Digital learning in higher education for Refugees

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Role of digital learning in higher education for Refugees and host communities with special reference to COVID-19 Introduction The last decade has seen a variety of natural and manmade disasters that caused emergencies. These include the worst earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, Ebola outbreaks, cyclones, drought, conflict and accidents. The recent covid-19 pandemic was unique. All these emergencies in one way or the other disrupted education at all levels. The school buildings were damaged, teachers and students were displaced, systems were disrupted resultantly schools were forced to close. Among these emergencies, the COVID-19 pandemic, created the largest disruption to education in history (United Nations, 2020), affecting 94% of the world’s student population and 99% of those in low and lower-middle-income countries (UNESCO, 2020). Globally, over 1.2 billion children were out of the classroom (The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever) Schools closed as social distancing measures were put in place to slow the spread of the pandemic. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calculated 25.4 million refugees globally at the end of 2017 (UNHCR, 2018). The number of these refugees and the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) drastically increased during the last few decades (UNHCR, 2016). Major driving forces behind refugee migration at the global and regional levels are socio-political instability, wars, conflicts, and environmental catastrophes (Taftaf and Williams, 2019). Consequently, migration of the refugees takes place within the countries or across the countries/continents (Abbasi and Kraly, 2017). These refugees or migrants face multiple socio-economic challenges in the hosting countries, such as a lack of access to education, health, food, and other supporting social institutions and services (Schneeweis, 2021).

Definition of Digital Learning

Digital learning is any type of learning that is accompanied or facilitated by technology or by instructional practice that makes effective use of technology. It gives individuals some element of control over time, place, path or pace. Digital learning[1] innovations can take the form of digital courseware, core learning technologies, design-based processes, or associated solutions that academic institutions can implement to provide learners with access and/or learning. In other words, it is a learning method based on the use of new digital tools to enable learners to learn in a different way, whether it be face-to-face, distance learning (asynchronous or synchronous) or Blended learning. It is therefore not simply a question of digitizing educational content but of a set of educational methods.

Refugees Students access to higher education

Limited access of refugee students to higher education is one of the most serious issues in the world. This needs the attention of the government and non-government organizations, policymakers, humanitarian experts, and human rights activists (UNESCO, 2020). Due to uncertain socio-economic situations in the refugee’s localities (camps and host communities), some of the refugee students are deprived of receiving formal secondary and tertiary education while those who are seeking higher education face numerous and unique challenges in the hosting countries and their localities (Felix, 2016; Kleist, 2017; Canefe, 2018). It is reflected by the fact that only 3 percent of all refugees worldwide are enrolled in higher education institutions (UNHCR, 2019). Though there is a clear consensus on equitable access to higher education as reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 4), as well as foundational human rights documents including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education[2] (Baderin and McCorquodale, 2007; United Nations General Assembly, 2018). Within these legally binding commitments, refugees’ access to higher education in emergencies (HEiE) is urgently needed particularly in the refugee’s host countries (UNHCR 2019). These refugees host countries are being asked by different humanitarian agencies to provide opportunities for refugee students in the form of scholarships and accessibility to modern communication technologies. In particular, refugees’ access to innovative modern technologies, the internet, and equipment enhance higher education in emergencies (HEiE) through digital learning.

Digital Learning the most feasible option

Digital learning is a widely accepted educational strategy that improves refugees’ access to higher education and develops skills and knowledge needed by migrants and refugees in the host countries (Castaño et al., 2018). Digital learning offers cost-effective and flexible solutions that could be scaled up to provide learning and skills development opportunities to migrants and refugees. The UNHCR (2016), for example, is increasingly considering digital learning to be an important way to bring flexible learning to refugees, particularly in refugee camps. It also recognizes that the effective use of technology and the internet improve tertiary education and is useful for developing skills and competencies that can be immediately useful in the host countries. Along the same lines, the European Commission also specifically emphasized the use of technological advancements and digital learning, as digital learning option provides cost-free materials, courses, and learning opportunities for refugees in emergencies (Lewis and Thacker, 2016).

