Vodafone: Driving Transformational Change in Refugee Education

Vittorio Colao, CEO
Global statistics reveal that forced migration of people around the world has continuously trended upward in recent years, and is showing no signs of changing. The numbers are mind-boggling; the most recent United Nations report estimates that around 21.3 million people around the world are refugees. If the thought of 21.3 million individuals forced to flee their homes wasn't staggering enough, 51 percent of these individuals are under the age of 18, making more than 10 million children around the world refugees. While conflicts continue to rage on, the global society is at risk of having a huge population of children go uneducated. Moreover, having students with deep psychosocial burden and school camps with huge resources gaps, refugee classrooms are some of the toughest learning environments in the world. Not only do these challenges pose a serious threat to a refugee kid’s childhood, but failure to fulfill their right to education jeopardizes their future as well. In the face of these challenges, Vodafone has emerged as a critical partaker in changing this scenario. Joining forces with their social enterprise, Vodafone Foundation and other public organizations, Vodafone is on a mission to drive transformational projects in health and education to alleviate this educational crisis.

Vodafone combines the efforts of their social enterprise and modern networking technologies to develop a unique set of platforms and products for students and teachers. Globally, the foundation supports projects that are focused on delivering public benefit through the use of mobile technology across the areas of health, education, and disaster relief. The Vodafone Foundation also sits at the center of a network of 27 local social investment programs, referred to as the local Foundations. The Vodafone Foundation has a funding partnership with these local foundations to provide public benefit by investing in programs that support communities in countries where Vodafone has its commercial roots. “Through this unique network of foundations, we are able to think and act locally and best respond to the specific needs of the communities in which Vodafone operates,” says Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone Group. At a global scale, Vodafone Foundation harnesses the strength of these network foundations and leading-edge communications technology to build and deliver long-term sustainable programs that drive transformational change in societies. “Since 1991, we have contributed over 560 million pounds to charitable activities worldwide,” says Colao.

Connected Education—A Bridge from Misery to Hope

For refugees, fleeing their country for another comes with huge sacrifices. Not only are they leaving their home for the unknown, they are also leaving their familiar way of life. For children, especially, this comes with an additional burden of attempting to continue—or begin— their education in an unfamiliar place, in an unfamiliar language. “The challenges are numerous,” says Colao, including culture shock, language barriers, divided families, and lack of prior formal schooling. But, this is the challenge that Vodafone Foundation takes on.

Growing internet access has surfaced as a great boon to tackle the setbacks. Internet connectivity creates an opportunity to democratize education with higher quality and lower costs. Particularly for refugee children, who are living in camps and have no access to formal school education systems, internet can bridge those gaps, providing them with education and a possibility of a better future.

Vodafone combines the efforts of their social enterprise and modern networking technologies to develop a unique set of platforms and products for students and teachers

Based on this approach, Vodafone Foundation has launched Instant Network Schools, which enable young refugees and teachers to access digital educational content through internet and provide quality education in some of the most marginalized communities and refugee camps. The Vodafone Foundation believes that this link to the outside world can be a “game changer” for education programs in refugee camps and will be critical for the long-term future of those children and their communities. Currently, there are 31 Instant Network Schools located in seven refugee camps in Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, benefitting more than 43,000 refugee students and 600 teachers every month. “Our aim is amp up the offering to 3 million young refugees by 2020,” mentions Colao.

Instant Schools for Africa

The Instant School for Africa initiative—launched in 2017—is one of the largest philanthropic programs in Vodafone Foundation’s 25-year history. The initiative provides millions of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Tanzania with free access to online learning materials that are developed in conjunction with Learning Equality—a leading not-for-profit provider of open-source educational technology solutions. The program includes subjects such as math and science, providing refugee children and young people in those seven countries with access to educational materials—from primary through to advanced high school level—comparable in quality, range, and depth to those available in schools in the developed world. “The program draws from a combination of the best openly licensed global and local educational resources to provide country-specific content,” affirms Colao. The content is also made available offline to support pupils and educators who do not have access to the internet.

Another similar Vodafone Foundation initiative is Vodacom e-School—a secure online learning platform with free access to basic educational content for all grade R to 12 learners. The portal offers daily lessons, consisting of notes, videos, and assignments in the form of quizzes as well as personalized progress reports, providing more than 215,000 students in South Africa with the opportunity to self-learn, self-assess, and complete online tests. Together, these initiatives send out a strong message—“Access to education enabled by communications technology will reduce information asymmetries and equalize access to wider social networks and opportunities.”

Looking into the Future

“Information and communication technologies have much to offer, but one should understand that it is no panacea,” says Colao. “There will never be a single, silver-bullet solution for overcoming the immense inequalities that governments, schools, teachers, families and learners confront every day in their efforts to provide or benefit from a quality education.” Thus, it will be Vodafone Foundation’s perpetual effort to keep leveraging different information and communication technologies to build new connected education initiatives that reduce inequities, improve educational and livelihood outcomes, and contribute to greater social and economic development around the world. “We still have a lot to learn about what makes certain approaches more effective than others, but the opportunities to create, to test new strategies, and to share lessons learned are endless and inspiring,” concludes Colao.