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A New University Hopes to Give Refugees Educational Wings

BERLIN, Germany — Hamed Shurbaji is tired of waiting. The broad-shouldered 24-year-old travelled for months from Syria to Germany to finish his bachelor’s degree. When he finally arrived in Berlin, German authorities told him to wait.

“Finishing my French literature degree is my dream,” said Shurbaji, a Syrian who fled his country’s civil war in May 2013, a year shy of completing his degree at the University of Damascus. “It’s frustrating to just sit around. I don’t want to waste more time.”

It’s people like Shurbaji who are the focus of a new academic project attempting to shorten that wait.

In February 2015, an international group of twenty-somethings founded Wings University, a virtual educational institution to offer so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to help refugees pursue a low-cost degree. That’s because the number, and need, is growing exponentially these days, as conflict and violence in the MENA region continues unabated, and as Germany takes in a record number of migrants.

“There are so many highly motivated and often very talented young people who are not allowed to work or study while waiting for their papers or who simply can’t afford to study full-time,” said the Wings University co-founder, Markus Kressler, a psychology graduate student at Berlin’s Free University.

Technically, the university is still a proposal. The cofounders are still raising money, and it could take two years or more to receive accreditation. But Kressler and his team are ambitious.

Wings University’s first courses in English are scheduled to begin in September 2015, with students taking online courses with other universities like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard through Wings’ webpage.

Those schools already offer free non-credit online courses via platforms such as Coursera, EDX and Udacity. Wings University will offer credits to students who successfully complete those courses as part of its degree programs until it can get its own programs up and running, said Kressler. Wings will help the students to package together such courses in a meaningful way.

The university is seeking initial funding of $1.7 million, a “bargain” compared to a planned university near the Syrian-Turkish border that is expected to cost $51 million and enroll 1,500 Syrian refugee students, said Wings University Near East Regional Manager Odai Al Hashmi, who has been based in Turkey since he fled Syria in 2013.

Wings’ founders are in talks with donors and expect to receive funding soon. European government and U.N. aid for refugees could also be a source of support, they said.

“Our project perks are that we have very low fixed costs since we are Internet-based, plus we have unlimited capacity for all students who need education,” said Odai. (While the capacity for free courses with no teacher feedback may be unlimited, courses that require professors to grade papers or tests will have limited capacity.)

The aim of Wings is to help refugees like Hamed who are living transient, uprooted lives.

When he fled war-torn Syria, Hamed planned to finish his studies in Cairo, but he arrived in Egypt shortly before the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The Egyptian government was then barring Syrians from registering at Egyptian universities. Hamed moved to Libya, but he wasn’t eligible to continue his studies there either.

He finally made it to Europe, sailing to Sicily before reaching Germany last year. He tried to reach Europe twice before succeeding. Once, the Libyan police arrested him on the beach. Another time, his boat broke down and, after drifting for two days in the Mediterranean Sea, an Egyptian vessel brought him and his fellow migrants back to North Africa.

Today, Hamed can’t enroll in a Germany university because his German language skills are poor. Learning the language will take him around a year, he estimated. But in the meantime he needs to earn a degree to support his family. “Without education you can’t find good work,” he said. “I’m the only son in my family, and I need to support my parents when they get older.”

Hamed is one of 7 million refugees worldwide who can’t pursue higher education because of missing papers, language barriers, their legal status and other bureaucratic hurdles, said Kressler, citing U.N. statistics.

On average, it takes refugees 4.5 years to get from their home country to somewhere they can live, work and study—more than enough time to derail one’s academic goals, said Martin Woesler, a Wings University vice dean who has developed academic programs in the United States, Germany and China.

Wings offers open enrollment. Students don’t need to demonstrate that they have high school diplomas, transcripts or other qualifications, removing a barrier for many refugees. Degree-related requirements, such as drawing skills for architecture, are assessed through study-specific tests, a concept that has been successful in Austrian universities that use the open enrollment model.

Most importantly for refugees who often cope with intermittent electricity and Internet access, and chaotic schedules, students create their own course schedules and attend courses when they have time and access to a working computer, explained Woesler. Students will be able to join periodic live discussions with professors and peers in online chat rooms, too, of course.

“Through maximal individualization and flexibility we want to ensure that even the full-time working Syrian mother has a chance to successfully graduate,” he said.

Some experts question whether lectures delivered via massive open online courses benefit students, whether or not they are refugees. “There is no qualitative education without interaction,” said Johannes W. Erdmann, an education professor at the Berlin University of the Arts.

A recent Harvard and MIT study that analyzed the universities’ first two years of offering online courses substantiates Erdmann’s concerns. According to the study, only 8 percent of participants successfully completed online course studies that resulted in a certificate. Another issue that online universities have faced is making sure that students don’t have someone else taking their exams or writing their papers for them.

But Erdmann and other experts aren’t totally pessimistic. Erdmann believes that chat rooms and other collaborative efforts online can be just as effective as traditional face-to-face teaching. “In the case of Wings University, students living in shelters for asylum seekers could learn together and tutors could come by to study with them,” Erdmann suggested.

A Syrian-Palestine refugee and student, Abdallah El-Dimagh, says there is a need for an institution like Wings. “I think it’s a good idea and could be very helpful for people who have problems accessing university,” said Abdallah, who is now studying for a doctorate in German literature in Leipzig, in eastern Germany.

“Applying for visas is very time consuming and frustrating,” he said, adding he and his friends could benefit from the online university.

El-Dimagh is thinking about studying some modules in economics at Wings University while earning his Ph.D. to improve his chances on the job market.

Hamed is considering the same. “While I’m waiting to enroll in a German university, I might take some classes with Wings,” he said.
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