Learn Lab

Learn Lab

Instant Network Schools

Leveraging mobile technology to improve the quality of education provided for refugees.

1. Define challenges

Accessing quality education in emergency settings

The number of forcibly displaced people around the world has been growing in recent years, and so has the number of refugee children, which was estimated at 8.5 million in 2013.

These children are in need of education, and yet many of them lack access and are at high risk of never going back to school at all. Many existing school services for displaced children suffer from under-investment, including a lack of teachers, classrooms, equipment and educational materials. Many teachers receive little training and yet serve as the sole providers of knowledge to large amounts of students crammed into makeshift classrooms.

All of this reduces the quality of education and raises the risk of students dropping out permanently. And yet educating refugees and internally displaced people is crucial considering the average duration of their displacement exceeds 17 years.

That’s why UNHCR supports the creation of flexible and innovative education systems for refugee children.

Many of these initiatives rely on Internet connectivity, which can be spotty in refugee settings, especially where IT support and overall program delivery are not well-coordinated.

While working on the Instant Network Schools project, Vodafone Foundation developed a digital “school-in-a-box” called the Instant Network Classroom.

2. Identify solutions

Leveraging partnerships in mobile technology

In September 2013, the Vodafone Foundation approached UNHCR and its partners in Dadaab, Kenya, with a provocative question: How could mobile technology be leveraged to improve the quality of education in the world’s largest refugee settlement?

The foundation already had experience establishing connectivity in typhoon-hit regions of the Philippines and other emergencies, enabling individuals to contact family both locally and around the world. And during the rollout of such an Instant Network in South Sudan, the teams realized the benefits of utilizing this connection for schools,­ connecting students to dynamic educational resources and to the broader online world.

An initial pilot was started with the Lutheran World Federation, providing connectivity and tablets to two schools. From this pilot, the Vodafone Foundation identified a strong demand for these resources amongst the community, partners, teachers and students.

In October 2013, foundation representatives visited Dadaab, a settlement near the Somalia border that is home to 350,000 people uprooted by drought, civil unrest and poverty. Taking a human-centered approach to their work, they consulted community members about what their ideal learning environment might look like. Responses were in line with the Instant Network School model, with some differences that inspired program design.

3. Test solutions

Emphasizing content and capacity building in schools

Throughout 2014, the Vodafone Foundation worked with the Learn Lab, a joint collaboration between UNHCR Innovation and the Education Unit, and colleagues to establish an IT team representing the five educational implementing partners in Dadaab. They also built on pre­existing infrastructure to establish 13 Instant Network Classrooms located within three secondary schools, six primary schools and four vocational training centers.

Each classroom received a set of computer tablets, solar-powered batteries and a backup generator, satellite or mobile network, a suit of content and other online resources as well as ongoing training of coaches and IT support members.

The foundation worked independently with Don Bosco in Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Lutheran World Federation in South Sudan to support three additional classrooms.

When an ICT center is built in a refugee community, staff members tend to spend a significant of their time teaching others how to use a computer. By embedding the Instant Network program within schools, the focus shifted back from teaching computer skills to teaching subject matter that is part of the curriculum.

Equipment-savvy coaches helped teachers identify difficulties in their lesson plans and ways to leverage Instant Network resources to improve learning outcomes.

The program was warmly received as it was seen as enhancing initial investments by focusing less on the technology and more on developing a cohesive system with a strong emphasis on content and capacity building.

The Vodafone Foundation leveraged its corporate relationships to provide further support to the project. For example, its connection with Huawei enabled an in­-kind donation of 235 tablets. Safaricom agreed to provide several schools with free Internet connectivity, an objective which UNHCR had unsuccessfully lobbied for in previous years. Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore visited Dadaab at the end of 2014.

4. Refine solutions

Supporting a gradual transition in teaching methods

Overall, the pilot in Dadaab impacted more than 20,000 students. While the effect on learning outcomes is too early to determine, there is a strong monitoring framework in place to track the contribution the project is making to the delivery of quality education.

Anecdotal responses from the community have indicated that the project has helped with children’s retention in school and led to an increase in primary school enrollment. Attendance data is being monitored to verify this information.

Coaches have also alluded to the initial impacts of the program on learning. Julia Mugogwa Shirwatzo, a secondary teacher who teaches English and history in the Ifo 2 settlement, for instance, noted that the Instant Network Classroom had helped her explain concepts like rivers and forests, which young Somali students had never encountered growing up in Dadaab. Mugogwa Shirwatzo noted that prior to the program, she use to download images on her phone to circulate to her class, but now she can show a range of videos to her students and direct them to Internet resources so they can conduct their own research.

A rigorous monitoring and evaluation framework was developed for 2015 to track the learning and motivational progress within the schools benefiting from the Instant Network Classroom. The results will be shared biannually and will help inform future expansion within Dadaab, and the rollouts in other countries.

One of the largest challenges the pilot has faced is deconstructing traditional models of teaching, which largely concentrate on the teacher lecturing to the class. When the coaches were first asked to demonstrate a lesson, the tablets and projector were merely substitutes for the blackboard. The teacher would produce a PowerPoint presentation, albeit with videos and photos, but utilized this to support their lecture to the class. To help support a gradual transition in teaching methods, the project has since delivered several trainings on classroom management, child-­centered pedagogies and exploratory learning methods.

The introduction of new resource, namely the educational tablets, provided an important window to enable broader discussions on pedagogy, especially because they did not have prior connotations on how the resources “should be” used within a class.

5. Scale solutions

Streamlining a human-centered approach

In early 2015, Vodafone Foundation confirmed a donation of $5 million to expand the Instant Network School program over five years, and to inspire other contributions.

The expansion is happening at a more modest pace than the initial pilot, starting with the creation of two centers in Kakuma, Kenya and Nyarugusu, Tanzania. The team is again taking a human-centered approach to the rollout, working with the community to tailor the design of the Instant Network Schools to community needs and feedback. An additional eight centers are planned for testing in DRC throughout 2015.

The existing centers in South Sudan and DRC, meanwhile, will be placed under UNHCR’s oversight to streamline the training and support in all centers. They were previously managed directly with implementing partners.

The selection of locations was determined by the Education Unit’s priority countries, and also countries where the Vodafone Group is operational and can therefore leverage relationships to boost connectivity.

One of the challenges UNHCR encountered in the pilot phase of the Instant Network School program was procuring tablets, furniture and other items, which took a significant amount of time and strained the agency’s operation. Today, Instant Classroom kits are given in kind or purchased in bulk.

Meanwhile, more localized mobile content is being produced, and more robust teacher training tools developed.

Beyond providing material and financial resources, the Vodafone Foundation has been intimately involved in the project design, implementation and monitoring. This transparent relationship has enabled UNHCR to leverage the expertise of the Vodafone Foundation’s staff, including volunteers who have travelled to the camps to assist with the setup and trainings.


Democratic Republic of Congo
South Sudan


In Progress


UNHCR Education Unit
Vodafone Foundation


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