Frugal MOOCs – The future of refugee higher education?

There are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced to date. Conflicts in Syria and other parts of the globe have uprooted millions of people and placed them in unfamiliar locations, with often limited access and means to basic needs, one of which is access to education.

Refugees struggle to get access to high-quality, affordable and relevant educational content, and this often leads to inferior educational outcomes or disengagement. More than half of all refugees are school-aged children and only 50% are enrolled in primary schools. In 2016 for instance, only 30% of more than 252,000 school-age Syrian refugees were enrolled at school.

Globally, it is estimated that only 1% of all refugees have access to higher education. A UNESCO report in 2017 indicated that total participation in tertiary education from Syrians aged 18-24 was at 20% before the war and has dropped to 4.5% in 2017.

There is also evidence that many refugees face serious isolation, even in urban contexts, as they lack opportunities to access relevant adult education, high-speed internet and professional or skills training.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights identified four critical features for education as a human right. Education must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.

Massive open online courses or MOOCs were originally launched to be open and accessible to all. It is undeniable that over the years MOOCs have made access to content possible for hundreds of thousands of students in several nations. However, the majority of these students have not been subjected to dramatic conditions of displacement and do not live in camps which, in many instances, lack infrastructure and quality education opportunities.

MOOCs, rather, have been largely designed for and catered towards ‘knowledgeable’ learners who have sufficient financial resources to afford education. Therefore, courses catering to such displaced learners do not necessarily provide mechanisms for engagement as a means to gain a livelihood and employability.

Frugality for MOOCs

Frugal innovations often originate in resource-poor contexts where people have to leverage resources in new and more affordable ways, and in short ‘do more with less’. Considering these factors, we believe there is a necessity to develop what has been neglected so far, a ‘Frugal MOOC’ model that can be implemented for the increasing groups of refugee learners throughout many parts of Europe, Australasia and the Middle East.

In this model, four elements are critical: Content customisation, local stakeholders, technological infrastructure and green mobile-enabled technologies, and learners’ needs.
  • Content customisation: This involves incorporating content in the local official and vernacular languages that are understandable to refugees as well as providing relevant course materials by adapting the ‘content to the participants’ context’. Unless the content and medium of instruction are aligned with the refugees’ background, language levels, digital capabilities and culture, the impact of MOOCs for those displaced will be very limited.

    A recent article indicated that online higher education was ‘unappealing’ for Syrian refugees. To mitigate such negative outcomes, it is recommended that content is repurposed, discussed and co-produced in direct and close consultation with local host schools, instructors and students.

  • Local stakeholders: Local stakeholders, including both academic, government and other local support institutions, need to be consulted on multiple occasions to ensure that their input on local circumstances and needs underpins appropriate – and acceptable – educational designs.

    Involving local teachers in content development, writing of discussion guides in the local language(s) and facilitation via Facebook or WhatsApp will also encourage the creation of local communities of enquiry, support, learning and practice, which are often the missing link in disadvantaged educational contexts.

    In line with this, avenues of collaboration with local businesses and industries may facilitate course offerings and designs to encourage the growth of employability for refugee learners.

    Close cooperation as equal partners may also help attenuate traditional, cultural and often ancestral hierarchies of authority or superiority and enable greater social integration in the host countries.

  • Technological infrastructure and green mobile-enabled technologies: Research has indicated that, in refugee communities, there are far less opportunities to engage with online technologies due to a lack of quality telecommunication services, the high cost of mobile device access and the lack of sufficient access to computer equipment, private or public.

    There are also issues with identification and storage of digital copies of diplomas, work experience and transcripts, which are currently being tackled by a team of university professionals and human rights professionals at the University of California, Davis with the design of the Article 26 Backpack, in the cloud.

    For displaced learners, particularly in camps, contextualisation requires the use of green mobile-friendly resources. MOOC developers could make use of frugal cost-effective, power efficient low-bandwidth hardware such as Raspberry Pi, pre-loaded content on memory sticks coupled with hard copies, compressed video formats and lightweight apps such as biNu, which could either be pre-loaded in low-end devices or is easily downloadable in slow networks to access content.

    Locally-developed, portable, rechargeable (solar/wind), user-friendly Wi-Fi hotspot technological tools, that support multiple devices with long-lasting battery back-up such as BRCK, are also advocated for refugee camp communities.

  • Refugee learners’ needs: Learners’ direct involvement in culturally and ethnographically informed-design, along with implementation and evaluation, is absolutely critical to ensure interest, accessibility, ‘buy-in’, retention and the sustainability of MOOCs in fragile contexts.

    Due to the state of fluctuation of refugees, the further development of the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, which could include credits gained through MOOCs while on the move, could also help facilitate mobility and access to tertiary institutions across nations.

A third digital divide?

We argue that the inability to access contextualised MOOC content is creating a third digital divide. MOOCs in their current form, shape and design do not socially empower those who most need it in refugee contexts. It is only through a reconceptualisation of MOOC designs, through taking on a frugal approach which is adaptable and contextualised, that the existing barriers of online education for refugees can be opened.

Dr David Santandreu Calonge is manager, academic development, at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea, where he teaches at the International Summer Semesters. Mariam Aman Shah is currently online educational designer at the University of South Australia. Her PhD research (Lancaster University) focuses on sustainability and contextualised MOOCs for learners faced with conditions of poverty, refugees and displaced peoples.