Katerina Antoniou & Spyroula Mavrommati explain their unique work on language learning for refugee students.
Ethnic and demographic changes have forced people of different backgrounds and cultures to flee their home countries, adapt to a new culture, and learn a language in order to start a new life. Due to the many difficulties they face, refugees are commonly forced to start and stop their education in the foster country (Dankova & Giner, 2011). A growing awareness of this problem has resulted in several studies suggesting that the Internet and technology can be powerful tools for democratising education (Blessinger & Anchan, 2015), allowing marginalised groups to access education (Bhatti, Tubaisahat & El-Qawasmeh, 2005), and allowing students to become more familiar with the host and heritage cultures (Gilhooly & Lee, 2014). However, online educational resources remain out of reach for the most vulnerable populations (Crea & Sparnon, 2017) who lack the "digital capital" to access them (Seale, Georgeson, Mamas & Swain, 2015).
As the UN Refugee Agency has argued, Information Technology alone does not guarantee an education, and online course dropout rates are very high. The reasons are either a lack of relevance of the curriculum or a lack of motivation on the part of students when they are solely enrolled online (4. Teaming up With Technology - Turn the Tide: Refugee Education in Crisis, n.d.). In addition, refugees, being disadvantaged students, may be unaware that a solid understanding of digital skills can increase employment prospects, or perhaps there are sociocultural stereotypes on the part of teachers, related to cultural integration, that could also hinder them. This needs further assessment and exploration, investigating teachers' perceptions. One could understand that this situation is even more challenging for refugees living in rural areas, where 20% do not have access to the internet (UNHCR, 2016).
Given the circumstances of a post-COVID era, refugee education has been highly affected and has forced students and educators to adapt quickly to remote access and online learning. Many refugees, due to limited access to technology, have been unable to continue their education, while those with access to technology have had issues due to their lack of digital literacy. It has been proven critical that schools and especially teacher educators address such factors and provide educational opportunities for refugee learners. In light of the increasing prevalence of smartphones in daily life, the educational community is becoming more aware of the potential learning benefits these devices may offer.
This article seeks to discuss the challenges language teachers face and suggest ways to address the lack of digital literacy, which is essential to achieving effective online language instruction. By sharing our practices, we hope to inspire other instructors or schools to adopt the suggested educational opportunities for refugee students and raise awareness of the challenges refugees and language instructors face. The objective of this article is to discuss the use of smartphones for delivering online language courses to refugees that could evidently increase their digital and social skills. The first part of this article discusses the challenges we face as language teachers in terms of culture and socio-technical factors, and the second part offers suggestions on how to deliver the course on different platforms.
Foreign language teachers of refugees from various origin countries face critical issues during class hours and when preparing materials for their classes. During COVID-19, these challenges were exacerbated by the fact that their education had to be delivered online. According to Godwin-Jones (2017) the major challenge is to prepare students to be knowledgeable and engaged online learners, and the most effective way to accomplish this is to use smartphones. In the case of refugees, this may be the only option. Smartphones have become increasingly popular tools for enhancing distance learning and teaching, allowing access to online learning platforms, resources, and the ability to interact digitally (Darko-Adjei, 2019).
The role of digital technologies in refugees’ lives has become very essential over the last decade, as this is concluded by the extended literature (Alencar, 2020). Researchers have noted that low levels of digital literacy and socioeconomic, linguistic, and cultural barriers can hinder the use of technology to manage information efficiently (O'Mara 2012; Bradley et al., 2022). In addition, affordability and familiarity with technology, thus digital literacy, is an issue for refugees (O’Mara et al., 2010). Consequently, “refugees with disrupted educational backgrounds and limited English proficiency are particularly disadvantaged in this technology space’’ (O’Mara, 2012, p.471).
Digital literacy requires skills in identifying and using information. Thus, critical thinking is another important ability that relates to and advances the digital skills. According to the American Library Association (2021), digital literacy is defined as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills” (https://literacy.ala.org/digital-literacy/).
Although refugees possess and use smartphones, the literature indicates that these devices are insufficient to meet their needs for complete digital development or advancement (Cherewka, 2020). Cherewka (2020) further refers to the fact that refugees might easily connect with their family overseas using a mobile app, however, they may face serious challenges if they want to complete a job application form and submit it, using a desktop computer. Lack of digital problem-solving skills (Potocky, 2021) is considered a drawback, and it is an issue for refugees, especially when they live in protracted displacement for a long period of time.
