NLG Tech Task Force webinar recap: NetHope’s Project Reconnect

  • Seth Otto
  • April 18, 2017
NLG Tech Task Force webinar recap: NetHo

Following the launch of the NLG Tech Task Force at the 2017 NLG Ed Tech Summit in Amman, Jordan last month, the Task Force is hosting a series of virtual convenings to encourage information sharing and collaboration.

The NLG Tech Task Force, created by NetHope and the No Lost Generation initiative (NLG), facilitates collaboration within the international development community and between the NGO and private sector. Committed to addressing the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons at scale, the focus is on ICT-enabled, evidence-based programs for refugee education. For more information on the work of the Task Force, check out the blog post announcing its creation.

Ms. Toplic opened with a brief overview of the #NoLostGeneration initiative (NLG). Launched in 2013, NLG is a commitment by the humanitarian community and donors to support children and youth affected by the Syria and Iraq crises. The initiative focuses on three pillars: Education, Child Protection, and Adolescent and Youth. At the regional level over 20 U.N. agencies and NGOs undertake joint advocacy in support of NLG objectives, while at country level a much wider range of actors are working to achieve NLG goals. For up to date information about NLG, visit the initiative's website.

For this, the first in the NLG Tech Task Force webinar series, Sybille Fleischmann, Program Lead in Germany for NetHope gave a detailed progress report on Project Reconnect, an initiative funded by 

that provides 25,000 managed Chromebooks to nonprofit organizations supporting refugees in Germany. The project facilitates refugee access to language-learning, education and employment on the web. Google volunteers have been supporting NetHope’s Project Reconnect team with their expertise throughout the project and RTI International is handling the monitoring and evaluation of the program.

Ms. Fleischman began her presentation by describing the refugee situation in Germany in late 2015, with as many as 200,000 refugees entering the country every month. There was a great need for language training, translation services, access to the asylum application process, and basic information for finding one’s way within Germany. A team of Google engineers, based in Munich, wanted to see if Google could help address these needs with technology, and Project Reconnect was the result.

In November 2015, Google Germany and NetHope launched a small pilot program with 100 Chromebooks. The immediate response to the pilot was positive, and the need so great that a decision to scale the project was quickly reached. Project Reconnect was made possible through a large grant from Just two months later, in January 2016, Project Reconnect began accepting grantee applications from a variety of programs serving refugees across Germany. A diverse mix of grantees were chosen to ensure that refugees were served across demographics. Some grantees are traditional aid organizations, others are education institutions, community or church organizations. Newer organizations, such as volunteer organizations and those that focus on helping refugees through computer-assisted learning were also chosen as grantees.

In May of 2016, the first Project Reconnect grantees were setting up, and deploying their Chromebooks in the field. Chromebooks are web-based laptops with an interface that is based on the familiar Chrome browser. Ms. Fleischmann explained that the Chromebooks used in Project Reconnect are managed devices: “These Chromebooks can be managed centrally by the organizations. If there are specific resources that the program managers wish to highlight, the IT administrators or project manager can do so by adding bookmarks, or a custom homepage. It was very easy.” 

Each device needed be registered only once. That meant that they could be managed from the central administration console, and organizations could immediately start using the Chromebooks with settings NetHope and recommended. Fine tuning and settings optimization took place later in the administration console with the devices receiving the new configurations the next time they went online. Most organizations chose to start with the Chromebooks using public session mode which does not require a specific user log in. All user data is deleted from the device at the end of each session. This keeps administration efforts to a minimum, and inexperienced users don’t have to worry about what data might be left behind on the device.

By the fall of 2016, the first stories of how the grantees and their beneficiaries were using the Chromebooks were trickling in. Women who didn’t yet feel safe going out into their communities accessed web-based resources comfortably on the devices in adult education centers. They also explored details about their new communities in Germany, and researched information about their children’s education and school enrollment. Ms. Fleischmann shared anecdotes about children using the laptops to learn German, play, and catch up in school. Older students successfully completed language, and professional certifications. “This year we are getting more and more stories of people who are earning academic certificates, landing jobs, and starting an internships or apprenticeship,” she said. For more refugee stories visit the NetHope blog.

As of April, 2017 there are approximately 24,000 Chromebooks in over 900 locations being administered by 43 Project Reconnect grantees. NetHope is actively engaged with these organizations and encourages collaboration by hosting in-person meetings, and online discussion groups. “They have such different expertise. Some have expertise working with refugees, but not with computers, while others are focused on computer-assisted learning, so we encourage knowledge-sharing among them,” Fleischmann said.

Many grantees focused their initial grant proposals on using the Chromebooks in large welcome centers to put learning tools into the hands of incoming refugees as early as possible. The goal was to help them begin learning the German language, learn about German culture, assist in the asylum application process; and communicate with family still on migration routes. Some organizations used the Chromebooks in school-like settings at the welcome centers to re-introduce kids to a school routine in preparation for re-settlement.

The deployment of the Chromebooks has shifted from focusing on the emergency response in welcome centers to a programmatic response with community-based organizations. Project Reconnect has been able to follow the needs of the refugees as they have transitioned from new arrivals to community members. Now the focus is on helping refugees access the knowledge and education they desire to qualify for the jobs and careers that they wish to pursue. Grantees are helping refugees transition into apprenticeships by using blended learning approaches to begin language learning as soon as possible, and online mentoring programs to help refugees practice German, and make connections in the community. “Some initiatives are working with professional organizations here in Germany to create job-specific vocabulary tools in German. We have seen amazing creativity and responsiveness from our grantee organizations to make that transition from an emergency response to a programmatic one,” said Fleischmann.

She also shared some of the challenges faced by the grantees in Project Reconnect. As the refugees became increasingly spread out geographically over time, a strain has been put on available human and financial resources to support more locations and custom programs. A lack of internet connectivity has been a surprising challenge that many locations have had to navigate. Privacy rules surrounding personal data, and government regulations around social service entitlements have also increased administrative overhead.

Based on the insights gathered during the first part of the project’s implementation, NetHope has adjusted its initial plan to work with a few organizations at the top level, to one that supports more than 40 organizations with training, documentation, and support all the way through to the site level. The Project Reconnect team is helping with Chromebook administration, troubleshooting, and introducing trainers and users to cloud computing. Grantees who are new to using computers in their work with refugees need time and extra support to fully benefit from this new tool. The learning curve of using technology to serve such a diverse user population can be steep, but the effort is worth it. The breadth of programs and the individual success stories of refugees using online resources to build a life in Germany makes for a bright outlook on the future of technology interventions in programs for refugees.

Access the webinar recording and presentation slides to learn more about this successful NetHope program, and to hear answers to many insightful questions asked by the attendees from a diverse range of humanitarian organizations.


Coming up next in the NLG Tech Task Force Webinar Series:

Udemy and IRC: Empowering Refugees Through Online Entrepreneurship - April, 27

Coursera for Refugees - Date: TBA

HP Life and IMC - Date: TBA

Microsoft’s Resources for Refugees portal - Date: TBA

…and more to come!

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