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This blog post is a Green Open Access preprint of a chapter from the book Critical Mobile Pedagogy: Cases of Digital Technologies and Learners at the Margins, edited by John Traxler and Helen Crompton (Copyright year 2021). The chapter was co-authored by Gabi Witthaus and Gill Ryan.
Recommended citation
Witthaus, G. & Ryan, G. (2020). Supported mobile learning in the “Third Spaces” between non-formal and formal education for displaced people. Zenodo [Preprint]. Available at: [CC-BY-SA]


This chapter explores how mobile technologies are being harnessed by organisations to support refugees and other displaced people in their learning. It considers displaced people’s motivations for online and mobile learning and the associated challenges, and presents three examples of organisations that offer alternatives to the dualities of non-formal and formal education for displaced people. The cases are discussed using “Third Space” theory, particularly the notion of “hybridity” and its relationship to learner agency. Openness, partnership and co-creation are identified as key elements which, it is argued, can enable the conditions for learners to enact agency over their learning.


According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, 2001-2019), there are currently more than 70 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in the world. An estimated 3% of young adults amongst refugees are enrolled in post-secondary education, and although this figure is small in comparison to the global average of 37%, it is triple the number reported in the previous three years (UNHCR, 2019). The UNHCR attributes this growth to the new opportunities provided by “connected higher education, where digital programmes are combined with teaching and mentoring” (UNHCR, 2019). Elsewhere it has been noted that online and mobile learning can create “normalcy in adversity” (Moser-Mercer 2016, p.1), and can potentially provide continuity of education and skill-building for refugees during periods of waiting, or during disruptions caused by precarious contexts that refugees may be in (Traxler et al., 2019). It can offer flexibility and opportunities for creativity and innovation. There is also a wide range of resources available in mobile-accessible formats that are relevant to refugees (Creelman, Witthaus & Padilla-Rodriguez, 2018). 

This chapter considers the work being done by organisations that provide mobile learning opportunities for displaced people. Throughout the chapter, the terms online and mobile learning are both used, as mobile technology enables access to online education for displaced populations with high smartphone ownership (Frouws, Phillips, Hassan and Twigt, 2016). Mobile learning can provide refugees with “access to people and digital learning resources, regardless of place and time” (Kukulska-Hulme, 2010). 

For this chapter, insights were sought into displaced people’s motivations for learning, and the associated challenges. As this is an emerging area of research, data was gathered from the “grey” literature (e.g. conference proceedings, videos, blogs and newsletters), as well as traditional academic literature. Examples of three organisations offering supported mobile education to displaced people are provided, and Third Space theory (Bhabha, 1990) is used as a conceptual framework to explore these, with the aim of identifying features that enable opportunities for agency for displaced learners. 

Motivations for learning in displaced communities

Being competent in the language of the host country is identified as a strong enabler of social integration (Casey, 2016). In the UK, Kearns and Whitley (2015) suggest that educational qualifications, employment and English language proficiency are associated with better social integration. Proficiency is considered essential for navigating the host country’s systems and support services, and for engaging with education and employment. For parents with children at school, being able to communicate in the language their children are learning in is a priority (Doyle & O’Toole, 2013). Mobile social learning, in particular, can support language learning and social inclusion (Kukulska-Hulme, Norris & Donohue, 2015; Kukulska-Hulme, 2018). However, the uses of mobile technologies need to be carefully considered by teachers: a finding from the SALSA project was that learners using their phone to listen to language learning prompts in public places felt they were conspicuously behaving differently from local people (Gaved & Peasgood, 2017).

Gaining employment is an important motivator for refugees (Doyle & O’Toole, 2013). Some refugees are motivated to help others by entering the health or teaching professions, or by training as a mentor to other refugees and asylum seekers. However, displaced people often find that their prior qualifications are not recognised by employers. In some countries, there are schemes to address this, for example, the New Refugee Doctors Project, which provides suitably qualified refugees with specialised language support and professional mentoring to practise medicine in Scotland (NHS Education for Scotland, 2017).

