The adoption of digital learning in an Emergency context represents a need. Policymakers, teachers, students, and non-profit organizations were stimulated to search for new solutions in emergency situations and this demand is increased because of COVID-19. Therefore, the shift to digital learning in emergencies happened. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay stated: “We are entering uncharted territory and working with countries to find hi-tech, low-tech, and no-tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning” (UNESCO 2020)[6].

Refugees Students access to higher education

Limited access of refugee students to higher education is one of the most serious issues in the world. This needs the attention of the government and non-government organizations, policymakers, humanitarian experts, and human rights activists[2] (UNESCO, 2020). Due to uncertain socio-economic situations in the refugee’s localities (camps and host communities), some of the refugee students are deprived of receiving formal secondary and tertiary education while those who are seeking higher education face numerous and unique challenges in the hosting countries and their localities[7][8][9]. It is reflected by the fact that only 3 percent of all refugees worldwide are enrolled in higher education institutions[2]. Though there is a clear consensus on equitable access to higher education as reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as foundational human rights documents including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education[10]. Within these legally binding commitments, refugees’ access to higher education in emergencies (HEiE) is urgently needed, particularly in the refugee’s host countries[2]. These refugees host countries are being asked by different humanitarian agencies to provide opportunities for refugee students in the form of scholarships and accessibility to modern communication technologies. In particular, refugees’ access to innovative modern technologies, the internet, and equipment enhance higher education in emergencies (HEiE) through digital learning.

Digital learning: the most feasible option?

Digital learning is a widely accepted educational strategy that improves refugees’ access to higher education and develops skills and knowledge needed by migrants and refugees in the host countries[11]. Digital learning offers cost-effective and flexible solutions that could be scaled up to provide learning and skills development opportunities to migrants and refugees. The UNHCR (2016), for example, is increasingly considering digital learning to be an important way to bring flexible learning to refugees, particularly in refugee camps. It also recognizes that the effective use of technology and the internet improve tertiary education and is useful for developing skills and competencies that can be immediately useful in the host countries. Along the same lines, the European Commission also specifically emphasized the use of technological advancements and digital learning, as digital learning option provides cost-free materials, courses, and learning opportunities for refugees in emergencies[12].

Digital learning: Issues and challenges

There has never an emergency that put digital learning feasibility to the test like the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021. If 99% of the over-a-billion students whose learning was disrupted were in low and lower-middle-income countries, as mentioned in the Introduction above, then these countries were very ill-prepared for such a large-scale emergency with digital education compared to well-prepared high-income countries. It is the digital divide manifested by the following, as concluded by UNDP:

  • out-of-school rate jumped substantially everywhere.
  • However, rates of out of school primary education children was:
    • highest in low human development countries (86%),
    • followed by medium human development countries (74%);
    • high human development countries (47%)
    • lowest only in very high human development countries (20%), with the majority of primary school children could continue structured learning.

Thus, the divide widened within countries and among countries raising worldwide concerns about how the pandemic "has exacerbated inequalities and pre-existing problems in education systems around the world."

According to UNESCO (2020), there are 826 million students who do not have computers, additional 706 million with no Internet access. The disparities in device ownership and access to internet are acute in low-income countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa where 89% of learners do not have access to computers and 82% lack internet access. In the same report it is indicated that 56 million learners in these regions live in locations not served even by mobile networks.

Opportunities of digital learning in emergency

While there are many significant challenges to digital learning in emergencies, opportunities for global collaboration have emerged, including an initiative announced in September 2021 by Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education of UNESCO. UNESCO and the advisory group members in this regard aim to launch the Global Declaration on Connectivity for Education in 2022. In addition, the experience of NGOs and UN agencies during the COVID-19 response enabled them to raise community awareness about the benefits, success factors, and support needed for digital learning. Digital learning presents a great opportunity to reach children, youth, and adults and include them in educational efforts.

Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE, 2022) presents examples of practices recommended to enhance the effectiveness of digital learning in emergencies. The recommendations are mainly related to:

  • Apply an inclusive, collaborative, and participatory process that involves all learners, teachers, stakeholders, and affected community members throughout the different phases of preparedness, response, and recovery.
  • Provide pedagogical, technological, and social-emotional support for both teachers and learners on an ongoing basis.
  • Provide support in accessing and applying online DE (i.e., media and technology tools, connectivity, and training in the use of DE).
  • Apply methodologies with a pedagogical focus, including foundational pedagogy, content curation, asset-based approaches, and digital pedagogy.
  • Providing teachers with relevant professional development
  • Supporting teachers when they do fail, both emotionally and technically
  • Ensuring the availability of resources, including training, equipment, and materials
  • Support students in their own skill development – digital literacy-.
  • Ensure that families and communities support teachers. This is critical when teachers confront resistance and obstacles, such as prohibiting girls from accessing technology or devices and prioritizing boys’ education over that of girls and people with disabilities.
  • Build collaboration and partnerships with key stakeholders, such as NGOs, EdTech, start-ups and other companies, and ICT ministries, to ensure the rapid development and scale-up of remote learning modalities.
  • Encourage innovative solutions for measuring reach, engagement, and outcomes during a quick pivot to distance learning, while also developing high-quality monitoring, evaluation, and learning strategies for the longer term

