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The global refugee crisis is a crisis of higher education. Less than 1 percent of university-age refugees attend college. The world average is 34 percent.

Of the 65 million-plus forcibly displaced people worldwide, the vast majority -- 86 percent -- live in developing regions, where education is already overburdened and underfunded.

Meanwhile, universities in North America and Europe are grappling with pressures to expand service programs abroad. Pilloried for being exclusive, faculty-pampering clubs, and pressured to give students real-world experience, colleges are making social engagement part of the learning landscape, along with cafeterias and Econ 101.

Between the drive to globalize service learning and the demolition of higher education in some corners of the world lies an opportunity. What role do online educational technologies have as humanitarian instruments?

Bridging the Gap

Over a year ago, we launched a program to integrate refugees in the Middle East and East Africa into a course taught to Princeton undergraduates. A partnership between Princeton University and the University of Geneva’s InZone for higher education in emergency settings, the Global History Lab offers to students at Princeton, in refugee camps in Kenya and Jordan, and to learners worldwide an opportunity to study the global past together for one semester.

Our experience was utterly transformative. It also yielded insights about the possibilities and limitations for global, humanitarian higher education.

The experiment is taking place in a deteriorating educational context. One solution to the soaring numbers of displaced people would be to open European and American universities to eligible refugees. But in a cruel twist, the age of barbed wire and impossible visas means getting access to European or American universities is harder than before the migrant crisis when there was less need. In 2014-15, 792 Syrians got student visas to the U.S. Compare that to 60,000 from Saudi Arabia or 300,000 from China.

If displaced people can’t get to where the universities are located, how about getting universities to the displaced? One option is to turn camps into campuses, to bring educational opportunities to the sites where displaced peoples are most concentrated. The numbers of providers and brokers are small but growing. Cellphones, tablets and ereaders are starting to take the place of brick-and-mortar classrooms.

It’s tempting to treat distance education as a low-cost, high-tech philanthro-capitalist’s panacea. Coursera, the for-profit MOOC platform, recently heralded an initiative for refugees, promising to “transform lives through universal access to world-class education.” But if completion rates on a Coursera course for refugees are anything like what they are for nonrefugees, this promise raises questions about humanitarian ethics, of creating more frustration than access.

Coursera is, however, confronting a reality: online opportunities are the only scalable foreseeable remedy for the yawning higher ed gap. Cheaper than scholarships, and avoiding the visa hurdles, they can reach more for less. There is one additional advantage: they don’t drain the best educated from the regions in crisis. If there is going to be a postwar settlement in Syria, Congo or Afghanistan, countries are going to need educated talent in place for the long rebuild. It will be easier to enlist it nearby.

Global Classrooms

Here was our challenge: to connect Ivy League undergraduates in wood-paneled rooms with refugee learners in retrofitted shipping containers, to use one course to connect a campus in the United States to camps in Africa and the Middle East.

The Global History Lab integrated 27 Princeton undergraduates with 19 learners in Camp Kakuma in Kenya, 10 in Camp Azraq in Jordan and a cluster of three refugees from Syria and two Jordanians in urban Amman. They read the same materials, followed the same lectures, worked on the same assignments and posted their teamwork on a shared online gallery. While most online courses atomize students, our experiment hinged on turning students into collaborators.

Our strategy focused on key links of the course. One loose joint for refugee learners is the absence of deans, advisers and IT troubleshooters, which keep students in Europe and North America engaged and paced. To resolve this, InZone has crafted a system to train “e-facilitators” on the ground. Often refugees themselves, the facilitators take the place of campus support. Consider Daniel in Kakuma, who fled Burundi in 2009 and gave up his dreams of becoming a doctor. “The day I found myself in the camp, my dream started to die. There seemed to be no way to make my goal a reality.” He and a few others trained by InZone were critical to the success of our experiment, ensuring that our spare infrastructure on the ground -- a weekly café, the distribution of books, corralling students for Skype sessions -- made up for the precariousness of the learning conditions.

Second, we targeted Princeton graduate students to function as digital TAs with training in responsible humanitarian higher education in Geneva. They traveled twice to meet the learners in Jordan and Kenya to build trust, to encourage their persistence and to evaluate their students’ progress. From Princeton, they Skyped, texted, called and used messaging apps to keep tabs on the remote teams. We were able to reach hitherto excluded students, to get them to the finish line at a reasonable cost and in a way that creates future capacity -- in the camps and on the campuses -- to sustain the partnership. Attrition rates were comparatively low (lower, for instance, than the Princeton dropout rate). In all, only seven refugees did not complete the course.

Carefully targeted and properly trained human support was crucial not just for what learners learned, but for how they learned; local facilitators and digital teachers converted refugee learners into active protagonists. Sixty-five percent of them later said they learned above all from their teammates; only 5 percent said the dominant learning mode came from watching the lectures and reading the materials in solitude. Learning together was by far the greatest source of satisfaction; 70 percent of students mentioned peer-to-peer collaboration as the greatest source of reward. The graduate instructors all noted the remarkable transformation of refugee learners into mutually supportive teams.

What Did Not Work?

One of our objectives was to create pathways between students on campuses and camps to learn together. Here, deep, connected learning yielded mixed results. Not all Princeton students shared our goals. What was going on in Aleppo or Congo was not on everyone’s minds.

For refugees, reaching Princeton students was a hurdle. For 60 percent of the refugee learners, the greatest single obstacle to collaboration was regular, predictable connectivity. Lack of electricity, intermittent Wi-Fi and daily work and family obligations all meant that scarce time was devoted to following lectures and reading online materials -- not digital collaboration.

Still, there was evidence that peer-to-peer learning across the global divide can work. Princeton students wrote study guides for refugees to prepare them for exams. In turn, refugee teams educated Princeton students on the global history of statelessness. Here’s an example. Team Amman, spearheaded by a Syrian refugee, Mohammed, posted a presentation on the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (which, one might argue, set in motion some of the current mess in Syria). Later, when Princeton students sat for their final exams, almost every one of them tackled the question about Sykes-Picot thanks to Mohammed’s contribution. Knowing that students far away in Princeton were learning from the refugees flipped the traditional view of socially engaged education as trickling down from haves to the have-nots -- and reinforced the notion that camp learners could be protagonists. As one Ugandan woman in Kakuma recalled, “I am very happy that some of them [in Princeton] tell us that they learned new things from us.”


The perfect can be the enemy of the possible. Ours is an experiment in possibilist higher ed. It contrasts with a loftier style often trumpeted from high up. As we were assembling our modest experiment, the World Humanitarian Summit convened in Turkey to usher in the ambitious Education Cannot Wait Fund. The world is still waiting for that big solution.

Meanwhile, there is scope for smaller-scale ventures, institutional alliances and mixtures of new and old technologies, to bridge the gap between the tops and bottoms of higher education. As one of the refugee learners tapped from his phone, “this made me feel encouraged that fact that i was not a lone i the struggling and learning about the history of the world.”

But: the digital divide cannot be bridged merely by placing content online for distance learners to grasp. The reason is simple but intractable: disparities across learning places become an internal component of the learning process. The gap becomes part of the course.

Integrating refugees means rethinking the course as a single, global space, with all of its injustices and cruelties part of the curriculum. For universities with humanitarian aspirations, this means dealing with deep and chronic fragility on the other side. You have to picture refugee learners drafting their assignments on messenger services like WhatsApp while Princeton students convened in a residential setting built for learning.

This is why welding together learning and social engagement is critical. In this format, social engagement is no longer “out there” in the wider world, severed from the campus, divorced from the course, something one does after the class is over.

It becomes the course itself.

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