Part 6: Project approach

NetHope selected grantees based on criteria such as: proposed Chromebooks initiative, social impact, reach, organizational strength, and deployment readiness. Project Reconnect grantees are internationally known organizations such as German Red Cross, Save the Children, Johanniter, and Malteser; German educational institutions; and a new breed of nonprofits focused on supporting refugees through computer-assisted learning initiatives. The organizations proposed various ways/initiatives in which they would use the Chromebooks. NetHope did not require a certain approach, but instead supported the organizations in the approach they proposed.

In early 2016, Medion produced the 25,000 Chromebooks. NetHope followed specifications recommended by Google engineers for the design of the devices. NetHope’s Project Reconnect team in Germany coordinated the distribution of the Chromebooks with Medion, and then worked with the program manager or program management team assigned to this initiative on the grantee side to provide training and support.

The diversity of Chromebook-supported initiatives and settings is tremendous. They include: mobile Chromebook units supporting social counselling in refugee homes; providing access to higher education coursework in study centers; supporting employment preparation in youth migration facilities; offering cultural and language activities in public libraries; and facilitating communication with family and friends in church facilities. Activities in individual locations are supported by a combination of staff and volunteers, including refugees themselves. Over a third of grantee organizations has hired refugees to support Chromebook activities, generating employment opportunities and empowering refugees to create prospects for themselves and their peers.

The Chromebooks have generated a great sense of enthusiasm and excitement among grantees, their staff and volunteers, and among the refugees using the devices. Based on their initial experience with the Chromebooks, over 80 percent of the Project Reconnect grantee organizations report that their expectations for the value of Chromebooks in refugee work have been met or even perfectly been met. Based on responses to a broadly distributed survey at the end of 2016, a majority of the 64 participating refugee Chromebook users report that the Chromebooks have been important, or even indispensable, in achieving their personal goals for education, employment, communication, and research.

Lessons Learned

Nimbleness required. The reduced number of refugees coming to Germany after the European Union-Turkey agreement March 2016 led to a decommissioning of many of the large welcome centers in the country, which were previously housing thousands of refugees. This challenged human resources in the organizations that managed these centers. They had to divert their focus to closing centers, finding new locations, relocating people, and relocating the organization. Funds became even tighter, and the Chromebook initiative became deprioritized for a while. This required some grantee organizations to identify new Chromebook locations, complicating sustained efforts to make more Chromebooks accessible and useful to refugees.

Unexpected internet infrastructure and policy barriers. These significantly slowed down establishment of Chromebook locations and resulting usage by refugees. Government regulations, for example, in certain states do not allow schools to provide Wi-Fi access to students. Grantee organizations also cite challenges regarding misconceptions and adoption issues around cloud-based technologies, which are new to many of the organizations’ staff, as well as to refugee users. The main challenge organizations report is the very feature which makes the Chromebooks so easy to manage and maintain – their cloud-based setup and a “public session mode” that prohibits the retention of personal data or documents, cookies or browsing histories, or log-in credentials once a user session ended.

Content recommendations and partnerships. Content recommendations are particularly important to organizations that are using computers for the first time in their initiatives for refugees. With the help of Google volunteers, NetHope created a content discovery page that allows organizations to quickly find content relevant for refugees in Germany and then make it available on their own refugee-focused web page. Many of the grantee organizations that were new to using ICT in their initiatives, did not have a webpage for refugees. NetHope created a portal site that organizations could configure as the homepage on their Chromebooks. NetHope also partnered with content providers such as Cisco Networking Academy, Volunteer Vision, Serlo Education, and Speexx.

Implementation funding support. Ideally, in-kind technology donations to nonprofits responding to emergencies are augmented by funds for program implementation such as staff, connectivity, and volunteer expenses.

Pair with requests for state/public funding. Select grantee organizations applied for additional funding from state and public sources to operate the Chromebook program. This translated into additional work for the already strained human resources of these organizations and led to delays in the deployment of Chromebooks. However, some grantee organizations had already secured additional public and private sector funding, particularly to support facility, administration, and personnel needs.

Personalized support. Refugees using the Chromebooks predominantly aim to improve their German language acquisition. Success stories shared by grantee organizations and refugees indicate that few refugees and asylum seekers are able to study independently with online tools. The grantee organizations have implemented various approaches to address this need for in-person support and personalized coaching in conjunction with Chromebook use.

Custom implementation approaches. Managed Chromebooks can be used in in a variety of contexts, including transitional housing projects, classrooms, counseling centers, youth programs, and many other settings. The grantees have implemented a variety of approaches to address the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, and continue to adjust and optimize those approaches. Examples of recurring deployment scenarios are: 

●        Language and Integration courses. Chromebooks are used to complement the lessons or in some cases are an integral part of the curriculum in a blended learning approach, as in the government funded “Einstieg deutsch” (“Intro to German”) program. 

●        Learn cafés or Internet Cafés: Provide an Internet Café-like environment to allow refugees to connect with friends and family and access assistance information. Some organizations simply provide assistance when requested in the Internet Café, while others provide regular tutoring or classes to introduce users to computers and online research and language learning content.

●        Welcome classes in schools and preparation classes for vocational training programs. Chromebooks are used for language learning, to translate and practice new vocabulary, to learn about German culture, and to research a variety of topics. With online content and exercises, students fill in gaps in their school knowledge so they can join regular classes or qualify for an apprenticeship program.

●        Shared devices in group homes. One to three devices are used in small group homes and are shared between residents to study at their own pace or conduct research.

●        Loan model at libraries. Public libraries offer refugees and asylum seekers an opportunity to study at the library, a quiet space with good connectivity, and some devices are even made available to borrow for up to four weeks.

●        Computer and internet classes: In addition to language classes, many sites offer introductory courses to use computers and the internet. Some locations offer programming courses for kids or Cisco courses on networking and online security.

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