Digital technologies help Wichita refugees thrive

Imagine a job applicant who speaks five languages with full proficiency. Almost effortlessly, they translate and transcribe even the most complex topics from one language to another. Their linguistic skills would make them an invaluable asset to any company, provided one invisible criterion:

One of these languages must be English.

For many refugees and asylees in the U.S. (a nation without an official language) lacking English proficiency is the unspoken penalty, the barrier preventing them from stabilizing themselves and their families in a new culture, new country and new world.

“Much of the world is Anglocentric,” Mythili Menon, associate professor of English and linguistics said. “We interpret the world through this monolingual point of view, through a language that has hegemony and imperialistic power over other communities.”

Mythili Menon
Mythili Menon

But for communities across the world, multilingualism is the norm. Because of this English bias, Menon incepted the Center for Educational Technologies to Assist Refugee Learners.

“Education is a big problem for the children, because the school systems in the United States are just so different from their home country,” Menon said. “That was the impetus of the Center, to create novel digital technologies to help people who are disadvantaged and underrepresented in the education system.”

CETARL, which entered its earliest phase of development in the Fall of 2020, employed digital technologies both out of necessity and utility.

“We knew educational technologies were going to be big, because we didn’t know how long COVID would last,” Menon said. “But I also knew that games were a safe space for the students. They come from PTSD, from trauma, maybe neurodivergences, but they can be whoever they want in the game. We wanted to provide that for them, because they’d never had it before.”

Using gamification, CETARL increases English proficiency and teaches middle-school science to refugee and asylee students. A non-playing character, Dr. Kayembe, gives instructions to the students, who play through a digital avatar. Kayembe takes the player through units: the solar system, the human body, physics, and ecosystems and habitats. These cursory STEM modules supplement the instruction from their science classes at school.

Incorporating principles of linguistics, technology, sociology and pedagogy challenged the CETARL development team. But, Menon said, the trial would have been an impossibility without the intrinsic interdisciplinarity of the liberal arts.

“It’s very easy for people to work in silos and not talk to others,” said Menon. “But in the liberal arts and sciences, we encourage innovation and thinking across disciplines. We get out of our box, to different floors, different departments—not a lot of colleges offer that.”

Her team is working to make the Center’s approach into a scalable model for Wichita Public Schools. “We underestimate the power of educational technologies to change lives,” Menon said. “A lot more games and educational technology should make its way into the public school classroom.”

However, CETARL’s reach extends beyond public schools, to all refugee learners in the area. Menon’s research on underrepresented languages and communities makes her uniquely equipped to lead the charge as the Center’s principal investigator.

"Why do refugee communities have to trust you?”  Menon asked. “They don’t. You’re not an indigenous person or refugee or asylee. So, it is very important to establish trust, because, at the end of the day, you’re an outsider.”

A shared language, Menon argues, not only establishes that trust, but broadens job opportunities and greatly facilitates the challenges of day-to-day interactions that go unnoticed by native speakers. By increasing English and digital proficiencies, she and her team at the Center help bridge the gap between the Wichita community and its refugee population.

“Resettling people is one thing,” Menon said of the existing refugee integration process in the U.S. “Giving them resources to succeed and thrive is another.”

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