The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR estimates that globally more than 80 million people are displaced and, exacerbated by climate change and political unrest, that number is projected to grow in the coming years and decades.
Of the 80 million refugees, an estimated 35 million (42%) are below 18 years old. While it is paramount to provide these children with sustainable and valuable education, education for refugees cannot stop at the primary or secondary level. Only 5% of refugees have access to higher education, far below the global average among non-refugees at almost 40%. This risks a “lost generation” of young people, both in terms of individual employability and reconstruction efforts. Even if young refugees arrive in a country where it is technically possible to participate in higher education, language, financial, and legal barriers often prevent them from enrolling at university.
EdTech provides a chance for young refugees to access higher education regardless of their legal and financial status. In recent years, numerous organisations created EdTech offers for refugee learners in the higher education sector. The UNHCR has built The EdTech Program to help displaced and refugee students pursue advanced education online. In addition, start-ups, and initiatives such as Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, a consortium of Canadian and Kenyan universities and NGOs, the NGO Kiron Open Higher Education, or the organisation Kajou have also created online resources for refugees wishing to pursue higher education learning.
While EdTech has immense potential to transform the educational path of refugees, three main issues currently prevent it from becoming a sustainable solution: connectivity, quality of education, and recognition.
The UNHCR estimates that refugee households are two-and-a-half times more likely to not have access to a phone. Even if technical access exists, digital literacy is not a given. To become a viable solution, substantial investments in hardware and infrastructure and foundational digital literacy courses are needed. Learning centers in refugee camps or cities with a high refugee population provide a solution and could also double as social and mentoring spaces. Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, for instance, offers a blended program for refugees and local communities, combining online classes with on-site sessions for first-year courses. Yet, these offline components require investments and personnel, undercutting the cost-effectiveness and scalability of EdTech resources.
Even if refugee students were able to study online in the perfect environment with access to stable internet and digital resources, online education remains a flawed option. Many EdTech initiatives rely on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for their offer. For instance, students participating in the first cohort of the UNHCR’s EdTech Program will study MOOCs offered through the online education platform edX. In theory, MOOCs produced by renowned educational institutions and professors, provide unprecedented access to higher education learning for those unable to enrol at a university. However, the MOOC completion rate often remains in the single digits. An MIT study has shown that the majority of MOOC learners never return after their first year of courses, that most MOOC users are in affluent countries, and that despite several initiatives, MOOC completion rates have not improved in the last six years. To be a viable option, MOOCs should be combined with online and offline resources that create a community of learners. Chatrooms, Zoom-hangouts, online learning groups, or offline meeting spaces can provide the framework for successful MOOC completion.
Accreditation, certification, and recognition also remain key concerns regarding EdTech for refugees. Although the pandemic created a push towards the recognition of online learning, according to a study of refugee learning, many refugees still prefer a formal degree education over non-formal online programs. Without a doubt, this is partly motivated by the fact that online degrees currently cannot compete with degrees from traditional institutions. Organisations such as UNESCO have pushed for greater recognition in their Education 2030: Framework For Action which makes a strong case for online education and EdTech. MOOC providers such as Coursera, edX or Udacity have also worked towards improved recognition of their courses by offering proctored exams, badges, and certificates to make learning and achievements quantifiable.
Despite the varied obstacles, EdTech offers still fill an important gap in refugee education. The pandemic has been instrumental in pushing the quality and recognition of online education forward. Currently, online learning appears to be more of a bandage solution, designed to provide education to communities with little another choice. However, if combined with blended options and supported through recognition efforts, their flexibility, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness provide EdTech solutions with the potential to become a valid education choice for refugees and beyond.