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Mobile Learning Could Provide Vital Educational Link for Refugees

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Old Dominion University researcher Helen Crompton believes "we're at risk of losing an entire generation." But she sees hope in portable electronic devices, which can help educate displaced people.

A catastrophic civil war in Syria forever changed the notion of who is a refugee. The devastating conflict forced established professionals to leave their homeland, beginning a perilous journey by foot or by boat to safer destinations.

Before the conflict, Syria was one of the most prosperous countries in the region, and one of the most technologically advanced. That could help refugees adjust to their new, challenging surroundings, she said.

"Before you leave your house, one of the first things you grab is your mobile device," said Crompton, assistant professor of teaching and learning in the Darden College of Education. "Mobile devices provide a way of keeping in contact with loved ones and staying connected with what is going on."

Crompton has been officially named one of nine mobile experts in the world by the United Nations. She works as a consultant for two UN organizations -- UNESCO and the International Telecommunication Union. A recent invitation from Lesbos gave Crompton a first-hand look at the humanitarian crisis.

The Greek island in the eastern Mediterranean had approximately 24,000 permanent residents in early 2014. During the peak of the migration from Syria in 2015, 9,000 refugees arrived on Lesbos every day.

Though the flow of migrants has largely stopped, there are still thousands of displaced Syrians in refugee camps, known as villages. The government of Lesbos invited Crompton to visit in May. She spoke with local officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and visited the villages.

"They want to figure out how to continue some semblance of education so they don't lose a generation of children," Crompton said. "Mobile devices can greatly support in that endeavor."

During her visit, Crompton attended a policy forum with local government officials, NGOs such as Save the Children and other international experts in displaced populations. They discussed a range of challenges faced by the refugees and their hosts.

International NGOs are preparing to move out of Lesbos, with European Union funding coming to a halt July 31. The Greek government will then take over the funding and needs of the refugees. That makes it imperative to figure out an educational solution, Crompton said. "There's basic educational support for the children right now, with many doing nothing to further their education and provide them with a future."

Crompton will conduct an analysis, determining the educational needs of the people in the camps and how mobile devices can meet those needs. That includes Arabic lessons, as well as programs for teachers or other adults to use with children and adult learners.

"For us in the West, a cell phone is a novelty. For the refugees, it's a lifeline," she said. "I could see my work being of great benefit to help these citizens make a life for themselves and their children."

Crompton was recognized earlier this year with an Old Dominion University Alumni Association new faculty award.

"Dr. Crompton is an amazing faculty member who has had an impact in her field that extends far beyond the walls of our institution. Her work is recognized on the international level," said Dean Jane Bray of the Darden College of Education.

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