International Perspectives: Ukrainian Child Refugees’ Digital Practices of Belonging

Written by Thomas Enemark Lundtofte

Ukrainian child refugees use a wide repertoire of digital technologies in their everyday practices of belonging to their home country as well as their new community in Denmark. In our research project Ukrainian Students in Danish Schools, we have studied two groups of children during their first experiences with going to school in Denmark.

This blog post focuses on two themes in the digital practices that were prevalent in our preliminary data analysis. The first has to do with uses of digital technologies in class to mitigate language difficulties, and the second addresses the challenges faced by the children in relation to balancing social integration in Danish society with attending Ukrainian school online.

Mitigating language obstacles through practices with digital technologies

Danish schools are permeated with digital technologies. Five years ago, 72% of teachers reported daily use of IT in class, and 95% said they were at least using it on a weekly basis, and it would be fair to assume that these numbers have increased since. Understanding and putting digital services to use are prerequisites to function properly as a citizen in Danish society. Consequently, the school system into which Ukrainian children enter entails using Google Chromebooks, a range of subject-specific apps in varying LMS, and a communication platform called Aula which is used across school administration, educators, parents, and students.

The younger children in our study (5-7 years) did not use Aula themselves, but their parents were expected to learn how, so they could stay up to date with schedules, meetings, etc. However, the home room teacher and the Ukrainian-speaking assistant teacher would make routine checks to see if everyone was sufficiently informed, and they would create paper printouts when deemed necessary. Much like everywhere else, the older children in our study (12-15 years) were avid users of smartphones, and their breaks often involved leisurely activities such as browsing through TikTok feeds, Telegram (which was very commonly used) or to do some casual gaming or text messaging. Informal interviews with the children during our observations often involved some degree of using smart devices to explain central points or thoughts, namely through the assistance of Google.

Across the two age groups, we observed well-established routines of using Google Translate to overcome comprehension obstacles, which is a new element in Danish reception classes. A special piece of legislation had been implemented to facilitate Ukrainian reception classes where native language TAs were available and – in contrast to usual practice in reception classes – using the English language was permitted outside of English class. Consequently, teachers were using their PCs (connected to projectors) to translate words and sentences into Ukrainian for the students to see. Furthermore, the teachers had come across a convenient ‘hack’ in connection to the app MathFessor, which is used in almost every Danish primary and lower secondary school to some extent. As the app is loaded in a web browser, Danish text could be machine translated by Google into Ukrainian. According to the assistant teacher, the translations were perhaps 80% accurate. Now, teachers were able to see how the Ukrainian children were in fact very skilled in solving math problems.

The dilemma of socialization versus remote schooling

When Russia invaded Ukraine, societies across the world had just begun readjusting to pre-Covid routines. In countries with high saturation of digital technologies, practices of remote work and school had taken place during various lockdowns. Teachers in Ukraine were able to draw on these experiences to offer remote schooling to Ukrainians living in refuge abroad. In our fieldwork, we talked to the children about their experiences with this, and gathered that different options were available, depending on the local situation in Ukraine. Some children were following classes synchronously in the afternoon, while others were filling out work sheets, watching recorded classes or presentations from teachers, and receiving written feedback on their work. We were also informed of cram schools where one student and one teacher worked through the majority of a semester’s curriculum using video conference software.

During our dialogue conference at University of Southern Denmark, where Ukrainian children and parents participated, we facilitated workshops using the world café format. From the discussions that took place in these workshops we gathered that parents were increasingly troubled over asking their children to participate in Ukrainian school online. They felt their children were missing out on opportunities to socialize with Danish children, and that they were exhausted by all the extra work. On the other hand, they were not completely convinced about the quality of education in Danish reception classes, mainly because a lot of them felt their children were not learning Danish fast enough.

The two analytical themes speak to the nuanced ways in which digital technologies are integral to Ukrainian children’s diasporic life in refuge. They also illustrate how practices of belonging create dilemmas in terms of prioritizing between local socialization, language development, staying close to Ukrainian society, and educational progress. On one hand, staying connected to school life in Ukraine appears convenient and perhaps reassuring for the families living in refuge, but over time it becomes difficult to balance with their new life. Likewise, digital technologies such as Google Translate conveniently aid in transmitting messages across language barriers, and thus provide a solution to solving math problems. However, we stand to see whether this creates better opportunities for the children when they progress into regular Danish school or if it hinders opportunities in terms of learning to communicate in Danish.

About the project

Our project has been carried out by researchers from University of Southern Denmark in collaboration with researchers from VIA University College and University College Absalon, and sits within the Centre for Primary and Lower Secondary Education Research. Research was conducted at ‘reception classes’ in a Danish school, with the school’s municipal stakeholders and educators, and at a SDU Denmark conference (attended by Ukrainian refugees, educators, and other relevant stakeholders).

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Our researchers and partners produce regular blog posts and research outputs focused on children and digital technology.