Thursday, June 1, 2017

MOOCs for refugees - work in progress

One of the early promises of the MOOC movement was that they would provide access to high quality education to millions who would otherwise never be able to attend a traditional campus course. After a few years of MOOC development, many studies showed that this promise was not being fulfilled (see for example this study from Harvard University) and that the courses attracted mostly digitally literate graduates looking for professional development or exploring interesting new fields. The mass migration from war-torn Syria provided a potential testing ground for the philanthropic visions of many MOOC advocates and a number of innovative projects and initiatives were started to offer a range of open online courses to refugees with the opportunity of turning the certificates into credible credentials.

At present there a wide range of initiatives offering MOOCs to refugees both in Europe and in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, most notably Kiron Open Higher Education, Coursera for refugees, Jamiya Project and Education without borders. I am working in an Erasmus+ project called MOONLITE looking at how MOOCs can be used to foster employability and enhance social inclusion for refugees. Many universities offer courses to help refugees learn the language of their new country or to help them adapt to a new culture and society. There are also numerous examples of grants available to help refugees into higher education, especially those who are already qualified in professions where the host country has a shortage.  A full review of initiatives is available in a European Commission JRC Science for Policy report, Free Digital Learning Opportunities for Migrants and Refugees (2017).

However it is not simply a matter of offering open online courses and expecting them to be welcomed, even if they can lead to recognised qualifications. An important factor is the refugees' attitudes to online education and whether or not they have any experience, as revealed in an article in Times Higher Education, Online higher education ‘unappealing’ for Syrian refugees. It describes a recent study of refugees' attitudes to education and was presented a the recent British Council Going Global 2017 conference (Syrian experiences of HE in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey). Many refugees are skeptical about online education and naturally have a greater trust and respect for the forms of education that they recognize and experienced before the war. Online courses were in fact the least desirable form of education when given the choice and a traditional classroom course was most attractive.

Research based on interviews and focus groups with 178 young Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey found that the majority thought online lecturers were less competent than those teaching face-to-face, were wary of the lack of accreditation of some online programmes, and felt self-motivation, time management and maintaining momentum would be difficult “in the chaos of camp life”.

For many education should offer the opportunity to get away from the monotony of camp life and attend a real college so it's not surprising that the online option was less attractive. However, I suspect that you would find a similar skepticism in even developed countries. Despite the growth of online education the majority of people have still never experienced the form and are therefore wary of it. often viewing it as a poor substitute. Many who have tried it have met poorly designed and uninspiring courses that are often simply self-service and self-study platforms with little or no interaction. There is still a greater respect for and understanding of traditional educational models and Syrian refugees are no exception.

Stand-alone MOOCs can only really reach the digitally skilled, experienced students with good study skills, resilience and usually also fluency in English. The majority of those who may benefit from open education need practical on-site support to give them the necessary skills and provide them with friendly advice and encouragement on the way. So open online education must be complemented by on-site practical support to be fully effective. If the courses are in English the students may be able to read and understand the material but would benefit from support groups where they can discuss the concepts and issues in their own language. Language support groups will also be necessary add-ons and the TraMOOC initiative is already translating many popular courses into a variety of languages. Many organisations are already providing such services and there is a growing movement of MOOC meetups around the world where MOOC learners help each other and get support from local educators.

Effective online learning starts, ironically enough, with face-to-face support and community building. As the learners gain in confidence and skills they can navigate the online space for themselves but that initial scaffolding is essential.

You may be interested in a couple of webinars we have organised in the MOONLITE project, both of which feature prominent initiatives involving open education and refugees.

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