Mobile learning for migrants and refugees

“It is time for tools to move towards developing an independent learner who can identify what she or he needs to learn and then appropriately target his or her activities towards developing those skills”. (Demmans Epp, 2017, p.11)

Contemporary education puts the onus on learners to be more self-directed in their approach and attitude to learning. They should be able to identify their own learning needs and select resources and strategies to achieve their goals. Those who have only experienced conventional classroom-based education may be used to relying heavily on teachers and provided materials, but self-directed learners can take advantage of a tremendous range of digital tools and social networks to extend their skills, knowledge and understanding. Across the World, increasing numbers of migrants and refugees find themselves in situations where the ability to define their own learning goals is likely to help them take advantage of online or mobile resources and networks to pursue their education. As Demmans Epp has argued, “migrants need to learn how to monitor and regulate their learning” Digital tools such as smartphones can help them move in that direction.

The MASELTOV project had these mobile populations in mind when the team developed a prototype suite of smartphone services and tools aimed specifically at recent immigrants to Europe. Accessed through a single app, the services and tools were designed to provide support for activities such as obtaining specific information (e.g. relating to health), language lessons, translation, cultural learning, navigation around a city, acting on recommendations, and social interaction in a forum or with volunteers. The Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology, a partner in this project, led the work package on ‘persuasive learning services’ which aimed to encourage users to engage with the provided tools and services in ways that would give them a sense of achievement and progress. The development of such innovative tools benefits our broader understanding of what it means to learn in informal environments, while travelling, walking about, visiting a health centre and so on. Everyday environments are increasing, also places where learners get on with their formal learning, for example when they meet in a café in town and use their laptops, tablets or mobile phones to collaborate on a task.

A spin-off project, SALSA, also concerned with widening learning opportunities for mobile populations, tested how the use of mobile phones can be combined with bluetooth beacons placed in different locations in a town. Being close to a beacon would trigger context-specific language lessons on the user’s phone. For example, waiting at a bus stop mobile users could be prompted to try a language lesson related to travelling. This approach is very promising, yet one concern is that the unusual use of smartphones as learning aids (such as listening to audio dialogues in public without earphones) can make migrant learners stand out as ‘outsiders’. Social and cultural influences thus can affect the location, timing and type of learning undertaken using such a system.

The last few years have seen an explosion of online platforms and mobile apps for language learning as well as general education that are open to anyone who has access to a computer, smartphone or tablet. Some of them are meant for individual study, but increasingly they have a social component, with reciprocal language teaching, mutual encouragement, and elements of play and competition becoming popular. Apps specifically for migrants and refugees provide essential information and many of them provide access to training and advice as well as means of communicating with others and alerting people who might need to know when an emergency has occurred. Giving “access” to education, which many of these technologies do very well, is in itself not enough, however. We always need to think about the social and cultural aspects of how they will be used, and in the case of migrants and refugees, sensitive political and ethical concerns may also need to be considered. There is certainly a great deal to be learnt from developing digital tools and resources for mobile populations wherever they may be.

Read the original research

Demmans Epp, C. (2017). Migrants and Mobile Technology Use: Gaps in the Support Provided by Current Tools. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2017(1): 2, pp. 1–13.

Gaved, M., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Jones, A., Scanlon, E., Dunwell, I., Lameras, P., & Akiki, O. (2013, October). Creating coherent incidental learning journeys on mobile devices through feedback and progress indicators. Paper presented at the 12th World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning (mLearn 2013), Doha, Qatar.

Gaved, Mark and Peasgood, Alice (2017). Fitting in Versus Learning: A Challenge for Migrants Learning Languages Using Smartphones. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2017(1), article no. 1.

Kukulska-Hulme, A., Gaved, M., Paletta, L., Scanlon, E., Jones, A., & Brasher, A. (2015). Mobile Incidental Learning to Support the Inclusion of Recent Immigrants. Ubiquitous Learning: An international journal, 7(2) pp. 9–21.