Preparing to enter university is another motivation for displaced people to use mobile learning. Pathways into higher education for refugees are limited because of the lack of recognition of prior learning (particularly where documentation is missing), academic credit transfer across different national frameworks, and accessing finance for higher education (Charitonos, 2018b). Nevertheless, digital technologies allow for cloud-based storage of credentials, transcripts, and portfolios, and are increasingly enabling refugees with partial or complete qualifications to have their credentials recognised (e.g. Council of Europe, 2019). Uninettuno in Italy follows guidelines from Enic-Naric to help recognise prior learning of refugees (Caforio in Witthaus, 2019b). Kiron Open Higher Education in Germany partners with massive open online course (MOOC) platforms Coursera (2019) and edX (2016) to curate MOOC-based curricula enabling learners to obtain credit towards formal higher education in their host countries. 

Alongside these more instrumental motivations to learn, some refugees and asylum seekers are simply motivated by the sheer enjoyment of learning, while others may seek to enhance their well-being and sense of self-worth. The Scottish Refugee Council (2011, p.2) describes the relationship between educational access and mental health as “symbiotic”, as access to education improves mental health, and improved mental health opens up access to education. Participating in education can instil feelings of self-worth and mental wellbeing for those who have been refused asylum, and can keep them engaged with services and support (McKenna, 2018). Education can renew a sense of dignity to refugees, and allow them to contribute positively to their community (Crea and Sparnon, 2017). A recurring theme from narratives of Kiron students (Kiron, nd) is making their family proud, through their academic achievements or being able to provide for them. For female students education is often viewed as empowering. 

Challenges of online and mobile learning

Many asylum seekers and refugees are living in precarious contexts and processing traumatic experiences. Those in the asylum system and refused asylum seekers may not engage effectively with learning due to the impact of destitution, trauma and precarity (McKenna, 2018). Wider issues, such as family turbulence, financial problems, health problems and family demands, can affect refugees’ learning and participation (Cosla, 2017). National policies can also play a role, for example the Home Office in the UK can attach “no study” conditions when a person is released from immigration detention if they have exhausted their appeal rights or have committed immigration offences (Refugee Council, 2018). For internally displaced people, living environments may be dangerous and inhibit their digital access and ability to learn (Shalan and Abdelnour, 2014). Air strikes, blackouts or curfews may make it difficult to maintain learning, and there is “the need to build an online cultural identity as physical cultures are threatened” (Traxler, 2018, p.3). In such circumstances, Traxler et al. (2019) argue for “the need for a conception of digital literacy that exploits digital technologies to enhance resilience and preserve wellbeing”.

Accommodating the diversity of refugees’ learning needs, experiences and languages is a challenge for organisations (Cosla, 2017). Some learners have a high level of education but need to learn the language of their host country, while others may have literacy issues in their first language. “Some have never been to school prior to arriving to the UK and have no concepts of literacy, others are more comfortable with writing but still struggle with the Latin alphabet” (Belghazi, 2019). There is an identified shortage of English language classes in the UK, which makes it harder for refugees to access other kinds of support, including gaining employment and participating in community activities (All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, 2017). Using smartphones to support language learning may be one way to address this (The Open University, 2014). For example, Norman (2019) uses mobile technology with learners as a way to overcome the lack of resources for English language teaching available to her organisation. Belghazi (2019) uses WhatsApp to communicate with learners, noting that learners with low literacy find the autocorrect feature, emojis and memes particularly useful.

Mobile learning can be inhibited by a lack of digital literacy, access to wifi or broadband, the cost of data, cultural expectations, language barriers, and fear of being online (Potnis, 2015). Many displaced people have mobile phones, with ownership as high as 96% in some refugee camps, although not all have smartphones (Hounsell & Owuor, 2018). In crisis settings, there may be limited access to electricity and connectivity and a dependence on ageing devices. The potential for open educational resources (OERs) for “opening up access to educational opportunity and reconfiguring traditional boundaries between institutions and wider society” has been noted (Cannell, Macintyre & Hewitt, 2015, p.64). Simpson (2019) describes the adaptation of OERs to enable access from feature phones (internet-enabled phones with limited functionality) for use in refugee contexts. Castaño Muñoz, Colucci and Smidt (2018) suggest mechanisms for circumventing connectivity issues, such as offline and m-learning, and applications that can work with low bandwidth. Moser-Mercer (2014) suggests using lower resolution versions of videos and/or text-only downloads for offline use, and asynchronous engagement with MOOCs. University of Geneva academics use WhatsApp as their main tool for supporting InZone’s learners in refugee camps (O’Keeffe in Witthaus, 2019b). 

