Online Study Scheme Gives Refugee Students A Degree Of Hope


InZone operation run in a place as small as a cabin container - Photo by Courtesy InZone InZone operation run in a place as small as a cabin container - Photo by Courtesy InZone

Photo : Mohammad Hawari/UNHCR

Qusai, 27, is Syrian refugee who has lived at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan for four years. Desperate to continue learning, his opportunity came in the form of a degree-level history course.

War brought an abrupt end to Qusai's efforts to become a lawyer. He had been in the first year of a law degree course at university in Dara'a when violence broke out in the southern Syrian city at the start of the country's civil conflict in 2011.

In 2013, he and his family fled to Jordan and ended up in the remote refugee camp of Azraq. There, Qusai's hopes of continuing his education seemed to evaporate.

Desperate to keep on learning, he signed up for every informal class he could find - English, computing, even mobile phone repair. Unable to afford the fees or secure a visa to study in a third country, the idea of finishing his degree remained out of reach.

That was when he heard about an initiative called InZone, backed by the University of Geneva and offering a degree-level history course devised by Princeton University in the United States.

"There were prestigious institutions involved and I really wanted to take it."

"I hadn't thought about studying history before but there were prestigious institutions involved and I really wanted to take it," Qusai said.

Enrolment in tertiary, or third-stage, education has been rising worldwide - 36 percent in 2016, compared with 34 percent a year earlier, but for 99 percent of refugees, access to university and other forms of tertiary education remains out of reach.

Qusai, 27, Syrian Refugee - Photo Mohammad Hawari_UNHCR.

The demand is clearly there. In 2016, more than 4,300 refugees received DAFI scholarships, the higher education programme provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency and supported by Germany, to seek tertiary education in 37 host countries, an increase of almost 90 percent compared with 2015. However, for tens of thousands more, fees, distance and the difficulty of completing secondary education conspired to shut them out.

InZone shows how higher education can be available to those who may not normally have access to it. First established in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp in 2010, the initiative reached Azraq in September 2016 with the Princeton history course.

Now an engineering course provided by another US institution, Purdue University, is also available. Classroom sessions are held in a computer lab funded by UNHCR and run by the non-governmental organization CARE International.

"Being connected to the outside world of academia makes you feel part of something bigger."

James Casey, a doctoral candidate in modern Syrian history at Princeton, was one of the online tutors for the Azraq course. He says that, unlike normal online or correspondence courses where retention rates are often low, the InZone approach is to promote regular engagement between tutors and students, whether online, face-to-face or via social media. That is how to keep them "engaged and on track", he said.

Cover of UNHCR 2017 report on refugee education, Left Behind Refugee Education in Crisis.

Course tutors and professors try to visit students in the camp at the start and end of term, in the first case to hold selection exams and introduce those selected to the course, and later to oversee an end-of-course workshop and final exams.

InZone shows how higher education can be available to those who may not normally have access to it. First established in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp in 2010, the initiative reached Azraq in September 2016 with the Princeton history course.

Now an engineering course provided by another US institution, Purdue University, is also available. Classroom sessions are held in a computer lab funded by UNHCR and run by the non-governmental organization CARE International.

"Being connected to the outside world of academia makes you feel part of something bigger."

Photo from UNHCR 2017 report on refugee education, Left Behind Refugee Education in Crisis.

Besides the computer lab, students use mobile devices to study and can have access to material on USB flash drives when the Internet is unavailable. Tutor groups are set up on the WhatsApp instant messaging service to enable communication between students and teachers even when connectivity is limited.

The course kept Qusai intellectually stimulated and gave him hope.

"Studying with top universities and being connected to the outside world of academia makes you feel part of something bigger, not just a number in a refugee camp," he said.

It also opened fresh perspectives. "We learned about how the countries of Europe rebuilt after World War Two, and that gave me hope that we can do the same in Syria."

Photo from UNHCR 2017 report on refugee education, Left Behind Refugee Education in Crisis.

InZone is a higher education programme of the University of Geneva operating in fragile contexts such as refugee camps. The InZone programme pioneers access models to higher education impacting thousands of refugees eligible to enter university in the Horn of Africa, MENA, and those on the move.

Access to digital learning not only empowers refugees but promotes building back better their country.

The displacement of hundreds of thousands of individuals fleeing violence in their home countries has resulted in a refugee crisis that will affect an entire generation of young children. To ensure that refugee children and youths still receive an education, a number of universities around the world have started piloting connected learning programs. These are virtual courses and are low-cost.

InZone's student - Photo by courtesy InZone.

These virtual courses are more than just regular, online courses that students complete individually. They follow a model of connected learning, which means that a number of students gather in a single place to learn together through a mix of online and face-to-face tutoring.

InZone and the University of Geneva have collaborated to pilot a learning hub in the Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya. Known as the "InZone-University of Geneva learning hub," the physical structure is about the size of a truck container. Its roof is covered in solar panels.

These panels power the computers and an air-conditioning system. The air-conditioning provides a comfortable environment for students, while also preventing the computers from overheating in the extremely hot climate.

The UNHCR has decided to expand this model of connected learning to help educate even more refugees. By partnering with accredited higher education institutions, the UNHCR has facilitated a new consortium of connected learning in higher education.

In Nairobi, Kenya in February 2014, UNHCR hosted a roundtable about connected higher learning programs for refugees. In December 2015, the UNHCR co-hosted a workshop with InZone in Geneva, Switzerland. Funded by the Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC) programme, the workshop hammered out the details of the consortium's framework.

Australian Catholic University (ACU), Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER), InZone-University of Geneva, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, Kenyatta University, Kepler, Moi University, PEIC, UNHCR, and the VodaFone Foundation were all in attendance at the workshop.

Human-centred design.

Pairing accredited higher learning institutions with virtual learning hubs will allow refugee students access to secondary and post-secondary education, as well as the credentials that come with an accredited higher education institution. Refugees will be able to receive degree, degree credits, or diplomas from universities.

In an article published by University World News, Barbara Moser-Mercer, the director of InZone, remarks that the consortium will "widen opportunities for refugees because collaboration may enable them to navigate from one provider to another knowing that credentials obtained with one provider will be recognized by another. So it creates virtual mobility, making credits portable, and guaranteeing new learning pathways."

The consortium will also allow refugee students to virtually interact and learn with students from partnering institutions.

Through Connected Learning Universities Educate Refugees - Photo Flickr.

Moser-Mercer remarks that "in the refugee context meaning is created through collaboration, discussion, working together. It's about refining your ideas and arguments not just with peers and fellow refugees in the learning hub, but also with students who are not necessarily in a refugee context but are taking the same course at other universities elsewhere."

As more and more refugees leave their home countries in hopes of better futures, these education innovations become increasingly important. Providing refugees with access to credible, quality education will prevent an entire generation of displaced people from being left behind as the rest of the world zooms along.


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