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Technology-enabled language learning for refugees and migrants

22 April 2018

By Dr Koula Charitonos, Lecturer at the Institute of Educational Technology

The issue of providing educational opportunities for migrants and refugees is complex and multifaceted. UNHCR (2016a) reports an extraordinary number of approximately 65 million people being displaced from their home by conflict or persecution in 2015. The magnitude of the refugee and displacement crises is unprecedented, making this one of the most pressing global challenges of our era. The repercussions in the field of education are arguably enormous irrespectively of geographic regions: children and youth are among the hardest hit by displacement and often experience prolonged interruptions to their education. Adults also experience similar interruptions, along with the need to quickly develop their language skills in order to solve everyday problems, gain suitable employment or to access formal education. Yet what is distinct in this crisis compared to similar crises of the past is the central role the digital and mobile technology occupies among the displaced population - often reported in the news (see e.g. New York Times ‘Refugees and displaced people’ section). The high penetration of smartphones among refugees (e.g. UNHCR 2016b; Latonero, Poole & Berens, 2018) has led to a shift towards recognising the key role of digital and mobile technology for providing efficient and sustainable support in the field of education for migrants and refugees (see e.g. UNESCO, 2018).

With this in mind, and building upon a range of projects on mobile learning carried out at The Open University in the recent years, the Citizenship & Governance SRA, in partnership with IKD and IDII SRA and academics based at the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University, organised a roundtable discussion at the Migration Museum Project in London in April 2018.

The focus of the discussion was on the role of technology in language education for migrants and refugees. Being competent in the language of the host country is identified as a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration (Casey, 2016). At the same time, displaced communities bring with them their own languages, which in the new environment may mediate communication with their social networks in the host country or elsewhere in the world.

The discussion was facilitated by Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme. In her opening comments, she used examples from her work including the MASELTOV project on personalized technologies for social inclusion, the British Council project on Mobile Pedagogy for English Language Teaching, and the SALSA project on language learning in the next generation of smart cities (see e.g. Charitonos & Kukulska-Hulme, 2017) to highlight a different landscape in language learning, where you do not have to be in the classroom to learn a language. Instead, you can do this outside the class on your own time and space. The challenge however is how to combine formal learning and provision in educational institutions with the individuals’ abilities to find their own resources and define their own goals when learning a language.  

The panel participants included Nafisah Graham-Brown, Management Council Member of the National Association of Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults ( NATECLA ) who referred to their work on supporting migrants and refugees through ESOL provision in further education settings in the UK. George Allain, a PhD student at The Open University, drew on his work with children in a refugee camp in Greece to highlight processes for organisations to follow when developing technological solutions for refugee children that are learner-centred and not technology-driven.

The discussants shared insights from their experience in diverse educational settings and systems, yet a number of common issues were raised in the discussion, such as issues of access to technology, issues of engagement and motivation and a lack of understanding of the context of learning or pedagogic approaches to draw on before the design and use of technology. The importance of teachers and providing opportunities for capacity building were highlighted, particularly by Nafisah Graham-Brown, who referred to the potential of mobilising teachers to learn from each other and support each other in their work. George Allain emphasised that we are not building technological solutions to simply deliver content rather we are using technology to provide solutions to identified needs and gaps.

Importantly what emerged in the discussion was a realisation of the assumptions that we - researchers, practitioners, technology designers - make when working in this field. For example we often assume what the needs of migrant and refugee learners are, what methods we should be using to engage them and what content to deliver or even that by providing physical access to devices/technology this will bring positive learning outcomes. A participant reminded us that we do not often acknowledge that learning a language is primarily an encounter with another culture and an exchange between migrants, refugees, locals, families, teachers.

So the roundtable discussion at the Migration Museum Project provided an opportunity to reflect on the nature of learning as a social experience, to consider that technology is a tool to design learning experiences that will address specific needs and agree that teachers remain fundamental in this ecosystem. Migrant and refugee learning is arguably a unique context that requires unique (technological) solutions and pedagogic approaches, especially within the field of language learning. However, to comprehensively capture the potential of digital and mobile technology in education for migrants and refugees we should continuously define and redefine our role and practices as researchers and practitioners and reflect on what we have to offer to this community and importantly how our approaches are responsive to this context and their needs. 


Casey, L. 2016. The Casey Review. A review into opportunity and integration. Department for Communities and Local Government, London.

Charitonos, K. and Kukulska-Hulme, A. 2017. Community-based interventions for language learning among refugees and migrants. In Proceedings of HCI and Refugees Workshop, Communities & Technologies 2017, France, July 2017 At:

Latonero, M., Poole, D. and Berens, J. 2018. Refugee Connectivity.  A survey of mobile phones, mental health, and privacy at a Syrian Refugee Camp in Greece. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Data & Society. At:

UNESCO 2018. A lifeline to learning. Leveraging technology to support education for refugees. At:

UNHCR. 2016a. Global Trends. Forced displacement in 2015. At: trends/2016-06-14-Global-Trends-2015.pdf (accessed 20.4.2017)

UNHCR 2016b. Connecting Refugees. At:

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