Furthermore, Lloyd (2020) underpins that while refugees regularly use technology, they often lack the skills to navigate through and decide about the reliability of internet resources competently. In addition, in the domain of digital pedagogy, Potocky (2021) claims that refugees - mainly women - many times rely on others (e.g. young children) who act as intermediary for any technological support needed. Bletscher (2020) explains that refugees feel slightly confident about using technology, hence implementation of tasks such as online banking and completing job applications are difficult for them to learn because of complex terminologies and navigation practices. Therefore, as Nyakondo (2020) has argued, refugees’ willingness to use e-learning facilities depends on a number of factors, including perceived usefulness, computer skills, and ease of use.
In our role as teachers of Greek as a Foreign Language within the Republic of Cyprus, we witness and face the above socio-technical and cultural challenges in our practice, which are key learning points. In the following sections, we describe these challenges along with our approaches to overcoming them.
The Socio-Technical Perspective
In our context we usually work with adult students who are refugees or asylum seekers from Somalia, Iran, Kenya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Ukraine, etc. Greek language lessons are conducted online once a week for 90 minutes. Learners can enrol in these courses free of charge, and all they need is an internet connection and a mobile device; a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
There are various linguistic backgrounds among the learners, and many of them have been deprived of formal education for years. Digital literacy, and specifically mobile literacy, play an important role in refugees’ lives in overcoming language barriers (Bradley et al., 2022). However, considering the varied educational backgrounds of refugees, it is inevitable that their knowledge of digital literacy will vary (Motteram et al., 2022).
The Cultural Perspective
In spite of their different backgrounds and digital literacy, the audience has much in common, including a struggle to find balance between existing cultures and emerging cultures, as well as overwhelming feelings caused by their experiences and new conditions. Hence, the cultural integration is another challenge that needs to be cared for. In most cases, refugees expect a better life when they arrive in their host country, but the reality can be disappointing. The language barrier and their inexperience with the host culture contribute to their inability to integrate into the host community. In addition to feeling out-of-place while also learning a new language, we have seen students suffering from low self-confidence, depression-due to their experiences, and struggles with their new reality. As Potocky (2021) has argued, this is an evolving area aiming at inclusion and equity.
The main equipment that they possess and use in order to connect to their online lesson is the mobile phone. In rare cases, refugees students in our context may own a tablet. There are cases, though, where some students may have problems connecting, or their devices are broken. In such a case, the hosting centres (general accommodation centre for asylum seekers under the supervision of the Asylum Service) (ΥΠΗΡΕΣΙΑ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ - Κέντρα Υποδοχής και Φιλοξενίας, n.d.) ease the situation by providing a room - serving as a study room/library - equipped with a big TV screen, projector and internet access.
The following strategies are used to ensure that all our learners, regardless of their cultural or linguistic backgrounds, have a smooth and fruitful language course experience. The following indicates how teachers embrace the wealth of their cultures thus, we need to reflect on cultures, values and traditions of those communities.
a. Tutoring for Digital Skills
When learners lack digital literacy, they are hindered from learning. Considering that our education programme is delivered online and making allowance for the fact that not all participants are well-versed in digital technology, we facilitate a session to present and clarify what will be required. Tutoring once or twice for a few hours before the commencement of the language course is considered a satisfactory time on how to use the learning platform or applications so that students are aware and have a pleasant experience. We use basic terminology in relation to technology and digital tools, so that we guide them correctly. Apart from the actual on-the-spot practice, we prepare a brief guide accompanied by screenshots of the platform/applications where important stages are depicted. This serves as their personal compass and proved to be very effective. Participants are kept motivated to learn, and consequently the dropout rate is minimised as students feel more reassured about the process.
b. Refugee Empowerment
When trauma persists in a group, self-esteem and self-confidence will need to be boosted. It is not always easy for them to stay focused on their goal - to learn the language, the culture, enrich their knowledge and generally educate themselves - while their families may be in danger or suffering. Teachers need to empathise and provide practical solutions.
Setting ground rules (see Screenshot 1) as life/soft skills is helpful. An informal contract is created in collaboration with the learners where technicalities are agreed upon. For example, how to appropriately use the “online’’ time, where punctuality is requested, learn to respect turn-taking and abide by digital etiquette. Furthermore, personal placements are limited to two minutes each, so there is no rambling off-topic, and we invite them to work in break-out rooms so that collaboration and cooperation among learners is encouraged. We give the necessary time and space to explore, and share their opinions as to why all these are essential. Usually, this process is conducted during our first session.
Screenshot 1: Ground rules
As teachers and digital trainers, we try to implement strategies applicable to students’ interests and learning contexts. Thus, we provide engaging and interactive content. In addition, they are encouraged to contribute any sources related to language learning and cultural induction that they might find useful for their classmates, too. As a result, self-learning is enhanced, which contributes to autonomous, non-formal education. We have found that this facilitation process enables the students to develop their own diverse approaches and a sense of ownership in the learning community they attend to.
