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Personalized, team-supported, community-centered learning increases opportunities for children and youth living in disrupted settings

OLE’s community learning system enables disadvantaged youth the opportunity to acquire the values, knowledge and skills they need to thrive.

Photo of Richard Rowe
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What problem does your innovation solve?

Children and adolescents under 24 make up 50% of global refugees today. Displaced and disrupted, these young people lack access to good learning resources, effective teachers, and ways to enrich learning through connection. Young Syrians in the Za'atari camp and around the world, and Somali girls and boys living for decades at the Dadaab camps in Kenya, face the real possibility that they will emerge as the lost generation, as refugee children are farthest from reaching global education targets.

Explain your innovation.

OLE is committed to ensuring that everyone, especially girls and young women, living in poverty and disruption, has the opportunity for quality, meaningful learning. To that end, we have built Planet Learning, a digital system designed to be customized and accessed by everyone, everywhere, all the time. Initially working in Ghana and Nepal, we were then asked to adapt our approach for refugees, first Somali young adults and then Syrian adolescent girls. At its core, the system contains free multimedia resources and courses using low-cost servers and tablets, mainly off, but periodically on the Internet, enabling schools and communities in the most remote and often disrupted locations to enjoy a complete learning system. Each learner is provided their own personal dashboard, using any device that can open a browser. They have their own bookshelf and links to the courses they are taking. The dashboard also contains a record of achievements, a calendar of events and an internal email system for communicating with coaches and fellow team members.

Who benefits?

300 Syrian adolescent girls at the Za’atari camp in Jordan and 500 Somali girls and boys, ages 14-24 in the refugee camps at Dadaab, Kenya are benefitting from OLE's innovation. The success of both pilots has generated an urgency to 1) double the reach to the other 3 Dadaab camps, 2) develop a pilot in Somalia, to provide opportunities for citizens and communities of all ages to acquire the values, knowledge and skills needed to be economically and socially strong to further stability and security, and 3) to enable access to quality, meaningful education for young Syrians, especially girls and adolescent women, displaced in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Bulgaria + Egypt with by building the Free Education Library for Syrians–a repository of resources for Syrian education as well as helpful resources for living in a host country. A survey tool of the Planet Learning system tests achievements of individual learners , the skills of practitioners, and the demographic status of communities.

How is your innovation unique?

Some organizations offer hardware, still others offer educational software. What is unique about OLE is our well-developed and tested approach. In emergency situations especially, CLC with the Planet Learning system, has been highly effective. Planet Learning provides each learner with their personal dashboard, showing the multi-media, multi-lingual materials they have downloaded from their Community library, including their books and courses, their team activities and a record of their achievements.  Partners include materials needed to meet local requirements. OLE provides enrichment materials.  Learners rate and comment on the things they read and on their courses. Coaches are able to track the progress of each learner as they progress up their own learning ladder.  Periodically the program manager connects to the Internet uploading each learner’s activity data and receiving new resources. The complete learning system can be contained in a small wheeled suitcase, or backpack.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

While basic education is almost universally considered a human right, fulfilling that right has been dangerously slow and illusive. Failure to fulfill that responsibility soon increasingly places us all at risk. While the private sector tends to be innovative and agile in responding to challenges, we believe only the public sector has the mandate and the financial capacity to fulfill that responsibility. This position raises questions about how to further democracy and to create stable and secure settings where they are not. OLE has set a goal of supporting, over the next decade, the development of at least 100 partnerships, where all are learning inside the poorest, least educated, most disrupted nations on our small planet.

Tell us more about you.

Open Learning Exchange is an international social benefit, 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and committed to free, universal, personalized, quality learning throughout the world. OLE works closely with national organizations similarly committed to universal access to quality learning. This involves implementing partners in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Madagascar, Lebanon, Jordan, Peru, Mexico, Turkey, Nepal and India.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster
  • Armed conflict
  • Prolonged displacement
  • Extreme drought

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

Most urgently OLE’s innovation will be implemented in the pilot countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Bulgaria and Egypt to provide a place where young Syrian girls and women can find free and meaningful learning resources directly relevant to their needs as refugees. The Free Education Library for Syrians (FELS) will include resources enabling refugees to choose and pursue career pathways and guides helping refugees of all ages adjust to and find help in their host country.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

OLE's Planet Learning system and the CLC approach has demonstrated to have strong potential impact in all emergency situations, however, we are currently developing FELS to pilot in in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Bulgaria and Egypt, and are also working on a model CLC in a Somalia, working with Somali partner and the learning coaches at Dadaab. Both these pilot programs are ready to be tested, and are backed with analysis and the human-centered approach of OLE's current initiatives.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

