Solutions to Refugee Barriers to Education

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Addressing the Needs of Refugees in Protracted Situations through Online Learning

UNESCO believes that education is a human right for all throughout life and that access must be matched by quality.”

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Social Justice in Educational Technology

Within the discipline of Educational Technology, there has been a fairly recent call to attend to the need for social justice within this body of research (Selwyn, 2006). Previously, the trajectory focusing on social issues has often been the purview of other disciplines within the Social Sciences such as Sociology and Political Science. However, Selwyn (2006) encourages “critical” thinking about Educational Technology. He states, “the academic study of educational technology has grown to be dominated by an (often abstracted) interest in the processes of how people can learn with digital technology” (p. 66). He goes on to say that it is imperative that, “researchers and writers [should be] showing a keener interest in the social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts within which educational technology use (and non-use) is located” (p. 66). While Selwyn’s claim was published over ten years from the writing of this text, the need has grown exponentially and the corpus of this important subject is anemic at best.

Another more recent piece of research that addresses the need for social justice work within Educational Technology is by Gutiérrez and Jurow (2016). Using the framework of social design experimentation, the authors assert that there can be research that has the express purpose of promoting the needs of underserved populations. The key to this approach is that it uses educational principles and opportunities to serve the wider social and community issues as well as addressing the obstacles to equality and justice. Straight to the point, they argue, “what sets social design experimentation apart as an approach is that it seeks a design process that strives to be a part of the process of fundamental social transformation”  (p. 566). The idea is also that underserved populations have their own paths through education based on the challenges of being a marginalized group as well as using this design to open up ways to work through these difficulties (Gutiérrez et al., 2016).  

Another principle as discussed by Gutiérrez et al. (2016) is that individuals – especially those that are the focus of social design experimentation – are part of a larger historical context. Understanding how their unequal place in society has shaped their lives, and how that knowledge can be used beneficially, uses inequity to solve the problem of itself (Gutiérrez et al., 2016).

Higher Education in the Camps

At the same time that there is a need for more attention to be paid to social justice within Educational Technology, there is a parallel educational crisis within the field of Sociology that deserves special attention. While refugee studies has a significant history, because of the increase of protracted refugee situations is a newer phenomenon (Zeus, 2011) and online learning is also a recent educational advancement, the confluence of e-learning in refugee encampments has seen few research studies. As of this date, there are no published studies that look at online learning for refugees in protracted situations within the discipline of Educational Technology or Online Learning.  The few published studies have been in journals within the discipline of the sociological perspective of refugee situations, (Crea, 2016; Crea & McFarland, 2015; MacLaren, 2012). Other sources of information from a sociological perspective include Master’s theses (Hakami, 2016) and commissioned reports (Dahya, 2016). While there have been no published studies within Educational Technology, there have been few within Sociology as well.

Article 26 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that education is a basic human right. This also holds equally true for refugees. Hakami (2016) states these rights and their consequences, in regards to the authored study, very clearly:

This study recognizes the essential importance of equality of opportunity when it comes to education, and sees improving access to higher education for refugees as an obligation for ensuring human rights and preventing a great loss of human potential. (p. 7)

The UN has also recently declared tertiary education an equal part of this fundamental right (UNHCR, 2012). Refugees have lost much of what makes life stable and purposeful. Attention to this emergency should be immediate and sustained until there is a satisfactory resolution. Dahya (2016) states, “education is a human right with important implications for health, livelihood, and peace building in contexts of conflict and crisis” (p. 5). In refugee situations education is not a means to an end, but rather a piece of multifaceted solution to a sad crisis with little hope of quick resolution.

Because historically refugee camps have been seen as temporary, and the end goal is often repatriation, education and tertiary education, in particular, has not been a priority in encampments (Hakami, 2016; MacLaren, 2012). Sadly though, many of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide will spend years in refugee camps (UNHCR, n.d.), hence the unfortunate need for the phrase protracted refugee encampments. Ongoing war and conflict, and generally unstable and unsafe political situations, make the likelihood of refugees returning to their home country in a timely manner doubtful (MacLaren, 2012). Because most of the protracted refugee camps are in developing countries (Dahya, 2016), that leaves this already vulnerable population especially in need of aid and support from the more privileged and wealthy societies.  