The screenshots below illustrate activities that took place in our digital classroom to address the above challenges. We facilitated an activity in the Padlet (see Screenshots 2 and 3) where participants were invited to write about the traditional foods and drinks of their countries. That increased intercultural awareness, and also they had the opportunity to explore another digital tool, that of Padlet, where multimodal texts could be added.
We applied this again when we asked them to mention their folklore dances (see
Screenshot 4). This time, they managed to upload material faster and with ease into
Padlet. Gradually, they felt more confident in exploring digital tools.
Furthermore, we model how to be an active participant in the WhatsApp group that we often use for instant communication and sharing our news, and experiences, reflecting on course activities and starting new conversations. Even basic, short sentences in the target language are a good opportunity for the students to get connected, support and extend their learning community.
Another approach that we implement is to help them give peer feedback whenever applicable. We assign roles to them occasionally, such as co-facilitate a discussion. We notice that when students have active roles in the class, they gain a sense of shared ownership over their collective learning.
In turn, all these strategies lead to a feeling of ownership, which enhances students’ active contribution to the lessons.
Mentoring is vital when teaching refugees a foreign language. It (individually and/or in groups) enhances the student experience by highlighting the importance of learning the host language. Nonetheless, there are challenges teacher educators need to be aware of when planning such a course. One important issue is the case of mixed gender groups, where students may find it difficult to work together. This needs additional care, understanding and digital adaptation. Women tend to switch off their cameras during lessons, especially if there are men from other countries and cultures present. Women also appear to be less active.
In groups with only women, we notice that the camera is usually on continuously, and they are also very enthusiastic about participating actively. Through powerful questions, we arouse the curiosity or interest of learning in general. In such cases, we try to embrace and increase intercultural awareness. All participants are invited to answer, speak, and participate in turn, and we make sure that the time is equally distributed. Through mentoring, we try to get to know our students and their stories.
Adults can handle discussions about sensitive issues, such as incurred trauma, and political views. There are topics, though, such as weddings, religion, customs and social norms that demand care when brought up. As teachers, we must be supportive and mindful of our students, especially the vulnerable ones.
Possible questions to be asked during mentoring as to encourage them to engage could be:
1. Is there a specific topic that you want us (the teachers) to avoid mentioning during our lessons? (e.g. Related to cultural norms, etc.)
2. Do you feel cooperate interacting with the opposite sex in break-out rooms?
3. What do you find most challenging to handle in the lessons?
4. What approaches on behalf of the teachers can make you feel safe so that you are as active in an online lesson with the opposite sex?
5. What would help you to contribute more and make the best out of the language course?
d. Offering a Safe Space
Creating a safe learning environment for all students is imperative, and diversity initiatives are one means of achieving this goal. The ultimate goal is to ensure that refugee students can share their opinions, cultures, habits, and special celebrations of their countries without offending or inciting hate. Furthermore, it is wise to inform students that stances and behaviours that provoke, stimulate or urge gender, religious and political issues are not accepted in the online lessons. Thus, all participants cultivate respect for each other and embrace diversity gradually.
With genuine interest for their struggles and respecting their problems without trivialising them, we believe it is another effective approach to keep them engaged in the lessons and most importantly, encourage them not to give up on their new lives. We recommend practitioners become informed of students’ fleeing countries a little. This includes fundamental history, geography, and climate, as well as a general understanding of any conflicts or political issues their regions may be facing. Press and social media can be used to gather information, but due diligence must be taken to avoid media bias.
Another important aspect of ensuring the students feel safe in their learning environment is to use the appropriate platform. This can be done by including platforms that are within the students’ comfort zones. The suggested platforms/apps are free for both learners and teachers.
An educator may create a lesson in the platform which students can attend via a link and view a slide show, do a quiz, play a game, or watch a video. This platform offers a wide range of opportunities for language instruction and makes learning more enjoyable and engaging. This is an opportunity for the teacher to teach certain digital skills that may facilitate their learning process and life, as well as help them meet their language learning objectives.
- Create a memory test for the students where they have to match the word with the right picture.
- Present a slide show illustrating how to connect to the internet, how to write in the chats in Google Classroom, how to follow a link, etc.
Google Workspace for Education offers free of charge the Google Classroom, which is considered one of its core services.
Amongst other advantages, it provides easy collaboration, very good organisation of the course material, easy grading if needed, and feedback, assignment of authentic tasks (engagement with the material), and perhaps the most important aspect is that it can be used on any device.
- The teacher can share things with the students on the Stream page, and also upload files, G Drive files, YouTube videos or share links. Multimodal material can enhance all styles of learning preferences (visual, audio, etc.).