OLE works closely with local organizations that are deeply committed to transforming and expanding open-access education. Our local partners can be found in Mexico, Peru, Ghana*, Uganda*, Kenya, Somalia, Madagascar*, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Nepal* and India. In our work, we have partnerships with UNHCR, IOM, US State Department and USAID, as well as such institutions as Massachusetts General Hospital and Mbarara University for Technology and Science. *Where OLE has a public-private partnership.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

OLE has worked in the humanitarian sector for the past decade. Our founder/CEO Richard Rowe has more than 30 years in the field of education and the rights of children––and is a thought leader in the sector. Our Cambridge-based team, impressive international board of directors, and the executive directors and tech leads of our partner organizations, and their respective boards, form a critical global network of entrepreneurial, risk-taking agents who share success and challenges with each other.

Innovation Maturity

  • Existing Prototype or Pilot: I have tested a part of my solution with users and am iterating.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

Open Learning Exchange is an international social benefit, 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.


How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

In designing our pilots for the Free Education Library for Syrians (FELS) as well as the Community Learning Center in Somalia, we have learned from the feedback we receive regularly from the Somali coaches in Dadaab. In developing FELS, it was apparent that refugees in camps or in host countries want the education of both their home country and their host setting/country. We have also observed the kind of resources and courses that engender progress particularly with girls and young women.

Who will implement this Idea?

OLE’s organizational strategy is to help build strong Exchange Partners by working with a national, non-government partner organization to listen to those suffering the most from poverty and violence that has disrupted their lives. We work with our partners helping them listen to those in their communities to identify the issues of their greatest concerns, then helping them try out a solution that can improve their lives. Each of partners has a community-based team comprised of a program manager, coach's coach, librarian and tech genius, who support the Center full time.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

Security and safety are of paramount concern for the Somali refugees in the Dadaab camp in Kenya, the adolescent TIGER girls in Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, and for the Syrians residing in host countries around the world. Living displaced and disrupted lives, impacted by poverty and violence, the children and youth, especially girls and young women in the camps fear being grabbed on their way to school so that they band together so not to walk alone. Syrian refugees children and youth living in host countries are harassed and ostracized daily. The impact of this disruption fosters a sense of meaninglessness, lack of direction and motivation. Many young people remain out of school and a large number are at risk of dropping out.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

OLE’s organizational strategy is to help build strong Exchange Partners in the one hundred nations whose people are suffering the most from poverty, violence, and climate chaos. We do this by providing advice and powerful tools, such as Planet Learning, that they can use to create customized learning systems that their governments in turn can scale to all of their people. Our financial requirements are modest, an estimated $2 million annually. We plan to cover 50% of our costs from modest fees paid by 100 nation-based partners, and the balance from individuals, foundations, and corporations.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

By 2021, we aim to pilot a CLC in Somalia that can be a replicable model for security and stability, and reach 6-10 Syrian refugee host countries with OLE's Free Education Library for Syrians, a repository of Syrian resources and local content that addresses what a refugee needs to live and thrive in their host country. QUESTION: How can we create greater awareness of our work and obtain the capacity support needed to realize our goal to tackle the refugee crisis though meaningful learning?

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

We expect to achieve for each youth a sense of power, meaning and connection though learning. Our technology and approach offers multimedia and multilingual resources, courses and career pathways, team activities and a record of each learner's achievements. Progress is monitored by the Learning Coach who reports on outcomes relevant to achievement, frequency of visits, number of resources accessed, pre- and post opinion surveys, and the impact of team solutions to identified community issues.

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

The CLC in Somalia is planned to begin Fall 2017 by building the team of coaches, a librarian and a tech genius and providing the service within the community. Within 3 years, we intend to demonstrate effectiveness and continue to expand this approach to learning to enable greater social and economic stability in the area. FELS is planned to launch January 2018 in 5 host countries to Syrian refugees. Within that year we will perfect the program so that it can grow by 2-3 countries per year.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Between $500,000 and $1,000,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • Under 5 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are registered in all countries where we plan to implement.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • More than 2 years

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Development / Partnerships Support
  • Communications / Marketing / Graphic Design


Join the conversation:

Photo of Richard Rowe

Thank you, Rebecca for your interest in OLE's work with children, youth and families whose lives are displaced and disrupted. Translators without Borders may indeed be helpful as we are progress with the Free Education Library for Syrians, or FELS. We look forward to being in touch!

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