January 23, 2017

Using MOOCs to help refugees

Refugees applying to the University of Magdeburg in Germany

Refugees applying to the University of Magdeburg in Germany

Yohannes, M. and Bhatti, J. (2015) Migrants get help through German online university, USA Today, October 29

This article reports on Kiron University, a non-profit university set up exclusively to support refugees awaiting official asylum status while remaining in their host countries. Currently it is supporting approximately 1,000 students from 60 different countries.

The Kiron web site states:

Kiron is an international university for refugees, headquartered in Germany, providing refugees with higher education and the opportunity to graduate at a university free of charge. Because the first two years of the degree programs are online, Kiron’s students can study flexibly from all over the world and according to their own schedule. The special circumstances refugees have to face are carefully considered by offering additional services like preparation courses for university, language courses, psychological counselling, life coaching, hardware, internet access and facilities such as Kiron’s campus in Berlin. All of this is also free of charge.

For the first two years, Kiron’s students can choose courses out of the whole universe of MOOCs. Kiron takes these courses, modifies them, and designs study programs with real-life working sessions, projects in teamwork, mentoring, student support and modern ways of learning and testing. All of this is done with the careful supervision of their partner universities as well as experienced professors, experts in education and established educational institutions. For the third year, Kiron’s students go to a classic university attending regular courses. They can choose out of a variety of well established institutions like RWTH Aachen, the Applied University Heilbronn or the Open University of West Africa.

Kiron has a campus in Berlin which provides a housing option for more than 500 students and the opportunity to offer 20 seminar rooms and 10 lecture rooms, to support the online curriculum via tutorials and on-campus class experiences.

Kiron is funded currently by a German foundation but is also using crowdfunding to provide scholarships for refugees (see https://kiron.university/). The cost to Kiron for one student for an academic year is approximately 400 euros (US$450), although a full scholarship costs Kiron 1,200 euros (US$1,400). As well as funding, Kiron is looking for volunteers to help with its programs.

Kiron has asked selected scholars across different disciplines such as philosophy and computer science to join their evaluation board and help them understand better who refugees are and how they can help them. Kiron would like to financially support academic field studies as well as the publication of academic research in the field of (forced) migration and e-learning. Several research projects are already in preparation and will be presented to the public at a conference in Berlin.


Although I would like to know more about Kiron, this seems a splendid idea. Less than 1% of refugees globally have access to higher education, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of the estimated 60 million refugees globally, around half are under 18 — a record high — meaning many young people have little opportunity to train for future jobs. I believe the Arab Open University is working with refugees in Jordan. (I would be happy to publicise any such efforts in this blog).

All this makes me wonder though whether some of the existing open universities in the U.K., Netherlands, Spain and Canada could not partner with Kiron or establish their own programs to extend both the range of courses and support the learning of refugees, given the millions still in refugee camps.

For instance, the new Canadian government has pledged to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas this year. However, that will still leave many thousands more waiting to be processed. “People have to wait for a year to have an interview to begin the asylum process, which means that in this time they can’t even do a language course,” said Kiron co-founder Markus Kressler, a graduate student who runs the online university with 80 other volunteers. Could not Athabasca University for instance work with UNHCR and Kiron to identify those waiting processing for Canada, and provide them with appropriate courses and programs before they arrive? I’m sure there are many obstacles to this, but having refugees arriving with qualifications from your own country must certainly benefit both the refugees and the host country.

In the meantime I hope you will join me in supporting Kiron, in one way or another.

Sir John Daniel’s book review of ‘Beyond the MOOC Hype’ by Jeffrey Young

Young's book on MOOCs

Young, J. (2013) Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption Washington DC : Chronicle of Higher Education, 92 pp (available through Amazon for about $5)


Sir John Daniel has kindly offered his review of this book for publication in my blog.

Sir John Daniel’s review

In September 2012, as a visiting fellow at the Korea National Open University, I wrote an essay on MOOCs entitled Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. At that moment the phenomenon of xMOOCs was far too new to have generated any scholarly research and there was little academic literature on cMOOCs either, although they had been going since 2008. I therefore had to base my essay on the copious coverage of MOOCs by journalists and bloggers. MOOCs had captured the attention of the news media in a remarkable way, so this reporting was plentiful.

I found one of the best commentators on MOOCs to be Jeffrey Young, who has covered the MOOCs story for the US Chronicle of Higher Education from its beginnings. The thoroughness of his work impressed me. He took MOOCs himself as a learner and also performed a particularly useful service for those trying to make sense of the business model of MOOCs by using freedom-of-information rights to obtain a copy of the standard contract between the MOOCs-platform company Coursera and its university partners.

Young has now distilled his deep knowledge of MOOCs into an eBook titled: Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption. It is an excellent read, where he endears himself to non-American readers by being aware of developments outside his own country, a rare quality among US education journalists! He took a Manitoba cMOOC as a learner and visited the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi to find out more about open universities.

The seven chapters of the book address all the key issues. At the beginning, calling MOOCs ‘Education’s Jetpack Moment’, he draws an analogy with science fiction predictions that never came true in order to ask whether MOOCs really will stimulate the revolution in higher education forecast by enthusiasts. His concluding remarks carry the title ‘A Fight for the Future of Higher Education’.

He looks at both sides of that fight, his goal being neither to promote free online education, nor to present a critical diatribe, adding wisely that ‘the future is unknown and how things turn out will depend on college leaders, professors and anyone who might one day take a free online course’. For Young, ‘MOOCs matter, whether they work or not, because they have put the future of college into the national spotlight’.

