Study suggests viable ways to expand HE for refugees

By using on-site tutors and learning communities, massive open online courses or MOOCs can be successfully adapted to support the expansion of access to higher education to refugees in fragile situations and maintain learner motivation, a study carried out in refugee camps and urban settings in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East has found.

While virtual mentoring did not appear to enhance learners’ chances to succeed in the course, a combination of virtual tutoring and mentoring and on-site tutoring significantly influenced the outcome for all learners, the study concluded.

“The significant quantitative results that this study provides will hopefully encourage course providers to invest in this critical dimension of learner support,” the author, Barbara Moser-Mercer, said. “Of particular note is the success of female learners in camp settings where on-site tutor support has been provided.”

This outcome may also provide important information with regard to the design and funding of bridging programmes that will allow refugee learners to be mainstreamed into the host country’s higher education system.

Moser-Mercer, director of InZone, a centre of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, presented the findings at a workshop on "Delivering Higher Education to Syrian Refugees”, hosted by Al-Fanar Media, on 1-2 March in Istanbul, Turkey.

Qualitative results of the study further describe and emphasise the major difficulties that refugee learners have in accessing MOOCs, such as handling multiple-choice-question-based quizzes, bandwidth-heavy videos, links to further learner material embedded in videos that require students to surf for extended periods of time and so need continuous connectivity, and the level of English – because most MOOCs are available only in English.


Moser-Mercer said that while the study did not specifically address the question of credentialling open educational resources or OERs, the different requirements set for session-based courses (starting and ending on specific dates) and OnDemand versions (accessible at any time with no deadline) and the way learners navigated these, provide important information as to how such credentialling may have to be approached in future.

The study was intended to enhance understanding of the potential for MOOCs to offer non-formal higher education opportunities to learners in fragile contexts. It gathered qualitative and quantitative data regarding constraints encountered by learners in different settings with different levels of fragility.

It was carried out with Somali and Syrian refugees in urban settings in Nairobi, Kenya and Amman, Jordan; and in refugee camps in Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya and in Za’atari, Jordan; and in a migrant community in Tripoli, Lebanon.

The aim was to inform the production and running of MOOCs specifically geared to fragile contexts and to provide evidence of their potential as building blocks for connected learning, the term the UN Refugee Agency or UNHCR, uses for higher education provision in which students gather in one place to create a learning community and study online with the help of both online tutors, a resident facilitator and visiting teachers.

Moser-Mercer is working with UNHCR to create a consortium of providers of connected learning in higher education for refugees to share expertise, develop best practice and encourage the scaling up of provision.

Key questions investigated by the study included:
  • • Which categories of constraint – technological, linguistic, cultural – represent the biggest barriers to learners in fragility interested in using MOOC-style courses to further their education;
  • • Are there differences between urban and camp settings, between refugees of different culture and language, tutored and non-tutored, male and female with regard to learning successes?
  • • What local strategies were found to overcome these constraints?
Technological challenges in such settings may include uncertain electricity supply or equipment supply, connectivity and the impact of dust, particularly in hot dry countries. Cultural challenges could include intellectual approaches, or cultural practices such as not questioning the teacher or not accepting peer grading. Linguistic challenges include the level of proficiency in the language of instruction – in this case English, although InZone also supports Arabic speakers in its courses – and ability to understand shades of meaning.

InZone hopes the study’s findings will contribute to efforts to find a way to meet the massive unmet demand for higher education for refugees. Less than 1% of refugees of university-going age have access to higher education worldwide compared to 32% of the global population.

The study argues that over the past five years digital learning that has accompanied the development of open educational resources in general and MOOCs in particular has held out the promise of “extraordinary reach and rapid scaling” in even the most destitute of settings.

But to this day the situation is “skewed to the developed world” and those who already hold university degrees, and with more than half of MOOCs being offered in English, to those “whose proficiency in English allows them to engage with learning material that remains non-contextualised to their culture and region".

It is essential not to conflate access with engagement, because access if it exists in developing countries does not equate with linguistic, cultural and intellectual access, nor engagement. There needs to be a focus on the quality of the higher education experience offered, the study says.

The study represents a pioneering attempt to establish which additional factors would enable provision of blended forms of higher education learning to be used to reach refugee and marginal communities and ensure the quality is high enough for students living in difficult circumstances to remain motivated and complete courses successfully.

Moser-Mercer continues Barakat and Milton’s argument* when speaking of the responsibility to protect and rebuild higher education. She says you can’t build quality overnight and argues that the traditional division between humanitarian [intervention] and development cannot be maintained when it comes to higher education, which by definition is a long-term endeavour.

In other words, universities have a role to play as humanitarian actors, but not if they impose solutions off the shelf from one context onto another. They can contribute by carrying out research into the optimum methods for ensuring higher education provision makes a positive impact as well as helping to deliver courses with contextualised curricula.

“If we want the Syrians of tomorrow, and other refugee learners for that matter, to return and rebuild better [lives], they need to be empowered to do so, not by copying Western models, but by being equipped with the skills and competencies to create their own models so as to maintain the richness and diversity of cultures,” Moser-Mercer says.

* Sultan Barakat and Sansom, Houses of Wisdom Matter: The responsibility to protect and rebuild higher education in the Arab World,July 2015, Policy Briefing, Foreign Policy at Brookings

This article was changed on 11 March to correct the reference to Barakat and Sansom.

Brendan O’Malley works as an independent consultant on issues related to higher education for refugees and other aspects of education in conflict, particularly attacks on education. He is also chairman and managing editor of University World News. Email:

University World News will be running a Special Report on higher education for refugees on 13 March.