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Innovations in online learning for refugees, slum children earn UN prize

a path to progress

The JAAGO Foundation, which operates for disadvantaged children in Bangladesh, and Kiron, which provides refugees with free access to higher education, are joint recipients of a $25,000 UN award.

Rohingya refugee children attend an Arabic school to learn to recite the Quran at Kutupalang Makeshift Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Feb. 12.
Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters | Caption

As a university graduate, Korvi Rakshand wanted nothing more than to help break the cycle of poverty in his native Bangladesh by teaching children on the margins of society.

He rented a single room in a slum for his lessons and provided half a kilo, or about a pound, of rice a day to parents as a way of encouraging them to send their children to class.

A decade on, what started as a hobby has led to a network of 10 online schools and three regular schools which aim to give thousands of children in remote areas of the South Asian country of 163 million an education via technology and the internet.

"What we've done is not rocket science but the thing is no one ever tried it. It's a very simple system," said Rakshand, whose JAAGO Foundation was the joint recipient last month of a $25,000 U.N. award for innovation in education.

Even though primary education is free in Bangladesh, only half of all children in the country's slums attend school, a rate 18 percent lower than the national average, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.

Rakshand said initially lessons were delivered over Skype, a messaging and video call service, but now teachers in the capital Dhaka use interactive video conferencing to present live tutorials, analyze charts and watch educational videos with students in remote areas.

"For the kids, someone appearing on a television is like a celebrity, so the kids love the concept that they're talking to a television and there's someone from the capital who's probably famous teaching them and giving them time," Rakshand told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ensuring inclusive and quality education for all is one of 17 development goals adopted by U.N. member states in 2015 as part of an ambitious agenda to end global poverty by 2030.

Yet millions of children and adults around the world have little or no access to education due to war, poverty and displacement, experts say.

To address the deficit, non-profits and others are increasingly harnessing technology to reach disadvantaged communities and plug gaps in traditional education systems.

The other honoree

Promoting learning among refugees who have fled turmoil in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan can transform their lives, according to Kiron, a non-governmental organization whose work providing refugees with free access to higher education was also recognized by the prize from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Based in Germany, the NGO runs an online platform that allows refugees to sign up for accounting, engineering and other courses by logging on via their smartphones from anywhere in the world, including camps and shelters.

More than 2,000 students have enrolled in the courses working with 27 partner universities across Germany, France, Turkey, Italy and Jordan.

"For refugees that are in a new society, it's a lot about their identity of feeling like a student and not like a refugee anymore, and just having fun with each other," said Markus Kressler, co-founder of Kiron.

Kressler said Kiron had been inundated with requests from volunteers and academics who wanted to offer their services to the online university.

"They (refugees) need just one shot in order to start a new life," he said. "We need to give everyone a fair chance."

Despite the success of such projects, internet connection remains a challenge, according to Rakshand, who said JAAGO had considered introducing online classes in Sierra Leone and Nepal but faced limited bandwidth in those countries.

Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Katie Nguyen. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change, and resilience. Visit www.news.trust.org.

 The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.