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A Workshop Explores How Digital Education Can Help Refugees

NEW YORK—While educational resources to help refugee students continue to expand, the demand for scholarships to enroll in degree programs still far outpaces the supply. That’s why organizations across the globe—universities, nonprofits, international aid organizations, private companies and governments—are looking to digital and online educational tools.

About a hundred people with expertise and interest in this work gathered in New York City in September to discuss the challenge and potential of providing online opportunities for higher education to displaced Syrians. The event was co-hosted by Al-Fanar Media, Open Society Foundations, and the Ford Foundation.

Five Syrian young people joined the event to speak about their experiences trying to access education and how they thought access to online learning opportunities could help them and others keep their educational and professional careers on track.

The students’ stories were compelling (See a related article Meeting Syrian Students: A Mixture of Pride and Sadness), but their experiences with online education were, not surprisingly, scattered: A course here, a course there, or a report from a friend who had taken a course. One of them reported using a popular Facebook page to improve her English and her scores on the all- important tests of English proficiency.

But the students’ stories helped illuminate some of the barriers to getting digital-education tools into the hands of students who need them. Themes discussed at length were language and cultural barriers and the students’ weak access to mentors and basic technological infrastructure.

Implementing digital learning tools in a traditional classroom environment with stable Internet access, high-quality computers and basic infrastructure (a well-lit, clean classroom, desks, school supplies) is hard enough. Making these tools work for students is less about the technology itself and more about how a teacher uses it to add to the learning experience. This means a teacher must have a clear understanding of students’ learning needs and why using digital coursework in place of traditional face-to-face teaching might work better.

For example, digital coursework might allow a student to work at her own pace, giving her extra practice with certain concepts and bypassing those she has already mastered. Many digital learning platforms are able to deliver immediate feedback on students’ progress, so it’s easy for teachers and students to notice if they are falling behind and need extra help. When a student is matched with a suitable platform and guided by a knowledgeable teacher, educational technology has the potential to individualize instruction and give students control over their education, participants said. But even under perfect conditions, this isn’t easy to do.

“The real issue with online education isn’t about technology,” said Meredith Woo, director of the international higher education support program at the Open Society Foundation. “It’s about understanding the student population.”

From Digital Education Conference.

That becomes even more difficult when selecting or designing digital coursework for Syrian refugees. Some are living in camps in the desert, with limited access to Internet, computers or even cell phones or fast cell-phone networks, such as 3G or 4G. Other young refugees have already started new lives in countries far from home, but are still trying to figure out how to get back on the path to their professional and educational goals and unsure how to use online education to do that.

“We don’t need to invent something new,” said Felix Seyfarth, a research associate at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland focusing on educational technologies. “But we can carefully reconsider the tools we already have.”

There’s no shortage of digital and online education tools—those offered in English, that is. A quick Internet search turns up tutorials on just about any academic subject or professional skill, like writing a resume or a cover letter for a job application.

But according to Nafez Dakkak, CEO of Edraak, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform serving the Arab world, there aren’t enough quality educational resources offered in Arabic. Edraak previously focused on translating free online courses from prestigious international universities from English into Arabic. Not only was this expensive, but it was also often overwhelming for students to focus on the lessons contained in videos when they were distracted by focusing on the Arabic subtitles. Sometimes, the examples the courses used to explain concepts didn’t translate on a cultural level. Now Edraak focuses on creating materials from scratch that are tailored to Arabic-speaking students, including refugees.

Barbara Moser-Mercer is the director of InZone, a center at the University of Geneva that
develops innovative approaches to higher education and multilingual communication in areas affected by conflict. She says that offering students the option to study in their native language, with course materials that are culturally relevant, has additional benefits.

“Language and culture are so intertwined with what contributes to our identities,” Moser-Mercer said. And for a population that has endured the trauma of being forced out of their homes and communities, developing educational materials that offer something familiar is especially important to the learning process. Helping refugees continue their education is about more than just giving them the skills to physically rebuild their country. It’s about helping them rebuild the communities and social networks that were torn apart as well.

Suhaib Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee currently living in the United States and working as an engineer, pointed out that one of the biggest challenges to offering aid to Syrian refugees is connecting them with the appropriate resources and making sure they have the information to decide which path might be right for them.

Ibrahim was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in Syria when he was forced to flee to Egypt, thinking that he would be able to transfer his credits and continue his degree. After discovering that this wasn’t possible, he spent months applying for scholarships to attend academic programs in other countries. He was rejected every time, due to not being familiar with such admission requirements as writing personal essays.

From Digital Education Conference.

Ibrahim recalls feeling stuck and defeated. At the time, he didn’t know how to plan for his future, or why his applications were failing. Eventually, he gained admission to the Illinois Institute of Technology in the United States and was able to complete his degree.

He says getting Syrians on the path to continuing their education starts with connecting them to mentors who can support them through the process. He makes an effort to post announcements for scholarships and other educational opportunities on social media and share them with friends and colleagues, and hopes to make the process a little bit easier for them than it was for him.

“The main challenge for me, and I think it’s for a lot of people that I know, is they’re so depressed,” Ibrahim said. “They’re looking for something tomorrow.”

While he’s sensitive to students’ sense of urgency—he too was eager to finish his degree, find a job, and get his life back on track—Ibrahim stressed that those interested in developing digital education resources should pause to think about the range of tools that might be most useful to refugees.

A recurring discussion during the two-day conference revolved around the question of how to design programs that end in an accredited degree. While this could work for some students, Ibrahim thinks digital-education tools could also useful for developing more narrowly focused skills that don’t result in degrees, like writing a resume or cover letter in English.

Cindy Bonfini, vice president of global information technology and innovation at Jesuit Worldwide Learning, suggested that coding and computer science skills could also work well in a more bite-sized format. She added that while these skills could very well be offered as part of an accredited degree or certification course, they have the added bonus of being in high demand in the workforce and would make students more appealing to potential employers.

Perhaps the most efficient way to make sure that new digital courses are tailored to the unique needs of Syrian refugees, workshop participants said, is to get Syrian academics and professionals involved.

“I don’t pretend that myself, I know, what all these students trapped in the camps are going through,” said Oula Abu-Amsha, an academic advisor at the Jamiya Project, an organization that is developing accredited university-level courses in Arabic.

But as an exiled academic from Syria herself, Abu-Amsha and her colleagues have a personal understanding of the complexity of the problems the country is facing, along with the ability to relate to students on a social level.

In addition, getting Syrians involved in creating education resources for themselves will help them learn techniques for putting the country back together in the future. As Abu-Amsha pointed out, working in a university or earning a Ph.D. doesn’t make someone qualified to rebuild an entire educational system. Working with international organizations and universities that have experience with doing this will give Syrians a chance to learn how to do it for themselves later on.


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