One of the most remote outposts of Jesuit higher education is tucked away in dusty northwest Kenya, in a place whose name means “Nowhere” in Swahili.
There, at Kakuma Refugee Camp, a small group of students -- refugees from several neighboring African countries, including Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia -- are enrolled in online courses taught by 28 Jesuit colleges, mostly in the United States.
The courses are part of Jesuit Commons, a project that seeks to bring courses from the order’s universities to refugee camps worldwide. So far, the program has enrolled about 225 students at three camps in a diploma track that will eventually lead to a credential from Regis University, a Jesuit college in Colorado with a well-established online presence; more than 350 students have participated in service learning courses intended to give them knowledge they use while still at the refugee camps.
The program is eyeing a major expansion -- and perhaps, in the coming years, the creation of an online-only Jesuit university that would issue degrees of its own.
The underlying technology is similar to the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by an increasing number of selective colleges in the U.S. and touted for their potential to expand the reach of higher education. The project’s founders hasten to draw a distinction between the massive courses, which they say are being used mostly as a branding opportunity for already prominent universities, and the Jesuit Commons project, which attempts to use similar technology to carry Jesuit education overseas.
Faculty volunteer their time; students are not charged tuition. So far, the project has been paid for by grants and is considered an extension of the colleges' Jesuit missions -- a focus likely to remain, organizers say, even as it expands. The online courses for refugees will continue to be supported by grants and financial contributions, said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, executive director of Jesuit Commons. An online Jesuit university, though, would charge students as part of its business plan.
Jesuit courses have largely stayed out of the MOOC race so far, with the exception of Georgetown University. But Regis, which issues credentials for the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins project, is something of an online powerhouse, including offering consulting for colleges thinking about taking their own programs online.
In many ways, the courses, taught by 72 faculty members at 27 colleges so far, have little in common with MOOCs. They aren’t particularly massive; each course has only about 10 to 15 students enrolled, and the students at each camp meet together in one classroom to study. Nor are they “open,” in the way that MOOCs use the term; the courses are available to students only at three refugee camps: Kakuma, in Kenya; Dzaleka Refugee Camp, in Malawi; and a camp in Amman, Jordan, filled with refugees from the conflict in Syria.
Students on the diploma track can earn credit that transfers to American colleges, and a few have done so, using their credits successfully after resettlement in the United States.
The idea for Jesuit Commons began in 2006 -- a lifetime ago, in the world of online education -- with the plan to connect Jesuit social services with people in need worldwide. The higher education project, known officially as Higher Education at the Margins, launched in 2010, and was organized largely by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and backed with a grant from an anonymous donor and contributions from Microsoft employees. The project is a collaboration with Jesuit Refugee Services.
Students in the courses come from eight countries. Many were enrolled in college in their home country before they became refugees, McFarland said. For some, English is a third or fourth language. “We are global in a different way -- a multinational virtual classroom,” she said.
Courses are eight weeks long, and the first students with a Regis diploma (in liberal studies) will graduate in September. The 45-credit program includes a required 10 credits in the liberal arts, followed by a concentration in business or education.
Professors at Jesuit colleges volunteer to teach classes they have already developed for their students, although the courses undergo some changes to deal with cultural differences. Although students meet together in the camps to take the classes, the course enrollment includes students from across refugee camps, and thus across cultures and religions, said Mary McFarland, international director of Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins.
Since most of the faculty are from the United States, the courses were initially developed for American students. But the content has seemed very relevant for the refugee students, said Karen Cordova, an affiliate faculty member at Regis who has taught several classes for Higher Education at the Margins.
“We knew it was going to be culturally relevant; we just didn't realize how relevant,” Cordova said of one course, on interpersonal and intercultural communication. Because refugee camps can include people from a variety of backgrounds, students were encountering many of the difficulties she discussed -- such as problems interpreting nonverbal communication -- in their everyday encounters.
“In some of the environments with these students, they weren't connecting like they could,” Cordova said. “What we did was we provided a variety of different activities that gave them permission really to start exploring other cultures and understanding.”
One student, Muzabel Welongo, wrote about his experience taking a logic course from a Gonzaga University professor on the Higher Education at the Margins website. Welongo, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, runs a community-based organization at the Malawi refugee camp and said that the logic course has helped him structure his arguments more effectively.
“My intention is to make my communication as clear as possible. I do not intend to be a communication expert at this time,” Welongo wrote. “I try to understand how people form their arguments and help them when I can, to have strong support for their claims. It has been a pleasure to me that I am able to notice whenever I commit a fallacy.”
In May, at a meeting in Rome, project leaders meet to discuss the feasibility of an online Jesuit university to carry the project's mission and concepts to more camps and to other underserved populations. The question they will confront, as the project’s chief information officer, Cindy Bonfini-Hoitlosz, put it: “How do we do this in a way where we can scale and reach more than 250, because there are 2 million that need it?”