Gender inequalities can also be a barrier. The uneven distribution of digital technology can reinforce the exclusion of women and girls from online education (Sambuli, Brandusescu & Brudvig, 2018). Bokai (2017) identified low female participation (<10%) in MOOCs in refugee camps due to childcare, household responsibilities and computer literacy. Practical barriers such as childcare, lack of family support, or limited availability of part-time options were also identified by the Scottish Refugee Council (2011). Some organisations providing education for displaced communities, such as Kiron (Buerglen, 2019) are increasingly focusing on ways to support female learners.

Finally, there are cultural and pedagogical barriers for many displaced learners as the pedagogy embedded in learning resources developed in the Global North may be unfamiliar to some refugees, and may need significant adaptation or contextualisation (Moser-Mercer, 2014). The potential of mobile technology to meet refugees’ learning needs can also be hampered by a lack of digital capacity among teachers (Charitonos, 2018a). Solutions being explored include involving refugees as co-designers and co-creators of learning programmes, as will be seen in the examples below.

Example 1: Bridges Programmes

Bridges Programmes, based in Glasgow, Scotland, is a voluntary organisation that supports the social, educational and economic integration of refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and other displaced people in Glasgow. They work with partners to support people into work (if eligible) or education. Through partnerships with colleges and universities, they provide formal and non-formal learning opportunities, while their Open Access Centre offers access to digital technology and support for online and blended learning.

Bridges was an early adopter of OERs, partnering with the Open University in Scotland (OUiS) from 2005 (European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, 2016). Identifying reflection as a key learning need for refugees, Bridges initially used the Reflections Toolkit (The Open University in Scotland, 2017), an existing OER on the OpenLearn Create platform. Following an evaluation of the Toolkit, Bridges and OUiS co-created a remixed, bespoke version with learners (Bridges Programmes, 2013). As learners worked through the original OER, their reflections on their journey, and identification of the skills, experiences and strengths they brought to their new country, became the content for the remixed OER – Reflecting on Transitions (The Open University in Scotland and Bridges Programmes, 2017).

Locally-based learners can choose to work through the course face-to-face with a case worker or tutor who provides support with language and digital skills. Group support was initially offered but this proved problematic as some learners found it difficult to discuss personal and traumatic experiences, and gender, culture and age differences affected group dynamics, and so support is now provided on a one-to-one or paired basis (Bridges Programmes, 2013). Reflecting on Transitions “offers clients the opportunity to take stock in a supported way and in a safe place” (Lennon, 2019).

Example 2: InZone

InZone is an academic centre based at the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute, focusing on building higher education spaces in fragile contexts, offering formal and non-formal academic programmes to refugees in Jordan and Kenya, primarily in refugee camps, and building capacity in Education and Higher Education in Emergencies at the global level. Together with the UNHCR, InZone co-leads the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, which was founded in 2016 (CLCC, 2017), and which promotes the provision of higher education in contexts of conflict, crisis and displacement, using a combination of online and mobile technologies and face-to-face learning.  Learners can learn from home using their own smartphones with virtual support, or in various physical locations in the camps, including in the InZone Learning Hub building, with face-to-face and online support (InZone, 2019). Learners on certain courses are able to take out tablets on loan to use at home. 

InZone’s mission is “pioneering innovative approaches to multilingual communication and higher education in communities affected by conflict and crisis” (InZone, 2019). They use OERs for both formal academic courses and non-formal courses, ensuring that all OERs are locally downloadable to overcome connectivity constraints. InZone supports course creators, curriculum designers and assessment experts to collaborate on adapting OERs to meet local needs, and works closely with local higher education institutions to build contextualised academic programs in fragile contexts. The use of OERs enables InZone to redeploy limited resources towards translating learning materials and increasing efforts for inclusion. In partnership with other universities, InZone aims to develop learning materials that centre the student voice, and to reflect student feedback in any updates. Some graduates take on facilitator roles for new cohorts, supporting students in the classroom as a complement to the online tutorials provided by academics from the University of Geneva (generally delivered via WhatsApp) and occasional face-to-face teaching weeks led by visiting faculty (P. O’Keeffe, Personal communication, November 5, 2019).