Historically, education in refugee camps has been focused on the needs of children and primary and secondary education (Hakami, 2016, MacLaren, 2012). However, because refugees can now spend years and even decades in camps, providing higher education is becoming an urgent necessity. While there is an obvious need for primary education for all refugees, the protracted status of many displaced people transforms a right to higher education into a life saving tool for the future. The concentration on primary education is a reflection of how refugee situations are originally intended to be temporary (Hakami, 2016). This perspective, unfortunately, does not reflect what is happening on the ground in refugee camps. Host countries resist integrating refugees into the their population because of fear of loss of jobs and resources for their citizens (Zeus, 2011), which contributes to the elongated timeframe for refugees initially looking for a temporary haven. Hakami explains:

refugees end up in these situations because of a prolonged situation of violence, persecution and/or insecurity in their country of origin, and the unwillingness /inability of the host country to offer citizenship rights and facilitate integrations into the host country.  (p. 12)

If the illusion of temporariness is not addressed, then higher education will, understandably, not be a priority.

Benefits of Tertiary Education

The evidence does not provide a lot of reason to be optimistic about a happy ending for refugees in protracted situations. While these people have had to flee their homes under the fear for their lives and imminent physical harm, there is some hope that it is possible to provide a foundation to build a future for themselves through education. It is not only the possibility of building a life that a well paying job can provide, Zeus (2011) says that education has an, “important role in psychosocial, but also physical and cognitive protection” and “can play a role in helping communities understand and cope with their fate and can be a critical part of providing meaning in life” (p. 257). Hakami (2016) emphasizes that education can build psychological support which fosters higher functioning which then provides more foundational psychological support. Those are significant reasons to provide at least a bare minimum of higher education. More would be better.

The positive benefits of education on the mental health of the refugees can not be overstated. In situations where basic necessities such as food, clean water and basic physical safety are inconsistent at best (Crea at al., 2015), the burden of the reality of living in – and often growing up in – protracted encampments requires a deep reservoir of internal strength. Education can help supplement that reservoir.  Crea et al. (2015) quotes a student in regards to the student’s experience in the refugee camp, “I’m also a human being; working hard and trying hard to achieve what I want to achieve; the first thing is change my attitude and be seen and treated as a human being” (p. 241). Building confidence as well as the development of critical thinking skills are two consequences of the pursuit of higher education (MacLaren, 2012).

Often the voices of the refugees themselves are unrepresented in research on these complex displacement situations. However, Hakami (2016) focuses on these voices and shows that refugees’ futures are not simply informed by kismet, but rather they have the desire for agency and volition of their own. When given the chance, refugees speak of the opportunities that education can provide through work (Hakami, 2016). But beyond that obvious benefit, they also talk about how education can help them to fit more easily into the host culture, as well as allow them to give back to their home country, if they return (Hakami, 2016).

While refugee situations continue to stagnate, Hakami (2016) argues that education can be a means of resolving protracted situations. Hakami (2016) points out that better educated refugees can contribute to society whether that is upon their return home, in the host culture or in an entirely different placement. Education provides more opportunities to contribute to the workforce, thus requiring the refugees to need less financial and social support in their ultimate country of return or relocation (Hakami, 2016). Educated immigrants contribute more to society in general and have a positive impact on sectors such as the government, physical health of the society and the economy (Hakami, 2016). Perhaps most importantly, the refuges believe that the educational skill that they develop will allow them more options in their future (Crea, 2015).

There are also multiple advantages for the refugees while they remain in the camps (Crea, 2015). The refugees that have been through tertiary education are seen as role models for their fellow refugees (Crea, 2015).  In addition to being seen as contributing a positive influence to the camp, the educated see themselves as giving back (Hakami, 2016). They are not simply a disempowered group without a country that they can call home; they are part of a community that they are contributing to in a positive way. The educated can also find possible employment in the camps (Hakami, 2016) and education provides structure and support in a very unstructured and unstable environment.

