From inaccessible to indispensable: Technology for teacher training in emergency contexts

Distance Education

In INEE’s Distance Education Reference Group, of which I’m a member, our discussions revolve around how distance technologies can effectively support education in emergency contexts. And as the author of Education Development Center's recently-published second edition of Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods, I have delved into the ways in which distance technologies have empowered teachers in emergency situations. The past dozen years, spanning the initial publication of this guide in 2011 to July 2023 have revealed a remarkable evolution in the role of networked technology within emergency contexts. What was once viewed as an unrealistic tool within many emergency contexts has now become an indispensable resource. The drivers of this change are double-edged — equally attributable to both a combination of successes, such as increased global technology access, and failures, including geopolitical actions that have given rise to conflicts and contributed to the gravest refugee crisis since World War II

This blog takes stock of five developments around the intersection of distance technologies and teacher learning in emergency contexts.

1: There is a high degree of technology diversity across emergency settings 

cover photo reportThere is no one technology that is best for teachers in emergency contexts. As such, a variety of technologies have and are being used across emergency contexts to provide internally displaced people (IDP) and refugee teachers with access to content, peers, and professional learning. Examples include Vodafone Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Instant Network Schools which provide refugee teachers in Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with free and open digital education content primarily via mobile phones. Other mobile initiatives, such as the International Rescue Committee and UNHCR’s Libraries without Borders, have harnessed e-readers and tablets to provide educational opportunities to Congolese refugees in Burundi.

Online courses, in particular, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), too, have proven to be a common form of professional learning for teachers in emergency contexts. Teachers in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, Syrian refugees living in Germany, and English-speaking refugees across the globe can all access MOOCs and online courses through initiatives via the University of Geneva and Kiron Open Higher Education as well as commercial providers such as Coursera. As in non-emergency contexts, newer forms of online learning—such as Virtual Reality, synchronous classes, and social media—continue to unseat traditional forms of Learning Management System (LMS) based online learning.

Finally, audio-based modes of distance education—radio broadcasts, radio lessons, and interactive audio instruction—have provided ongoing education to teachers and students in remote geographic regions, areas of conflict, home-bound audiences, and refugee and internally displaced communities in ways that other distance technologies cannot.

2: Mobile phones are the most indispensable of technologies

Mobile technologiesin particular the phones that refugee teachers own—have furnished learning and support to some of the hardest-to-reach populations on the planet. In refugee camps across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, students and teachers, thanks to online and mobile learning initiatives, have access to learning opportunities and support that would be otherwise unavailable. 

Mobile devices, for a variety of reasons, have proved to be a unique and foundational technology for teacher learning in emergency contexts. First, mobile phones, and thus mobile learning, accompany teachers when they are forced to move from one location to another, as is so often the case.  Next, mobile phones are accretive—they blend old modalities (like audio and text) with new ones (social media and video). This additive capacity means that mobile phones can provide a variety of learning opportunities for teachers in low-resource contexts in ways that other technologies cannot.

Refugees in emergency contexts value mobile phones over other technologies. They rely on mobile phones, as well as messaging apps like Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp, for various aspects of their lives, both professional and personal. Phones serve multiple purposes—obtaining information, storing essential documents related to their identities, and imparting new skills. Beyond their instructional benefits, phones also hold a deeper value for refugee teachers, enabling vital communication and emotional support within communities experiencing tension, such as refugee and host communities. Additionally, mobile phones play a crucial role in helping refugees maintain connections with family and friends, which serves as an important support system for those who have been displaced or forcibly uprooted. 

3: As valuable as they are, phones are not enough to facilitate the expansion of online learning

This theme covers two key points. First, in recent years, online learning has emerged as a valuable option to enhance educational opportunities for refugees and internally displaced persons. Numerous providers, including Jesuit World Learning, Southern New Hampshire University, the African Higher Education in Emergencies Network, the Carey Institute for Global Good, Coursera, and ClassCentral, offer free online courses or MOOCs tailored for refugees, as mentioned previously. Notably, online learning for teachers in emergency contexts has significantly expanded in the past decade, especially following Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. For example, Coursera has provided Ukrainian higher education institutions with free access to its Coursera for Campus platform, while EdX has made over 1,400 online courses available at no cost. Additionally, Khan Academy has translated its math and sciences courses into Ukrainian for teachers and students.

