In June 2021, a group of refugees from Afghanistan displaced to different countries globally signed up to be part of a new program designed to remotely upskill adults.  Canadian Volunteers from Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS) used WhatsApp and Zoom to create a community of learners in groups of 50. Once onboarded, the refugees used the Learning Upgrade smartphone app to complete lessons in English, math, and entry-level job skills training.

Within a few months, everyone involved realized that something unique was happening. The refugees were “binge learning” late into the night, making gains in English at a 4X or higher rate. In just 3 months, refugees were making a full year of growth equal to one Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) level. Within 6 months, more than 80% of the group of 800 refugees had moved out of the CEFR Pre-A1 level, essentially non-literate, and into English proficiency levels such as CEFR B2 and C1, showing incredible learning gains. This rapid growth in English, accompanied by math, IELTS test prep, and digital skills, had given the refugees the education needed to get better jobs, access to higher education, and qualify for entry to Canada.

Transforming Students Into Teachers: The Refugee Learning Journey

What happened next was the biggest surprise of the program. FOCUS staff asked the high-achieving refugees to become volunteer coaches for new refugee cohorts worldwide. Many accepted the challenge. With a newfound sense of hope and purpose, the previous learners became the teachers and, in turn, the new learner’s biggest motivators and encouragers. Having just gone through the process themselves, they were best equipped to guide the new learners through the upskilling journey.

Transforming Students Into Teachers: The Refugee Learning Journey

Based on this early success and iteration with feedback from volunteers and refugees, this new model is now ready to scale up to serve refugees and migrants globally. The traditional barriers from a lack of teachers, facilities, transportation, and computers are now overcome by smartphone learning and refugee volunteers. 

FOCUS has now expanded the Learning Upgrade model to 7 countries serving thousands of people, with more being added every month. Other organizations including resettlement agencies, development NGOs, churches, and school networks are now implementing the model. The program is expanding to include children using parents’ smartphones for learning. Learning Upgrade is excited to work with organizations across the globe to bring this sustainable education model to refugee families and communities to achieve self-reliance.