Online Learning in the Camps

The reason that there are so few research studies which look at online learning in protracted refugees situations is the result of the domino effect. One situation affects another and the result is that there is little research in this area. Refugee situations were never intended to be long-term (Dahya, 2016), thus there is no focus on higher education (MacLaren, 2012), as a result, there is little to no funding (MacLaren, 2012), and then there are few programs and if there are only a few programs, then there can not be a rich body of research. However, more recently there have been a few tertiary programs that are either blended or online in these situations. The following will discuss each program, and look carefully at the research that was written about each.

The earliest program of higher education in a protracted refugee situation that used online learning was a blended program in a camp in Thailand that began in 2002 (MacLaren, 2012). According to MacLaren (2012) refugees had fled Burna because of intense political unrest that had been part of the, “longest-running civil war in the world” (p. 103). After considerable planning by Australian Catholic University, a previously successful online program was adjusted for the situation in in the Thai refugee camp and enrolled its first twenty-one students (MacLaren, 2012). Seventeen of those students graduated with the program’s diploma in Business Administration. A subsequent program granted a certificate in Theology to five students in 2009 (MacLaren, 2012).

MacLaren (2012) gives an overview of the research that was undertaken by Simon Purnell by request of ACU and their committee that initiated the program called Refugee Tertiary Education Committee in 2006. The biggest weakness in this study is that there is no direct access to the research – it was commissioned by the body that paid for the program – therefore, it was also not part of the peer-review process. However, it does seem – although this is not clarified in the article – that there is an independent researcher who conducted the research.  The other major weakness in the overview on this study is that there is only a single sentence that describes Purnell’s methodology. Purnell used several focus groups and a questionnaire, but it is unknown how many students participated or what the content of the questionnaire would have been. These are all deep flaws in the transparency of this work.

A later study was done in 2009 (MacLaren, 2012). Although, however weak the previous review of the work had been done, there is even less concrete information on which to gain an objective view of the quality of the more recent study. In this work the researcher or commissioned body is not even mentioned.

The methodology, however, deserves considerable respect for the attention it paid to the needs of the people being studied. This included an intentionally casual approach to gathering research by a previously termed “hanging out” method (MacLaren, 2012). This procedure was used because of the habit of researchers in the camps to use the students for their own purpose of research then leave little evidence that there real concern for them as people (MacLaren, 2012).  Another common problem within this body of research is the lack of always finding students because of the transient nature of refugee camps, which is seen in this research. In this case, thirteen of the eighteen students contributed to the research (MacLaren, 2012).

While these studies are far from the standard of academic integrity, it appears that may not be the major concern of ACU. A pilot program was implemented for a group of people that have lost the attention of the international community – which tends to fund and implement these endeavors. If there is progress toward implementing much needed educational structure, then perhaps solid academic procedure should come second.

The second of three online programs that has taken place in refugee camps was implemented in Kenya in 2014 (Abdi, 2016). This undertaking was a collaborative effort on behalf of several Canadian (York University and University of British Columbia) and Kenyan (Kenyatta University and Moi University) universities (Abdi, 2016) collectively calling the project Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER). The major focus in this program was teacher training (Abdi, 2016). The purpose of this concentration was twofold. First, it created employment opportunities for refugees upon repatriation or immigration to another country (Abdi, 2016). Second, it intended to create a greater resource for education within the camps (Abdi, 2016). If there were more teachers, then more students could be reached. More importantly, teacher training with refugees moves the historically colonialized educational system to education that implements principles and values based on the pre-colonized culture (Abdi, 2016).

The greatest strength of this study is the ability of the researcher to recognize and address the needs of the students. Abdi (2016) addresses very poignantly the purpose for this research and the affect it has had personally:

The data used in this article draws on research conducted for my doctoral dissertation, which explores the role of education in post-conflict societies, such as that of Somalia, in bringing about sustainable peace and justice. As an educator and researcher who grew up in a relatively peaceful Somalia, I am haunted by questions about how education can be used as a vehicle to reimagine peace and unity in my homeland. (p. 22)

Other areas of effectiveness of this work include – while qualitative like the other studies – several types of data collection including, “semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, observations and written notes” (p. 22).

