Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Edtech in Emergencies: What the Evidence Shows Us

26 February 2018

by Luke Stannard and Michaelle Tauson

Save the Children works to ensure children displaced by conflict or caught up in humanitarian crises secure access to quality learning opportunities. Increasingly Educational Technology (EdTech) has been proposed as a potential solution to solve the ‘learning crisis’ in humanitarian contexts.

Quality education is one of the key focuses of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Education 2030 Agenda. The UN now estimates that the average time people are displaced is close to 17 years, with many children missing their entire education. With a growing desire to address this learning crisis, researchers at Save the Children UK have reviewed over 130 academic papers in an attempt to evaluate ‘what works’ with EdTech in displacement or ‘emergency’ settings.

The number of private sector actors engaging in education in emergencies has grown considerably over the last five years. Of these interventions a study by Education International estimated that over 50% of Education in Emergencies programmes over the last 5 years have involved the use of EdTech.

When it comes to EdTech the argument has long been made that there is

little applicable evidence that is relevant for those engaging in education in emergencies. 

Many believe that new technology is inherently positive for education,

the evidence simply doesn’t show this.

It’s true that there is a lack of research conducted in emergency situations. This is for good reason, but this must be a focus for research over the coming years. That said, there’s nearly 3 decades worth of research into ‘what works’ in EdTech, if we cautiously cast the net a little wider. We felt was that there are areas where research from more stable contexts can be used to inform practice in emergency settings.

Researchers at Save The Children UK have spent the last 8 months working to collate this evidence. The report: EdTech for Learning in Emergencies and Displaced Settings, A Rigorous Review and Narrative Synthesis involved the consideration of over 130 academic papers on EdTech’s impact on learning outcomes.

We broke the findings into three separate sections. Our focus always starts with the child, they’re the most important people in these situations. A close second is the community around the child, the parents, extended families, and teachers. Following this we looked at what factors need to be considered to produce the enabling conditions for technology use in emergencies. Below is a synthesis of our findings:

The Child

  • Hardware is not enough to improve learning outcomes.
  • How the software works, or its pedagogy, is key to improving learning outcomes.
  • EdTech must be tied to a curriculum. Learning that isn’t attached to previous experience gets forgotten.
  • EdTech has to respond to the child’s level. For example, if a learner gets a question wrong, then the next question needs to be closer to their level.
  • Context is crucial. The culture the learner lives in must be engaged with through the examples in the software.
  • Learners can teach themselves how to use the technology.

The Community

  • EdTech must support teachers, not replace them.
  • Teachers’, and Parents’, attitudes to technology are hugely important to its successful use.
  • Teachers and Parents need regular training on how to get the most out of the technology.
  • The community’s opinion on the importance of technology in education needs to be engaged with.

The Enabling Conditions

  • Infrastructure must be assessed prior to engagement, especially in emergency situations. If not, technology graveyards can result in a burden on those that were the intended beneficiaries.
  • Gender is not a factor in performance, but access to EdTech can be gendered, this is highly context specific.
  • The Wellbeing of every person involved is a crucial consideration. Spending all day by yourself, inside on a tablet is likely to negatively affect your wellbeing.

All of these findings point to the need for a measured, and evidence led approach to EdTech engagement. The greater time and planning given to interventions, prior to engagement the greater chance that the education provision will be of high quality.

The private sector has expertise and access to resources that can be incredibly useful for displaced communities. Humanitarian and development agencies have decades of experience working in these contexts. As these findings demonstrate, communities know what education programmes work best for their children. The answer to effective engagement is likely to involve all three of these key stakeholders.   

Our focus must always remain on how best to provide education that can help children build the skills, the knowledge, and the confidence they need to become learners for life.

To do so, we must be critical of how we are communally building opportunities for education. EdTech can be an important part of the answer, that collectively we have to find.


Luke Stannard is an education research consultant currently working in the education in emergencies department at Save the Children UK. He holds a masters in Development Studies from the IDS, University of Sussex, and is a qualified teacher and teacher trainer. 



Michaelle Tauson holds a PhD in International Development Studies from the University of Sussex and has been working in the fields of international development and humanitarian assistance for 12 years as both a researcher and practitioner. She has worked in the areas of forced migration and migration, international education, education in emergencies, social protection, and human wellbeing. She has lived, worked, and studied in countries located in six regions, including North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.