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4 things to know about teaching digital literacy to refugees

By Carrie Rogers-Whitehead
June 14, 2018
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Since 2012 I've worked with refugees in the Salt Lake area, a destination point where about 60,000 displaced people currently live. My work with the refugee population has ranged from hosting story times, participating in outreach, teaching adults how to use computers and, most recently, teaching digital citizenship to teens.

The latter endeavor was part of a six-week after-school program made possible by Digital Respons-Ability, Utah State University Extension Services and Salt Lake County 4-H. Through that experience, I learned to put aside some assumptions, gained new knowledge and developed some strategies for teaching digital citizenship to refugees. Here are four things you should know about teaching refugee students.

Digital literacy is not a given

Before I worked with teens, I taught digital literacy to adult refugees through a program funded by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Many of my students had never touched a keyboard, let alone owned a computer.

In fact, early on I realized just how novice some my students were. When I mentioned the mouse at the start of the lessons, one of my students quizzically asked, "What do you mean a mouse?" The student, who just a few years ago lived in a Kenyan camp, didn’t understand why I was talking about rodents.

The children of these adult refugees don’t struggle as much with technical skills as their parents do because they attend American schools with access to technology. From adult learners, I would regularly hear comments like, "my kid knows that" or "my kid can help set that up for me."

That's why refugee children are often called upon by their older relatives to be digital advisers, even though they might have gaps in their digital literacy because they lack family support and guidance.

Tip: This struggle can develop a strength in the classroom. Not only do these teens teach technology at home, they translate it from English to their native language, which is an impressive feat of learning. Consider letting these students teach others in the classroom, while you fill in the digital literacy gaps.

Teaching peers allows these students to address the Empowered Learner standard within the ISTE Standards for Students, which expects students to understand the fundamental concepts of technology operations, demonstrate the ability to choose, use and troubleshoot current technologies, and transfer their knowledge to explore emerging technologies. 

Access can be a barrier to inclusion

Nysse Wilson, a 4-H program coordinator for the refugee after-school program, said the lack of technology at home can be a big a barrier to learning.

"While I can't speak to the truth of this for all refugee families, I do know many of my mothers and fathers feel like digital technology is well beyond their capacity to use,” she said. “Many families don't own a home computer and have never learned to use the internet."

Lack of digital access can hamper refugees in many ways. An Australian study found that the lack of tech skills and access to technology affected refugees’ ability to integrate into their new communities.

Most of the teens I work with said they generally access the internet using a smartphone (although they did have access to a desktop computer for a few hours a day during the program).  The students would do their homework on the phone, which often was shared with multiple siblings.

Tip: Educators should keep these digital divide issues in mind. When teaching the after-school program, I printed out worksheets and information about the activities. I wanted to make sure students could participate and learn more about the subjects we covered without internet access.

When educators ensure that learning materials are accessible to all students, they have the chance to address the Designer standard within the ISTE Standards for Educators, which expects educators to use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.

Communication comes in many varieties

In the beginning of one of my courses teaching adult refugees I asked the group how many languages they spoke. I told them to keep their hands raised if they spoke two languages, three languages and so on. Most indicated they spoke three languages, and one person from Sub-Saharan Africa spoke seven!

Yet for many of the teens in the program, digital communication was a struggle. Wilson said the problem was compounded by "communities who hadn't previously learned to read or write." Refugees from Somalia for example, do not have a standardized written language.

There are many slang terms, acronyms, idioms and confusing words like "mouse" rapidly thrown at these new arrivals.

We found a universal language using memes. Often dismissed as trivial and silly, memes can communicate across cultures. The image paired with a caption can immediately convey a message or feeling. In one class I had the teens create their own memes — and they did a great job.

Tip: Communication does not have to be text. It can be an emoji, a GIF or a meme. Educators can teach inclusively by allowing communication through different media. This is yet another way to address the ISTE Designer standard mentioned above. 

Creating global collaborators

Many refugees have lived in multiple countries, speak many languages and have family members living overseas. They are adept at using digital tools like Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp to keep in touch. A hallmark of being a global collaborator, as outlined in the ISTE Standards for Students, is using digital tools to connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, engaging with them in ways that broaden mutual understanding and learning.

Tip: Allow students to demonstrate this standard by letting them share their culture. One of my students shared her love of dancing with the class and showed us a YouTube video of traditional dance in her home country. Technology is an amazing tool that has helped displaced individuals all over the world keep in touch with family, find lost relatives and share their culture.

Resources for teaching refugees

If you have refugees in your classroom, here are some organizations that offer resources you can incorporate into classroom settings.

The Wonderment. This nonprofit connects students from all around the world in collaborative service projects.  

UNICEF. This global organization has up-to-date reports on the refugee and migrant crisis as well as ways you can get involved.

International Rescue Committee. This nonprofit helps refugees resettle in their community as well as provide both international and local resources.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is an ISTE member and CEO of Digital Respons-Ability. Her company teaches digital citizenship to refugees and she plans to publish findings about this work.

Explore the possibilities of the digital age with ISTE's book Digital Citizenship in Action