Example 3: Kiron

Kiron Open Higher Education was founded as a social startup in Germany in 2015, with the aim of giving refugees around the world access to a university education. Kiron’s core offer consists of “study tracks” in the form of curated MOOCs from universities around the world, which have been matched to programmes offered by higher education institutions in Germany, Lebanon and Jordan. Kiron has its own learning platform, and, where feasible, learners are invited to participate in small-group online tutorials to complement the MOOCs, using online conference technology. Kiron enters into Learning Agreements with universities to guarantee the recognition of credit points from MOOCs, based on a rigorous quality-assurance process (Knoth, Lorenz & Rampelt, 2018). Kiron also offers short skills-focused certificate courses. To date, they have supported over 6,000 learners in over 45 countries (Kiron, nd).

An in-depth study with Kiron learners in Germany found that they overwhelmingly appreciated the opportunity to learn flexibly online, despite facing significant challenges (Witthaus, 2018). In addition to the technical, linguistic and cultural barriers mentioned above, some learners also held an unfulfilled desire for traditional, classroom-based teaching, and found learning online to be a lonely experience. Most learners found strategies to overcome these obstacles, such as self-regulating their learning through goal-setting, monitoring progress, and reflecting on their learning, while several also sought out a mentor, either through Kiron’s mentoring or “study buddy” programmes, or through their own personal efforts. Learners in this study tended to use a combination of smartphones and laptops; some described a strategy of scheduling their learning activities around the availability of devices, for example, reading on their phones whilst commuting to work, and writing when they had access to a desktop computer at work or a laptop at home. 

Third Spaces

The examples above will now be explored in terms of “Third Space” theory. The Third Space concept is attributed to Homi Bhabha, a critical and postcolonial theorist. He proposed a “First Space” and a “Second Space”, which he suggested were inhabited by the colonised and the coloniser respectively, while the Third Space was an emergent, “hybrid” space in the intersection between the two, in which neither culture was dominant  (Bhabha, 1990). 

The Third Space has been touched on in the recent literature in relation to open, online education. It has been suggested, for example, that MOOCs are Third Spaces, in that they enable a bridge between the ontological dualities of formal and informal learning (Cronin, 2014a). Potter & McDougall (2017) explored this idea, and provide a nuanced picture: 

Currently our scrutiny does provide rich evidence of some third space practices (peer pedagogy, asynchronous ‘membraning’ between academy knowledge and storytelling from ‘publics’), but the majority of interaction is between the student, the technology and the course materials… (p. 128)

What appears to be missing from Potter and McDougall’s findings is a sense of learner agency in shaping the learning experience. Returning to Third Space theory, it is argued here that the concept of “hybridity” can provide insights into ways in which organisations create an ecosystem that encourages learners to enact agency over their learning. 

Bhabha’s concept of hybridity differs from western notions of “multiculturalism” and “pluralism” – he interprets these as the dominant culture saying: “[T]hese other cultures are fine but we must be able to locate them within our own grid” (Bhabha 1990, p.208). Instead, he focuses on “that productive space of the construction of culture as difference” (1990, p.20). The notion of hybridity in the Third Space potentially enables new, empowering positions to emerge or be negotiated by those groups with less power in society. However, in a study on Turkish migrants in Germany, Bauhn and Fulya Tepe (2016) demonstrate that hybridity may result in “good” or “bad” experiences. They argue that the value of hybridity will depend on whether it expands or diminishes people’s capacity for agency, and further, that this capacity is related to whether hybridity was chosen or imposed. Critical theorist, bell hooks, makes the same point in relation to the notion of marginality: “I make a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility” (hooks, 1990, p.153). 

