Designing digital learning for refugees | LE Campus Learn, Share, Connect

In May, for the first time ever, the world reached a heartbreaking record of 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. At least 30 million of these displaced people are refugees, the majority of whom are in protracted displacement, residing in a country of asylum for five years or more.

With generations of young people having spent their entire lives in refugee communities, education is often presented as the optimal route for young people seeking pathways to economic independence. However, a myriad of barriers such as limited infrastructure, movement and/or education restrictions, and significant opportunity costs exist for refugee learners, resulting in only 5% of refugees participate in higher education.

As models of high-quality online and digital learning evolve around the world, colleges and universities should consider how they can leverage lessons learned during the pandemic to further expand access to hard-to-reach populations. such as refugees in camps, settlements and urban areas around the world.

Below are some critical considerations for higher education institutions (HEIs) to keep in mind when developing digital resources for refugee learners.

Take stock of university capacity and build on institutional strengths

Are there existing digital assets at your university that require little to no content revision, are contextually relevant, and can be quickly delivered to a new population of learners? If so, consider piloting these assets with the target population and use what you learn to iterate on the existing course and inform new curriculum developments. Note that not all content can be reused for a new population – there are linguistic and cultural specifics to consider – but you may find that there are existing courses that require minimal adjustments and therefore can be prioritized.

Consult stakeholders

Maintain regular dialogue with learners, partners and peers to identify existing gaps and opportunities in the provision of higher education to refugees. Move around the program areas to better understand the conditions under which your courses are delivered. Face-to-face conversations with partners build trust, while talking directly to learners gives a first-hand account of their goals and interests. By asking learners about their long-term goals, your program team can design lesson sequences and pathways that facilitate those goals.

Regularly engage in conversations with peer institutions to 1) stay abreast of important developments in the field of higher education for refugees; 2) share lessons learned; and 3) collaborate to increase the number and quality of higher education opportunities. This Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website maintains a database of current scholarships and university programs for refugees, updated regularly as new opportunities arise. The Consortium for Connected Learning in Crisis (CLCC) website is another resource for practitioners with clear guidelines for providing high-quality blended/connected higher education programs for refugees around the world.

After consulting with stakeholders, you should be able to answer the following questions: 1) What do learners want? 2) Are the potential courses relevant to the local context and workforce? 3) What skills and qualifications will students have after completing the study program? 4) What are the next steps for students after completing the course or path?

Integrate technology appropriately

Make sure you understand the technical specifications of your digital assets and if they are compatible with the technical capacity of your partner organizations and future students. This means knowing how learners will use digital or online materials – will learners go to computer labs to take lessons? What are the specifications of the computers in this lab? Is the software up to date, allowing your online content to work seamlessly? Is the internet capable of accommodating the kind of digital assets you have incorporated into the courses? Are there any third-party integrations that might fail if a certain bandwidth threshold is not reached?

The answers to these questions have a colossal impact on digital course design. If there is a shortage of laptops or computers, consider the impact of device sharing on student performance. For example, you can incorporate cheating protections into the course design. If most of your learners use a mobile device to access content, instructional designers can incorporate more interactive knowledge checks rather than writing assignments. In this way, content delivery complements the mode of learning.

Cultivate a continuous feedback loop

Provide learners with ways to share honest feedback about the digital resource. Most learning management systems (LMS) offer several ways to facilitate this feedback. Consider creating pre-course surveys that capture student expectations, motivation, and confidence levels as they embark on a learning journey through your course. Post-course surveys can collect specific feedback on the design, execution, strengths and weaknesses of digital content, and whether student expectations were met. This is also an opportunity to capture suggestions that would improve the overall course experience and contextual relevance of content for diverse student populations. Also provide systems to collect feedback from other relevant collaborators.

Partner with other universities or organizations to fill content gaps

While higher education for refugees takes many forms and is pursued for a myriad of reasons, the majority of digital higher education opportunities currently available to young refugees are short courses or one-to-one courses that do not lead to not necessarily on a university degree. While a certificate, badge, or other credential can provide immediate benefits to the student, especially among employers, higher education digital resources need to be created with a view to awarding credentials.

It can be difficult for a university to adapt to designing and offering a tailor-made curriculum for refugees, so it may be incumbent on higher education institutions serving refugees to design new courses more quickly. by combining digital assets from multiple universities into a sequence that satisfies accreditation requirements in a given field. A strong program can be modular and stackable – with students progressing and acquiring new skills with each course completion, and the possibility of earning a degree if academic requirements are met.

Cross-sectoral collaboration is key

Underlying this set of recommendations is the humble recognition that, while universities have an abundance of technical capacity and expertise, scaling up these tools in refugee-hosting contexts requires a nuanced. By learning from and building on the multitude of cross-sectoral actors in this space, each university has a valuable role to play in our common goal of helping refugee students achieve their educational ambitions.

Nicholas Sabato is Senior Director and Joanna Zimmerman is Associate Director, Education for Humanity at Arizona State University.

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