To the great benefit of this body of research, Abdi (2016) has taken into consideration the social justice issues that should be a concern of researchers in the field. However, the methodology of this study is less than supportive of a rigorous and thorough study. Within the article, there is only a single paragraph that even addresses methodology, and there are only two related sentences within that paragraph. We are told that there are nineteen participants, the use of Critical Pedagogy is used for data analysis, that it is a qualitative study and we are given the research gathering methods. We are not given any other information on the participants or the type of or specific questions that are asked. These areas could be more extensively addressed as well as having a larger participant group.

Additional programs were set up in Kenyan camps (called Dadaab and Kakuma and another in Nairobi) by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) with several iterations (Wright et al., 2010). The first was on an undisclosed date but in partnership with the University of South Africa (Wright et al., 2010). A second program began in 2010 through JRS with several Jesuit universities, and a final program in 2011 [I realize these dates are incongruent. Perhaps there is a later edition of this study?], with the University of Denver, Colorado (Wright et al., 2010). The problems with this program centered on the weaknesses of the infrastructure, mainly that the Internet was so slow that it was essentially unusable (Wright et al., 2010). Later changes were made that significantly improved the Internet speed (Wright et al., 2010). No specific positive results were given in this study of the online learning because the focus was a general look at the positive effects of higher education.

The methodology for the Wright and Plasterer (2010) study was stronger than in the previously mentioned studies. Qualitative data was collected from fifteen interviews from “representatives” of organizations participating in running the camps (Wright et al., 2010). However, there was an intention to gather opinions from people that hold a variety of educational roles in the camps (Wright et al., 2010). This description from Wright et al. (2010) details the exact nature of the data collected, “Triangulation was used through the collection of ‘rich data’ in the form of verbatim transcripts and in situ observation from two different camp settings, along with primary and secondary documentary research” (p 45).

The major weakness of this study – as noted by the authors – is the lack of student voices (Wright et al., 2010). The researchers intentionally choose this method because it protected the refugees from feeling taken advantage of, which was a developing pattern with researchers in the camps (Wright et al., 2010). As a consequence, we do not hear directly from the students, yet they are protected from any exploitation. Wright et al. (2010) also noted the possible biased nature of the feedback from organizers rather than students.

Perhaps the most thorough studies conducted on online programs are performed by Thomas Crea. His first work appears to be a follow-up to the program that Wright et al. (2010) attended to in the Kenyan camp called Kakuma –  although there were additional locations added to the 2010 – 2014 program.  The focus of this study was to look at the effectiveness of the pilot project objectives (Crea et al., 2015). The objectives were to provide adequate Internet service, provide online tertiary and community service programs – for which the students were expected to be graduated by the end of the pilot. The results indicated that the objectives were all successful to some degree (Crea et al., 2015).

This is the first piece of research that focuses exclusively on a specific online program rather than including higher education in refugee camps in a more general way.  And the first step in looking closely at this program would be to address the effectiveness of the program objectives, which is precisely what Crea et al. do (2015). Their methodologies are meticulous. This is also the first study that uses quantitative data. Crea et al. explain the procedure of coding data, “to produce a grounded theory of the [students’] perceptions and understandings“ (p. 240). It included both administrators and students for a total of 122 participants over the three locations and two programs (Crea et al., 2015). Data was taken from 22 focus group discussions and gender demographics were also included (Crea et al., 2015).

Crea’s (2016) follow-up study looked more closely at the urgently needed students’ perspective of their experience with tertiary education in the camps. Crea also, “examine[d] survey data collected from these students related to their quality of life, and compare[d] these data with their assessments of higher education as a means of exploring the context of their education” (p. 12). It appears that the same group of participants was used in the 2016 study as in the previous 2015 study.  Again, there was quantitative data that was used as well as additional qualitative data (Crea, 2016). Participants were given a quality of life survey as well as participated in focus groups. The combination of both qualitative and quantitative research provides evidence of a well-structured study.

The results indicate that the participants valued education because of the skills gained and, “feelings of empowerment, related to their expanded worldview” (Crea, 2016, p. 16).  One of the greatest perceived benefits for the students was the support they could provide for their communities because as educated people, they were held to a higher standard of respect (Crea, 2016). Students appreciated the opportunity to have access to education, which they might not have had access to otherwise, in addition to a chance to learn English (Crea, 2016). As is expected with any educational program, there were weaknesses. There was an obvious cultural bias in the class materials because the books were published in North America (Crea, 2016). Communication with instructors tended to be inconsistent and students had common difficulties aligning the expectations of the instructor with the realities of living in refugee camps (Crea, 2016). Most importantly, students struggled because basic necessities were often lacking including food and clean water (Crea, 2016). Crea (2016) made program recommendations based on several of these areas.

