In Romans Manyiel Garang’s classroom, there are 180 students, some as old as 35—ten years older than Garang himself. Garang is a primary school teacher in Kenya’s Kukuma Refugee camp, responsible for providing refugee children and some adults with a pathway to a brighter future while they wait to be resettled. But without books, pedagogical aids, or adequate learning materials, in a room packed with learners who have experienced trauma and been displaced from their homes and family, Garang teaches in what the United Nations has called the ‘toughest classroom in the world’.
Garang is not completely on his own. As part of a teacher training and support program called “Teachers for Teachers,” Garang communicates by WhatsApp on his mobile phone with teachers outside of Kukuma, including a peer teacher and facilitator named Kevin. These peers offer psychosocial and professional support and advice for the challenges he faces in his classroom. The program is possible due to the wide ownership of mobile technology, even in camps like Kukuma. “When there is an issue that I’m facing, I post it to the group,” Garang told UNESCO. “Then Kevin, the global mentor, or my other teacher colleagues give feedback on how it could be tackled.”
Garang left South Sudan when he was seven years old, fleeing over the southern border into Kenya. He began teaching at Kukuma in 2015 equipped with a secondary school degree and without any previous teaching experience. For Garang and teachers like him, the ability to connect with a network of teachers and collaborate on teaching methods and problem-solving makes him feel that he is part of a larger community where support is readily available. Comparing my ideas with others helps me grow as a teacher, Garang said. His engagement with other teachers also helps him value his own experience as a teacher in Kukuma. Garang regularly responds to questions posed on the ‘Teacher for Teachers’ mobile portal, contributing to a shared knowledge base that lies at the heart of the project. “I have a lot I can share to help teachers overcome their challenges,” Garang said. Through mobile-mentoring Garang added, “we are working together to overcome these challenges.”
In a few days, Garang will speak at Mobile Learning Week, UNESCO’s flagship conference about the intersection of technology, education and development. The event is being organized in partnership with UNHCR under the theme of ‘Education in Emergencies and Crises’ from 20 to 24 March at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.
At Mobile Learning Week, Garang will share information with education experts from around the world, as well as a wide range of representatives from NGOs, government ministries, international organizations and private sector companies. He will speak on a panel discussion about how affordable mobile technology can support teachers in emergency contexts. On the panel he will be joined by Edem Adubra, the UNESCO Section Chief for Teacher Development; Peter Ballesis, the Executive President of Jesuit Worldwide Learning, and Mary Mendenhall, a professor of education at Columbia University in the United States, who is a partner in the ‘Teacher for Teachers’ project that aids Garang and other refugee educators.
The practical and psychosocial support offered by programs like ‘Teach for Teachers’ is just one of the many ways educators, learners and ministries of education are leveraging mobile technologies to expand and improve educational opportunities in difficult environments.
“We have to reach people where they are,” said Mark West, the UNESCO coordinator of the five-day event. “Our work indicates that mobile technologies offer unique advantages for making education accessible to displaced people and others on-the-move. Mobile Learning Week is where solutions and cutting edge ideas are shared.”