Building on Experience With Digital Education for Refugees

The unprecedented scale of today’s global migration crisis is making enormous demands on those working in higher education. The numbers are staggering: out of a half-million displaced Syrian youth, 15 to 20 percent would be eligible for higher-education enrollment at home.  Many more were forced to interrupt studies when they fled.

A majority of displaced Syrians are currently living in countries bordering Syria and are seeking educational opportunities there. Understandably, digital and distance education are being called into service. Hopes are high that we might be able to effectively respond to these young people’s needs. But that will take a serious commitment that will go far beyond just providing access to online courses.

With the explosive development of digital learning on a global scale and the availability of open educational resources made popular by MOOCs, initiatives to meet the higher-education needs of refugees through digital learning have emerged first in response to the absence of higher-education offerings in refugee camps, and more recently through online universities or NGOs focused on higher education. The promise of scale has largely overshadowed concerns about quality. That is not surprising if we consider most emergency humanitarian responses, which have traditionally not been that concerned with long-term planning or sustainability.

Those issues have largely been left to follow-up development. But the lines between early humanitarian responses and long-term development are blurring, in places like South Sudan. The fact is that given digital learning’s promise of scale, the majority of refugees in higher education are likely to be enrolled in online courses and programs, offered through online universities and NGOs and, to a lesser extent, by traditional universities or university consortia active in distance education. Taken together, these providers estimate that 10,000 to 15,000 refugees are enrolled in online higher education. This number probably surpasses the number of scholarships awarded to refugees annually.

Those creating online learning options need to consider quality, reliable access, options for accreditation, and a linkage to rebuilding quality higher education in countries of origin. The mission of higher education is, after all, to impart both academic and experiential knowledge–that is, the ability to abstract and generalize based on reasoning and evidence on the one hand, and to apply this knowledge to real-world contexts on the other. If we look at societies that have prospered both in the industrial era and the knowledge age, we find that they have consistently attached an importance to rigor, abstraction, evidence-based generalization, rationalism and academic independence.

An InZone Higher Education Space at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. (© InZone)

Higher education in emergencies, like higher education elsewhere, requires learners to make more than a mere short-term investment. Conflict-ridden countries often do not have a long tradition of independent higher education.  Rebuilding conflict-proof governance structures will require the efforts of groups of individuals capable of avoiding the mistakes of the past. All of this should help educators realize that we should look carefully at whether digital learning for refugees can live up those requirements. In addition, there is a promise nested inside that challenge: Countries with large numbers of refugees may leverage the crisis to embrace quality digital learning as a viable alternative to traditional lecture halls.

It might be useful to look at current offerings in digital learning for refugees in terms of how they meet two criteria considered to be essential for quality in online learning, such as those developed by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and various other organizations.  (There have also been criteria developed that are specific to digital learning in higher education and forced displacement).

These two criteria are:

1- Access is critical. But access shouldn’t just refer to the number of computers or uninterrupted connectivity to the Internet. Learners need content in a language they can work in and curricula that respect their cultures. Being able to register on a MOOC platform and sign up for a course does not necessarily lead to learner success. These courses are usually designed for the digital North, offered mostly in English, and provide little if any technology support or engagement for faculty members or tutors. We need to ask ourselves whether these approaches respect linguistic and cultural diversity as enshrined in UNESCO’s Declaration on Cultural Diversity. We need to ask whether refugee learners coming mostly from authoritative learning cultures can succeed and thrive in such online learning environments. We need to consider whether learning exclusively in a foreign language—and culture—truly respects diversity and allows refugee learners to integrate new knowledge and skills into their own cultural background. We should be trying to promote bilingual and multilingual education that fosters intercultural understanding and helps to prevent conflict of the kind that prompts people to flee. Although large numbers of students may be accessing digital learning, such access does not necessarily result in successful learning or completion, especially in refugee camps, where even basic connectivity is a challenge. Invoking the humanitarian principle of “do no harm,” we simply cannot and should not accept double-digit dropout rates.

2- Refugees require real academic credentials. The majority of refugee learners need recognized academic credits that will be building blocks to their future. Digital learning should rise to meet that need. There is indeed value in good digital learning that takes into account the specific fragility of learners and the context in which such learning takes place. But the promise of recognized academic degrees, including recognition by education ministries in the Arab world of degrees earned digitally, must be backed by evidence. It is too early to judge whether digital learning initiatives for refugees can indeed pass that test and meet obligations under international humanitarian law.

Most other criteria used to measure digital-learning quality could be considered as supporting these two criteria of access and accreditation. Among these, the most important criterion is how technology and pedagogy can meet the particular needs of refugee learners. These learners generally have little to no experience in online learning and a low information literacy index. They must navigate very fragile contexts with considerable psychosocial challenges and have largely been schooled in highly traditional learning environments. Most refugees learning online are also isolated, due to limited connectivity and English language proficiency. They cannot fully participate in even an asynchronous learning environment. This is unacceptable in humanitarian terms.

The advantages of blended learning and connected learning in terms of access and retention are well documented and are now leveraged through a new Connected Learning Consortium, initiated by UNHCR and a group of higher education institutions active in designing, developing, providing and scientifically validating higher education digital learning for refugees. These higher education institutions partner with local universities to ensure that they are embedded in the host country and sensitive to the cultural needs of local learners. They also strive to use peers so students can teach each other and build learning cultures, and offer flexible learning pathways so students don’t feel like they are on a forced march down just one path. They design courses to deal with the constraints of refugee camps and the living conditions of urban refugees. They seek to scientifically validate their digital approaches. While the pedagogies they adopt don’t immediately scale up, the insights gained hold great promise for the establishment of quality guidelines.

We hope to be able to put the claims of institutions and NGOs for large-scale solutions to the test and develop a common understanding of quality digital higher education for refugees. Improved digital higher education will ultimately strengthen the refugees’ countries of origin and the neighboring countries whose higher education may well be in need of change to develop critically thinking citizens. But the ultimate beneficiaries will be the refugees themselves.

Dr. Barbara Moser-Mercer is the director of InZone, a Center at the University of Geneva that develops innovative approaches to multilingual communication and higher education in communities affected by conflict.

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