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D&S fellow Mark Latonero considers recent attempts by policymakers, big tech companies, and advocates to address the deepening refugee and migrant crisis and, in particular, the educational needs of displaced children through technology and app development projects. He cautions developers and policymakers to consider the risks of failing to understand the unique challenges facing refugee children living without running water, let alone a good mobile network.

The reality is that no learning app or technology will improve education by itself. It’s also questionable whether mobile apps used with minimal adult supervision can improve a refugee child’s well-being. A roundtable at the Brookings Center for Universal Education noted that “children have needs that cannot be addressed where there is little or no human interaction. A teacher is more likely to note psychosocial needs and to support children’s recovery, or to refer children to other services when they are in greater contact with children.” Carleen Maitland, a technology and policy professor who led the Penn State team, found through her experience at Zaatari that in-person interactions with instructors and staff in the camp’s many community centers could provide far greater learning opportunities for young people than sitting alone with a mobile app.

In fact, unleashing ed tech vendors or Western technologists to solve development issues without the appropriate cultural awareness could do more harm than good. Children could come to depend on technologies that are abandoned by developers once the attention and funding have waned. Plus, the business models that sustain apps through advertising, or collecting and selling consumer data, are unethical where refugees are concerned. Ensuring data privacy and security for refugee children using apps should be a top priority for any software developer.

In cases where no in-person education is available, apps can still play a role, particularly for children who feel unsafe to travel outside their shelters or are immobile owing to injuries or disabilities. But if an app is to stand a chance of making a real difference, it needs to arise not out of a tech meet-up in New York City but on a field research trip to a refugee camp, where it will be easier to see how mobile phones are actually accessed and used. Researchers need to ask basic questions about the value of education for refugees: Is the goal to inspire learning on traditional subjects? Empower students with academic credentials or job skills? Assimilate refugees into their host country? Provide a protected space where children can be fed and feel safe? Or combat violent extremism at an early age?

To decide, researchers need to put the specific needs of refugee children first—whether economic, psychosocial, emotional, or physical—and work backward to see whether technology can help, if at all.