Learn Lab

Learn Lab

Skype in the Classroom

Improving technology-based learning to fight overcrowded and underfunded schools in the Kakuma refugee camp.

1. Define challenges

Searching for the resources to support a growing refugee population

The Kakuma camp in north-western Kenya is home to some 115,000 refugees; more than 55 percent are children.

Residents of this 20-year-old camp have limited opportunities to engage with the rest of the world because of the camp’s remote location and the Kenyan government’s encampment policies. This has negatively impacted the quality of education, as resources to support teacher development and new learning models are extremely limited. The steady stream of new arrivals — of which two out of three are children — has also affected educational services in the camp.

Overall, education has been one of the hardest-hit services: Class sizes have grown rapidly and facilities struggle to keep pace with the influx. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to support teachers with adequate resources and ensure that high-quality and enriching lessons are available for students.

UNHCR has worked diligently with a plethora of partners to address these challenges. It has introduced children´s literacy programs and begun to employ more school teachers through double-shift classes, for instance. The agency is constantly on the lookout for new tools and methods to provide dynamic and quality learning opportunities for refugee children, especially those which reinforce the benefits for them to learn and interact with the world outside the camp.

A group of older students gathers in a small, one-room school and circles around a small laptop.

Since many refugee camps are overcrowded and underfunded, it is hard to provide adequate education to those who need it most.

2. Identify solutions

The benefits of technology-based learning

Teachers all over the world have been using Skype to make learning more exciting and memorable. A growing number of them are doing so using a platform created by Made by Many, a digital product innovation company.

The Skype in the Classroom platform allows students to connect with experts around the world as well as other classrooms and diaspora graduates. It helps students learn foreign concepts and builds communication and social skills, introduces them to technology-based learning and promotes literacy. And it allows those at the margins to reach out beyond the classroom through open-source learning and cultural interactions.

Importantly, the platform allows teachers to connect with communities-of-practice and improve the quality of their work. It helps them to create specific projects, providing a way for teachers to find partner classes or teachers or guest speakers for a specific learning activity. It lets them browse through projects or search by keyword, and grants access to a members-only directory of peers who may help with specific lesson plans or classroom challenges.

UNHCR had been convinced for a while of Skype’s potential in a refugee setting. Finally, after years of exploring partnership opportunities, talks between the agency and Skype began to heat up in 2014. One lightbulb moment came during a human-centered design workshop in Kakuma, when the idea of using Skype in the classroom generated significant interest within the community.

Through Skype, classrooms in Kakuma and elsewhere could connect with resources and subject-matter experts from around the world, thus enriching educational programs within the camp. Students would be able to discover new cultures, languages and ideas, all without leaving their physical location.

When Skype and its parent company, Microsoft, agreed to support the project, all pieces began to align, and the first Skype in the Classroom project in a refugee setting took shape.

As a lead partner, UNHCR choose FilmAid, a nonprofit organization that had been using film, radio, SMS broadcasts, and other media to convey public service messages and to raise awareness among Kakuma residents about the needs of children.

FilmAid’s staff had realized that using audiovisual media in instruction improves attendance and retention, changes the attitudes of the learner and motivates them to concentrate longer; it also brings psychological relief and entertainment, promotes the acquisition of new languages and helps refugees realize the realities of life outside the camp.

Skype in the Classroom would allow UNHCR and FilmAid to apply these lessons in Kakuma.

UNHCR Innovation continues to host workshops on higher education to brainstorm ideas and prototype solutions to education deficiencies in camps.

3. Test solutions

Planning a Skype-based curriculum and recruiting teachers is hard work

In mid-2014, a Skype in the Classroom project proposal was finalized. FilmAid was chosen to implement the project with support by the Lutheran World Federation and oversight by UNHCR. Microsoft would provide on-the-ground support through a Skype in the Classroom partnership coordinator.

The following March, Skype in the Classroom partners began to roll out the project through a series of meetings in five schools chosen for the pilot phase of the project. The meetings generated trust and excitement among teachers and families about the use of Skype.

