Online higher education ‘unappealing’ for Syrian refugees

Research highlights concerns around quality despite medium being preferred by many Western universities

May 24, 2017
Syrian refugees at a camp in Turkey
Source: iStock

Online learning is the least desirable model of higher education for Syrian refugees, despite it being the medium adopted by many Western universities in their aid efforts, according to a study from the British Council.

Research based on interviews and focus groups with 178 young Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey found that the majority thought online lecturers were less competent than those teaching face-to-face, were wary of the lack of accreditation of some online programmes, and felt self-motivation, time management and maintaining momentum would be difficult “in the chaos of camp life”.

They also believed online education to be an inappropriate medium for degree-level programmes and for studying technical or applied subjects, such as science, engineering and medicine, which “required the mastery of technical equipment and lab work”, according to the study, which was launched at the British Council’s Going Global conference.

Meanwhile, several respondents based at refugee camps in Jordan said that the campus experience “gave them life skills they would miss out on if studying alone with a computer”. Female students, in particular, said going to campus “gave them reprieve from the psychological imprisonment of camp life”.

When asked to rank educational opportunities in terms of desirability, the vast majority of students in the three countries chose university first, followed by technical and vocational education and training colleges second and online study third, according to the report.

Online learning has been considered a cheap, effective and immediate way to educate refugees, who may find it difficult to access a university campus. In 2014, University of the People, an online institution, teamed up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to admit refugees and asylum seekers. The Open University, in partnership with the British Council, also offers online courses for Syrian refugees who have temporarily settled in Jordan and Lebanon.

Researcher Kathleen Fincham, senior lecturer in education and social science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said at Going Global that many of the participants had not experienced online learning themselves and therefore their responses demonstrated perceived drawbacks of the model.

However, of those who had undertaken online learning, many cited poor course administration and technical issues as problems, she said.

“One of the issues was that the online higher education they had experienced was not interactive – it was essentially reading articles on the internet, which is just poor pedagogical practice,” she said.

Dr Fincham said that some of the participants acknowledged that online learning could be an effective model for vulnerable groups such as "people who were housebound, women with small children, people with disabilities and those in full-time work”.

When asked what universities could do to address the perceptions of online education among refugees, Dr Fincham said: “You have to educate young people and their families about the potential of online learning. And you have to provide good online learning.”

The report adds that it is important for institutions to examine whether online programmes to date have “adequately catered for the special needs of refugees”.

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