The examples will now be discussed in relation to features that all three of them have in common that express hybridity, and that could potentially expand the capacity for agency amongst displaced people. To this end, the focus will be on opportunities for learners to exercise choice over not just what and how they learn, but also over the positionality they are able to exercise in the learning ecosystem (other than merely that of learner), such as that of teacher, designer, knowledge generator, resource creator, facilitator or mentor. 

Firstly, partnerships are a major feature of the delivery model in all three cases. Kiron has set up partnerships with over 60 higher education institutions worldwide, many of which recognise Kiron credits. Bridges Programmes partner with NHS Education in Scotland to support New Refugee Doctors, and with colleges and universities to widen access to further and higher education; these partnerships enable non-formal learning to take place within the familiar setting of Bridges until learners are ready to move on to formal study. InZone has partners at all levels – from the transnational (UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross) to a Swiss regional body (the Canton of Geneva), and universities and organisations in Switzerland, the USA, Jordan, and Kenya. Such partnerships allow refugees the opportunity to engage in multiple ways in their learning – for example as learners and as volunteers, in various kinds of give-and-take relationships with the different partner organisations. 

Secondly, all three organisations prioritise openness as a core principle. Bridges and InZone produce, reuse and adapt OERs and provide supported access to OERs as a pathway into further study and employment. Kiron bases its offer on openly published MOOCs as far as possible. Openness potentially allows for learner agency in that, with appropriate support, learners can choose their own learning pathways and can also adapt and remix existing resources to make them more relevant to themselves and others in their communities.

Thirdly, all three organisations use co-creation as a design principle for the ongoing development of their educational offers. The Reflecting on Transitions OER illustrates Bridges’ co-creation model, which centres the voice of displaced learners and enables them to set their own goals and learning outcomes (Bridges Programmes, 2013). At InZone, course graduates become facilitators for future cohorts, helping to shape the ongoing development of the programmes. InZone’s vision of co-creation sees “refugee learners who harness these [mobile] technologies become the producers of educational materials instead of remaining the passive recipients of information designed to prepare them for the host country’s higher education system” (Moser-Mercer, 2016, p.3). Kiron enables learners to help develop their own curricula through user testing and feedback. 

Of the three elements of hybridity discussed here, co-creation is perhaps the one that has the most potential to foster the development of agency, as it allows displaced people to actively shape the curriculum and parameters of support for other learners. 


The cases described here illustrate that it is not the technology alone which creates “Third Spaces”, but that organisations using open tools in online spaces, and engaging in democratic practices “can foster learner autonomy and agency” (Cronin, 2014b). Three such democratic practices have been examined – openness, partnerships and co-creation – all of which have been shown to enable a kind of hybridity which offers opportunities for displaced people to enact agency over their learning in the context of mobile and online education. Returning to the theme of the book, it is important to consider the extent to which mobile devices and applications afford such opportunities. Firstly, in all three of the examples discussed, learners can engage with the organisations mentioned, as well as with the partnership networks of those organisations, through their mobiles: learners in refugee camps in Africa can communicate with academics in Switzerland via WhatsApp; asylum seekers in Scotland can learn from resources produced by The Open University and other partners; and Kiron’s MOOC learners can watch lectures by faculty from around the world, from wherever they are located. Secondly, learners in these three contexts can benefit from openness – as readers and viewers of open, online content. Finally, however, mobile devices may not offer the affordances needed to participate fully in higher education, such as writing assignments, nor to access the tools for co-creation. For these activities, laptops or desktop computers are still needed, and are often only available to refugees and asylum seekers as shared resources in fixed (non-mobile) learning centres or support offices, if at all. It is therefore no coincidence that all the examples identified utilise a blended approach, incorporating both mobile and face-to-face learning, where the classroom element includes access to such tools. 

This analysis has illustrated some of the affordances and the limitations of mobile devices and applications for fostering Third Spaces of the kind that might enable refugees and asylum seekers to enact agency over their own learning. The examples given demonstrate that it is possible for communities of displaced people and those who work with them to jointly shape educational ecosystems within a social justice ethos. In the words of Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King, Jr., 1963). 


The authors wish to thank Marguerite Koole, Barbara Moser-Mercer, Paul O’Keeffe, Renata Suter, John Traxler and Markus Wachowski for their feedback on a draft of this chapter.


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