This rise in online courses leads us to a second point: Despite their utility, popularity and ubiquity, mobile phones, with their limited screen size, small keyboards, and challenges in responsive design, are not optimal devices for online learning. This assertion is supported by teachers' experiences and highlighted by difficulties in reading PDFs, writing essays, or accessing certain websites on phones. Recognizing the need for more suitable technologies that enable teachers to read, watch videos, access full applications, and compose written work more effectively, UNESCO and Google have collaborated to distribute 50,000 computers to Ukrainian teachers in order to enhance online learning experiences.

4: Distance education is professional development and must be designed with quality in mind

As EDC’s new publication, Distance Education for Teacher Training emphasizes, the success of distance learning lies not in the technologies employed, but rather in the provision of high-quality learning opportunities for teachers. To achieve this goal, the guide outlines a comprehensive approach that encompasses several key elements noted here: 

5: Despite their benefits, distance technologies still pose multiple challenges

Distance technologies, particularly in emergency settings, can compensate for the shortage of teachers and teacher educators and provide high-quality educational materials, such as videos, interactive software, or text-based information to support formal, informal, self-paced, and self-directed learning for teachers and students.

However, the above-noted broader access of refugee teachers to technology should not obscure us to some grim realities. Despite increased access to technology, issues of quality and equity abound—many technology-based offerings are mediocre at best and the increase in access to distance learning opportunities has not benefited many refugee teachers or students, such as Venezuelans in many parts of South America and Rohingya students in Bangladesh. In Afghanistan, efforts to educate girls and women online and via phones reach only a small minority of learners due to unaffordable fees and lack of access to mobile devices. Overall, globally, the percentage of refugees accessing online learning is still negligible—approximately 1%.  Poor infrastructure, uneven gender-based access to technology, and a long-standing evidence gap in refugee and emergency contexts persists.

Even the technologies that most teachers in emergency contexts use and trust—social media and messaging services—are amplifiers and accelerants of the same untruths and misinformation that fuel conflict and displacement. Data confidentiality and integrity issues disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, including refugees, migrants, IDPs, and religious, sexual, and/or ethnic minorities. The majority of these groups are often unprotected by national laws on data protection and security because they reside in countries that lack ethical frameworks for responsible innovation, policies, and regulations concerning artificial intelligence (AI), or because these countries are unable to enforce existing laws and statutes mandating the agency, privacy, and security of vulnerable teachers and students

Above all, the availability of technology often obscures the most fundamental issues underlying emergency contexts: Technology cannot replace a fully functioning education system nor is it a panacea for the complex issues faced by individuals in emergency situations. Online interactions, no matter how immersive, are a constant reminder of separation and displacement, and pale in comparison to in-person interactions that foster human connection and community wellbeing. Finally, the reliance on distance technologies for refugee communities in Poland, Ukraine, Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa highlights a profoundly poignant  irony – that while human beings demonstrate remarkable proficiency in developing innovative technologies, we are often far less adept at fostering peaceful coexistence.



Mary Burns photoMary Burns is a senior expert in teacher professional development, online learning, instruction, curriculum development, and educational technology and has won awards for teaching, research, and curriculum design. She is often invited by universities, ministries of education, private schools, education foundations, and donor agencies to help them conceptualize and design programs, train staff, and deliver keynote addresses.

Burns’s work has traversed every level of the education system, from policy development to program design and implementation to directly supporting teachers in classrooms. A practitioner who also does research, Burns has authored four books and almost 200 blog postsarticlesbook chapters, and peer-reviewed articles on teacher professional development, both with and without technology. Previously, she was a teacher and a school-based coach.

Burns holds a BA in International Relations and Romance Languages from Boston College, an MS in Urban Planning, an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in Austin, and an EdM from Harvard University. She is fluent in Spanish, French, and Portuguese.