A third study was undertaken by Crea and Sparnon (under review) within the same previously noted program. To follow a thorough investigation of the JC:HEM [I’m not sure how clear I’ve been on the make up of this program and may need to explain in more detail.] program, this study examined the perspectives of faculty and people facilitating the program (Crea et al., under review). Participants were interviewed and given a survey and 43% completed at least part of the survey (Crea et al., under review). Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used (Crea et al., under review). Overall, the response from faculty and staff was that the program had positive effects on the students’ lives (Crea et al., under review). A central theme that came from both staff and faculty was the need and importance of good communication throughout the length of the program (Crea et al., under review).

One of the weaknesses of this study was the low response rate to the survey. It was also not articulated as to why interviews were used for staff and a survey was used for instructors. Although, both of these criticisms could be attributed to the instance of using volunteer instructors and the difficult logistics of communicating with students in a sub-Saharan refugee camps.

Possible Areas for Future Study

There are several areas within this oeuvre that, if addressed, would provide a more well rounded knowledge base. The obvious first area would be a study that is published, and has undergone the process of peer review, from research within the discipline of Educational Technology. Sociology has gifted us with some preliminary yet strong research in which to base future inquiry.

Second, more qualitative studies would contribute to the majority of the qualitative research done thus far. It would also be beneficial to have larger groups of participants. It is unfortunate, but understandable, that the previous researchers constructed their work as they did. Within refugee camps, the population is understandably transient, the infrastructure is weak and inconsistent so tracking students and gathering quantitative data and getting feedback from large groups of students is problematic. Therefore, while not impossible, these pieces of research are to be expected.

A strong area to add an Educational Technology contribution to this field would be to find a missing piece for which online learning can fill a hole in the already existing Sociological literature. Some possible directions of interest might be: using online learning design to focus on the educational needs of women, designing instruction that is more culturally sensitive and supportive of the cultures in which the instruction takes place and designing ESL classes to supplement the other classes in the programs.

Works Cited

Abdi, F. A. (2016). Behind Barbed Wire Fences- Higher Education and Twenty-first Century Teaching in Dadaab, Kenya. Bildhaan- An International Journal of Somali Studies, 16(1), 8.

Crea, T. M., & Sparnon, N. (under review). Democratizing education at the margins: Faculty and practitioner perspectives on delivering online tertiary education for refugees.

Crea, T. M. (2016). Refugee higher education: Contextual challenges and implications for program design, delivery, and accompaniment. International Journal of Educational Development, 46, 12-22.

Crea, T. M., & Mcfarland, M. (2015). Higher education for refugees: Lessons from a 4-year pilot project. International Review of Education, 61(2), 235-245. doi:10.1007/s11159-015-9484-y

Dahya, N. & Dryden-Peterson, S. (2016). Education in Conflict and Crisis: How Can Technology Make a Difference? A Landscape Review. Germany: Deutsche Gesellschaft für

Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

Gutiérrez, K. D. & Jurow, S. A. (2016): Social Design Experiments: Toward Equity by Design. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 565-598. DOI:10.1080/10508406.2016.1204548

Hakami, A. (2016). Education is our weapon for the future: Access and non-access to higher education for refugees in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from:

MacLaren, D. (2012). Tertiary education for refugees: a case study from the Thai– Burma border. Refuge, 27(2), 103–110.

Selwyn, N. (2010), Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 65–73. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00338.x

UNHRC. (n.d.).

Wright, L. & Plasterer, W. (2010). Beyond basic education: exploring opportunities for higher learning in Kenyan refugee camps. Refuge 27(2), 42–57.

Zeus, B. (2011). Exploring Barriers to Higher Education in Protracted Refugee Situations: The Case of Burmese Refugees in Thailand. Journal of Refugee Studies 24(2), 256-276. doi:10.1093/jrs/fer011

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