- Share an audio and provide the option to answer the questions heard at the end, either in written form (they upload a Word doc.) or in a voice message (create and upload a verbal answer). Hence, creativity and efficient communication skills are enhanced. Learners may also enjoy such activities, because they explore more digital tools.
Almost everyone has a Facebook account, and it can be a useful tool for students and teachers to engage students in their learning process. It can be a valuable tool for engaging them outside class/school hours and in most cases, students use it in their personal lives and are therefore familiar with how it works.
- Share a YouTube video with a song in the target language with subtitles. Invite them to share their favourite song in the target language.
- Share a post inviting students to take part and introduce them to something that inspires them in their learning process or exposes them to the host culture.
This is a free resource that is already being utilised by most learners and is therefore accessible to everyone. Educators can create groups that include all students and share information or instructions about the course. By using it, you cannot only provide them with information, instructions, and guidelines but also help them feel like they are part of a community. Even if something goes wrong during class, you can access it at any time and assist them in resolving the problem.
- Share a dialogue that is useful in their everyday lives in the form of a picture so that they can store it in their gallery and find it whenever they need it. Feel free to ask them if they need to learn something specific that will facilitate their communication in their day-to-day lives, whether it is at the grocery store, the bank, or public service. Remember that this is a learning process that is intended to improve their communication skills and help them to cope with day-to-day activities in the host country.
It is free, and also a premium version is provided.
This tool is used extensively in our classes, as it is particularly embraced by our students. Easily, posts can be added with one click, drag and drop or copy-paste. In addition, multimodal material (sight, sound, pictures, links, etc.) can be uploaded by teachers and students, managing the access option accordingly. Quick collaboration is promoted with a simple link sharing.
Upload of files can be achieved from any device, taking a picture or video from a phone, or links from the web can be really triggering for the learners. Furthermore, images, documents, videos, music, and so on can be posted.
Embedding material from YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Vimeo, and other apps is also a good practice.
- Upload a picture projecting a cultural event of the target language-culture. Invite students to search and upload a similar cultural celebration/custom from their native languages, from their countries of origin. This is engaging, and meaningful for them. In addition, increase of intercultural awareness is achieved.
Concluding Notes on curriculum reform
Refugees who have just been resettled have difficulties learning a language in their host country because of a lack of digital skills, a different cultural background, trauma, and a lack of understanding of the new culture. As teachers, we play a crucial role in enhancing student experiences and significantly contributing to their real-life experiences. It is our mission as language teachers to teach the language as a tool of communication, however, in this case language also serves as a tool of adjustment and cultural integration. In language learning, culture and language are intertwined. Creating a safe learning environment for all students is imperative, and diversity initiatives are one means of achieving this goal. The development of cross-cultural skills will assist refugees in integrating more smoothly into society. The internet facilitates the bridging of the digital divide between students, and our learning courses also provide them with basic digital skills that will be helpful in their real lives. In online education, digital skills are also an integral part of the equation, especially for audiences that may be only remote even within their host countries. When learners lack digital literacy, they are hindered from learning.
However, the challenges for schools and teacher educators are numerous, starting with the curriculum. The COVID pandemic, combined with the above circumstances, has significantly changed the education sector and student experience for refugees, resulting in even more significant challenges for them. As a result, there is a major need for a review of curriculum to accommodate today's realities and to include refugees in the educational system. Furthermore, most EU countries still offer limited higher education access to refugees entering the host country beyond the compulsory education age (primary-secondary schools) (Cerna, 2019).
As language teachers for refugees, our central role is to use language as a tool for integration and to embed the development of intercultural skills in our curriculum that will eventually facilitate their integration into society. Knowing the challenges of our practice, we must take the initiative and advocate for curriculum reform.
Consequently, there is a need to design and develop, evaluate and sustain informal and formal curriculum for training in digital skills, especially for refugees integration. This can be implemented either in-person or online, as long as their learning needs are satisfied. It is vital for language teachers to possess digital skills and be able to engage students with varying levels of digital literacy, while maintaining language learning as the priority. Developing digital literacy competencies will facilitate language learning online and, in the long run, facilitate refugees’ cultural integration and professional advancement.
Assessment and evaluation of real-life contexts and challenges refugees face while taking their education could be used to create a curriculum reform agenda based on these issues and become more effective in the long run. The following topics areas need to be under constant schedule alert:
goals of curriculum reform, the creation and management of teaching materials, and curriculum standards.
Regardless of the challenges we may encounter as language teachers to refugees, if we possess creativity and situational awareness, we can turn them into great opportunities. In conclusion, the approaches presented in this article can inspire and help others to design and implement online experiences that are more creative and connected.
For any further questions get in touch with Katerina at email@example.com and Spyroula at firstname.lastname@example.org