One of the schools, unfortunately, soon dropped out of the pilot when, due to communication and coordination challenges, it failed to recruit focal teachers and attend project-related meetings. The other four pushed ahead.

Two teachers from each school were recruited as focal teachers, and in April, FilmAid led a workshop on how to use Skype in the classroom.

By June, FilmAid had arranged six lessons to test the Internet connectivity and logistics involved in setting up a Skype session in each of the pilot locations. To identify global teachers that Kakuma schools could connect with, the nonprofit consulted with Koen Timmers, who serves as the Skype in the Classroom global teachers’ coordinator for Kakuma. It then shared a soft copy of the Kenya Institute of Education curriculum with these global teachers and supported the global and Kakuma focal teachers to plan their classes.

A mobile screening unit was used for these and subsequent lessons. The unit is powered through a generator and consists of a laptop connected to an LED television screen and equipped with an external pro-webcam, speakers and microphone. The laptop is connected to the Internet through USB modems, and uses a version of Skype that has been customized by Made by Many to function in areas with low bandwidth.

Two men stand in front of a large televsion screen to set up the mobile screening unit.

Together, Microsoft and UNHCR built a mobile screening unit to bring Skype to the refugee camp.

4. Refine solutions

Struggling with internet connectivity and language barriers

Not all initial Skype in the Classroom tests succeeded: Internet connectivity, in particular, proved to be a challenge, despite the use of a low-bandwidth version of Skype. FilmAid procured a 4G mobile Wi-Fi gadget to salvage operations in three schools, but eventually decided to focus the project on one primary school only, Mogadishu.

The first four Skype lessons in Mogadishu primary school were prepared with the help of FilmAid by global teachers from Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, Austria and Portugal, and focused on cultural exchange, mathematics and science.

Due to bad Internet connectivity, several of the lessons were delayed and work plans had to be revised. FilmAid and its partners took notice, adjusting their lesson planning.

The nonprofit also began to explore ways to break classes into smaller, targeted groups when it realized that large class sizes affected the quality of Skype lessons as teachers struggled to control the proceedings and communicate effectively with their pupils and the global teachers.

Those teachers’ accents were soon identified as another hurdle to learning: Refugee children — and sometimes their teachers — struggled to understand them. Translation was often needed, and foreign teachers were encouraged to speak more slowly. FilmAid also recommended that class teachers review key points of a Skype lesson in class so that pupils better retain the information.

Another challenge that needed to be addressed was the limited computer literacy of teachers in Kakuma. FilmAid arranged several meetings with the teachers chosen for the pilot phase of the project and organised a refresher training for the Kakuma teachers in May 2015.

Educating teachers to use technology is just as important as bringing technology to the refugee students.

5. Scale solutions

Making Skype in the Classroom mainstream

The use of Skype in refugee classrooms has shown immense promise, even if UNHCR’s pilot project in Kakuma has struggled with Internet connectivity.

The quality of learning improved as pupils were exposed to new languages and cultures, according to FilmAid and the Mogadishu primary school teachers. Those teachers relish the chance to learn new teaching methods and share knowledge with global peers. Many global teachers have initiated fundraising campaigns for the African school they encountered, and asked to stay engaged with FilmAid and Skype in the Classroom.

Interest in the Skype in the Classroom has been growing, and in early 2015, Made by Many won a prestigious IxDA Interaction Award in the Connecting category. Actors in the humanitarian space have begun to take note, as well.

UNHCR hopes to mainstream the project into its regular work. For the agency, it is always thrilling to explore how a tool developed for a global audience may be applied within a refugee setting. It´s a way to leverage existing tools and resources without having to create something entirely new. It´s innovation at work.

An illustration of a classroom and Skype demonstrates how refugees can take advantage of Skype.

Hopefully, Skype in the Classroom will soon expand outside of Kenya and will be able to reach thousands of other refugees.




In progress


UNHCR Education Unit


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