According to Ferri, Grifoni, and Guzzo (2020), researchers, universities, educational institutions, businesses, and policymakers must be involved in providing adequate answers to the challenges emerging from this worldwide experience. Lessons learned from this emergency -COVID-19- enable us to indicate challenges and proposals for action to face these same challenges addressed to policymakers from different countries so that they can address some of the open challenges. The researchers in their paper provided recommendations depending on their study that served to substantiate the following proposals for action to respond to the identified challenges:

  • Reliable network infrastructure needs to be developed. Teachers, students, and parents must have connectivity that allows them to be able to take lessons remotely even when other people in the same house are doing other online activities.
  • More affordable devices must be provided. Devices such as tablets or computers to be connected should be less expensive and governments should give households incentives to buy them.
  • Diverse modalities (telecourses, TV, radio, online courses) should be used to provide accessibly learning experiences for students in remote areas, as already seen in some countries.
  • Systematic training initiatives should be provided to improve teachers’ and learners’ technological skills in relation to new emerging models and approaches encouraging the effective use of online learning.
  • A clear and consistent plan should be developed, providing structured and planned educational material (content, methodologies, and common goals) and more adequate e-learning platforms by using interactive suitable digital learning resources (video, animations, quizzes, and games) to maintain students’ attention.
  • A blended approach should be used whenever possible to reinforce a feeling of community belonging, thereby improving social interaction and collaboration among learners and between learners and teachers.
  • Technologies that use virtual and augmented reality need to be improved, making them widely accessible and therefore more engaging and inclusive, to stimulate students’ involvement and interaction
  • The use of intelligent technologies for remote teaching, like artificial intelligence, needs to be reinforced to encourage personalized, inclusive, and participatory online learning paths.
  • More inclusive tools, platforms, and devices considering different web content accessibility guidelines need to be developed in order to make digital learning resources accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities.


Anselme, M. L., & Hands, C. (2010). Access to secondary and tertiary education for all refugees: Steps and challenges to overcome. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees, 27(2), 89-96.

Borthakur, A. (2017). Afghan refugees: The impact on Pakistan. Asian Affairs, 48(3), 488-509.

Ferri. F, Grifoni. P and Guzzo. T (2020). Online Learning and Emergency Remote Teaching: Opportunities and Challenges in Emergency Situations. Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, 00185 Rome, Italy.

Ghufran, N. (2011). The role of UNHCR and Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Strategic Analysis, 35(6), 945-954

Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). (2022). Distance Education in Emergencies Background Paper. Available at 9 Oct 2022)

Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). (2020). “INEE Mapping Report: Distance Education in Emergencies. New York, NY. Available at (Accessed: 6 Oct 2022)

Sengupta, E., Sahibbzada, M. G., Ibrahimi, M., Haidari, N., & Yousufi, E. (2021). Uncertainty in an Uncertain Land–Battling of COVID-19 in Afghan Educational System. In New Student Literacies amid COVID-19: International Case Studies. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Sukanya Mukherjee (2021). Understanding Refugee Education: An Assessment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and India through Policy analysis: Refugee Education in South Asia Editors: Mahbub Alam Prodip et al.

UNDP. (2020). Human Development Perspectives -Covid-19 and Human Development: Assessing the Crisis, Envisioning the Recovery; UNDP: New York, NY, USA, 2020. Available online: Retrieved on 5.11.2022).

University of Edinburgh (2020) . What is Digital Education. Available at What is digital education? | The University of Edinburgh (Accessed on 18 October 2022).

UNESCO. (2020).  “COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response”. Available at   (accessed on 7 October 2022).

UNESCO. (2015). “The challenge of teacher shortage and quality: Have we succeeded in getting enough quality teachers into classrooms?” Available at (Accessed: 8 Oct 2022)


  1. 1.0 1.1 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2020). UNHCR Report.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 The United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees. (2016). Missing out: Refugee education in crisis. Geneva: Author. Retrieved from
  3. Taftaf, R.;Williams, C. Supporting Refugee Distance Education: A Review of the Literature. Am. J.Distance Educ. 2019, 34, 5–18.
  4. Abbasi-Shavazi, M. J., & Kraly, E. P. (2017). Forced and refugee migration in Asia. In Routledge Handbook of Asian Demography (pp. 331-350). Routledge.
  5. Schneeweis, N. Educational institutions and the integration of migrants. J. Popul. Econ. 2011, 24, 1281–1308.
  6. UNESCO. (2020). Startling digital divides in distance learning emerge. Paris, France: UNESCO. Available online: (Accessed on 1.10.2022)
  7. Felix, V. R. 2016. The Experiences of Refugee Students in United States Postsecondary Education. Bowling Green State University, Ohio
  8. Kleist, J. Olaf. 2017. The History of Refugee Protection: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges. Journal of Refugee Studies, 30 (2): 162–69.
  9. Canefe, Nergis. 2018. “Invisible Lives: Gender, Dispossession, and Precarity amongst Syrian Refugee Women in the Middle East.” Refuge 34 (1): 39–49.
  10. Baderin, Mashood, and Robert McCorquodale. 2007. “The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Forty Years of Development.” In Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in Action. New York: United Nations.
  11. Castaño-Muñoz, J., Colucci, E., & Smidt, H. (2018). Free digital learning for inclusion of migrants and refugees in Europe: A qualitative analysis of three types of learning purposes. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(2).
  12. Lewis, K., & Thacker, S. (2016). ICT and the education of refugees: A stocktaking of innovative approaches in the MENA region (SABER-ICT Technical Paper Series, 17). Washington, D.C.: World Bank. Retrieved from