Social and economic benefits of higher education for refugees

Accessing to higher education is a right for every individual. In different parts communities and societies value people who are pursuing higher education degrees. Higher education certainly performs a huge role in the life of every person, and specially for refugees and migrants. Higher education provides several benefits for refugee individuals and their host countries. Benefits that represent a great value for refugees, hosting country, and home country of refugees, such as social inclusion in the hosting community, development of human capital, and transfer of skills and knowledge, all the mentioned elements before comes to empower refugees and support sustainable solutions. Higher education plays a major role in the development of social and human capital, which forms the basis for social and economic reconstruction and development. The value of higher education comes by the development of human capital, through which refugee students and graduates   contribute to   strengthening   or   rebuilding their communities (Michaela, 2022).[3]

Higher education does not only add benefits the learning individuals, but also it supports the economic sector. Higher education has several positives outcomes regarding other sectors in the society, such as the social sector. Regarding economic development, higher education increases individual earning power and supports the development of knowledge and skills for active participation in the labour market. Higher education provides to the refugees the opportunity the have the successful integration in the host community. it plays a huge role in increasing the capabilities of the refugee in different aspects, by allowing him to be a productive person in the community. Major challenges of refugees in the hosting community are in regards of having a stable work, their integration into the labour market. This operation plays a big role into developing the economic sector in the hosting country. Productive refugees that completed their higher education studies and having proper degrees, they are considered as an active and efficient part in the society, for that reason those active refugees are now self-independence financially, and they are not waiting the aid for the hosting state. Those active refugees will enhance the economic development in the hosting country, because the country will lower the spending of money on refugees (Michaela, 2022).

Regarding the social context, refugees that have the desire to continue and complete their higher education studies will have to join national institutions in the hosting country, for that reason the percentage of refugees that are integrated into the hosting national educational institutions will increase. This integration process would consequently contribute to overall social development in the hosting country. One of the major benefits of higher education of refugees is that it contributes to a healthy and engaged civil society. Higher education qualification positively impacts individuals’ wellbeing, improve health, and reduce health care costs. Healthy and educated refugees are more likely to be actively engaged in societal development (Michaela, 2022).

Challenges of Digital Learning in Higher Education for Refugees

Several studies point to shortcomings of online education offers, such as language barriers (e.g., UNESCO 2018), and too little consideration of the often difficult life situations of refugee students with their many restrictions (Crea 2016; Moonlite 2019). Cultural issues not only arise with regard to learning material (e.g., Crea and Sparnon 2017) but also with regard to online learning pedagogy. Instructional approaches in online courses might contradict mainstream instructional approaches in refugees’ home countries (UNESCO 2018). Moreover, the open nature of a MOOC possibly contradicts the need for some refugees to protect their identities (UNESCO 2018). If MOOCs and other online courses are not integrated into comprehensive curricula and do not provide possibilities to gain credits towards a fully recognized academic degree, they are of less value to refugees (Law 2016; Fincham 2017; UNESCO 2018). The general lack of formal recognition of online courses in some countries, e.g., Jordan (Gladwell et al. 2016), is aggravating this situation. In certain contexts, especially in low-resource environments such as refugee camps, it is reported that students prefer face-to face education as opposed to online education (Fincham 2017). Online education did not seem to cater enough for the difficult living conditions and the lacking learning infrastructure (Fincham 2017). Especially female refugees stated to prefer offline education as this enables them to leave the difficult conditions of camp life (Fincham 2017). The high value of including face-to-face sessions in online education offers to refugees is also highlighted in other studies (Colucci et al. 2017; GIZ 2017). Blended learning formats, combining online and face-to-face sessions, seemed to be the preferred formats in several contexts.

Another major challenge[4] that goes beyond access relates to the recognition of learning outcomes and certifications from digital learning programs specifically in the migrant/refugee learning context. There is a general perception that employers (in home and host country) do not have a high level of knowledge about digital learning and in particular MOOCs, and they, therefore, did not or would not recognise digital learning courses or credits. Most refugees and migrants come from a cultural context where learning traditionally takes place in ‘brick and mortar’ buildings with very clear formal education and recognition structures, and where degrees carry a high level of prestige. This may imply that digital learning which lacks any physical, in-classroom presence is perceived as dubious, irrespective of whether it purports to offer credits


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