He starts with the basic question ‘what is a MOOC’ and finds that MOOCs take lessons from a fusion of trends that add up to more than the sum of their parts. In chapter 2 he examines the history of MOOCs and tries to put them in the context of the long history of distance education. This leads him to the toughest question: ‘if MOOCs are free to students, who will pay for them?’ There is no assurance that any of the moneymaking schemes proposed for MOOCs will work. The later chapters look at how MOOCs might change classroom teaching, the claim that MOOCs threaten the long-term health of higher education, and whether MOOCs are an effective way to teach.

The book is enlivened by stories from the coalface about teaching and studying MOOCs and about his own experience as a learner, notably through an engaging account of the MOOC he took on song writing, which ‘stirred a feeling of discovery I haven’t felt since my days as an undergraduate’.

In the chapter on whether MOOCs work, he recalls the well-known fact that 80% of Coursera’s students already have a degree of some kind. MOOCs have failed to achieve the lofty objective articulated by their pioneers, which was to bring education to those who never had access before, whether in rich countries or poor. Young notes the growing sense that the US higher education system is broken, with the running costs of colleges – and therefore the levels of tuition fees – growing faster than the incomes of students wanting to go to college. MOOCs are not addressing that problem – at least not yet.

Central to this issue is the question of credit. Young points out that the few institutions offering credit for their own MOOCs have had only a handful of takers, though he notes that these offers had little publicity. Yet he reports that a substantial minority of faculty teaching MOOCs, notably in engineering, maths, science and technology, felt that their students deserved credit. Meanwhile other bodies, such as the American Council on Education, are recommending credit for certain MOOCs.

Some colleges, while not giving credit for MOOCs, will let students graduate in three years instead of four if they earn enough MOOC certificates. In this respect MOOCs can give pupils leaving secondary school the sort of advanced standing that they can earn by taking Advanced Placement tests or the International Baccalaureate, thereby achieving a 25% reduction in the overall cost of college. Other institutions are taking the obvious step of introducing MOOC like qualities – notably scale – to regular, credit-bearing online programmes so that they can reduce fees substantially.

In his summary of the fight for the future of higher education Young addresses three questions: should colleges be run like businesses; who should provide higher education; and how can colleges bring down costs? Noting that the faculty-centred nature of US higher education is responsible for its quality and dynamism as well as its accelerating costs, he makes the telling point that the opening of a new college campus is now extremely rare. This alone suggests that this business model has run its course, at least in the US. On the other hand, the entry costs to online teaching are low: ‘like the difference between buying a food truck versus building a nationwide chain of restaurants’.

This means that new players, not only institutions but also partnerships of faculty members and professionals, can join the higher education enterprise. Presently a key barrier facing them is the monopoly that colleges have on selling credits and degrees. However, the MOOCs explosion is already accelerating the break-up of this monopoly.

By stimulating policy makers to reflect more deeply on the cost structures of higher education, MOOCs have revealed the perverse nature of much recent institutional spending. Investing in technology without revising the classroom-teaching model has raised costs, not lowered them. Furthermore, colleges have tended to add amenities like fancier dorms or climbing walls, instead of improving their educational quality. Online programmes that highlight the quality and effectiveness of their teaching/learning systems rather than the grandeur of their physical plant could gain an increasing edge. Residential colleges will not go away but some will struggle to respond to the challenge of online learning that MOOCs have amplified.

Young completed his book in mid-2013. The MOOCs space is dynamic and there have been significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, since that time. Nevertheless, his thoughtful commentary on the frenzied phenomenon of MOOCs remains highly relevant to decision makers grappling with its implications for their institutions.


More tips on faculty development for a competency-free profession

Young, J. (2010) Reaching the Last Technology Holdouts at the Front of the Classroom Chronicle of Higher Education, July 24

An interview with Chris Dede, one of the authors of the U.S. National Educational Technology Plan issued in draft form in March.

Although Chris Dede gives some useful tips, there is nothing in this article that will come as a surprise to most readers of this blog, except that it does provide some stats on how few professors in the USA are using even the most elementary classroom tools (blogs, videoconferencing, clickers). What comes over is the appalling state of the teaching profession in universities in the USA, although I suspect the same is true in many other countries, Canada included. How long will we go on not requiring training in teaching for tenure and appointment?

Will elite universities offer online undergraduate degrees?

Young, J. (2010) U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9

This is a strange article that discusses the reluctance of faculty at the University of California to consider fully online undergraduate programs, although these are seen as one way for the system to cope with severe budget cuts. There are several strange things about this article:

  • the idea that moving programs online will save money/increase revenues. Whether or not this happens will depend on many variables, not least the business model that is adopted. However, it appears that this proposal is not part of any coherent strategic plan or overall financial strategy, but comes mainly from one senior professor with the Chancellor’s ear pushing for more online programs
  • the idea of starting with first year ‘gateway’ courses such as Calculus 1. This assumes that students will have the independent learning skills needed to succeed at studying fully online. My experience suggests that this is the wrong place to start, and that students need to be gradually introduced to online study – and Calculus in particular is a tough place to start. (However, they might want to take a look at Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium – but it’s not a distance program)
  • the suggestion that nothing will happen unless faculty approve and agree. This is like asking everyone on the Titanic to agree on whether the lifeboats should be used as it’s sinking. If U of C is in such a financial hole that it cannot continue with the same model, then a new model becomes essential. I am not arguing that this has to be online education, but if it was decided that it was, then everyone should try to make it work.
  • the failure of opponents to online learning to give due weight to research in this area. It appears any academic can believe what they like when it comes to their own teaching. No-one seems to be paying any attention to the conditions under which online learning works best. Do the research, guys.
  • and lastly, the reporter, Jeffrey Young, does not do a good job of placing this in the wider context of e-learning and online learning. For instance, a more compelling argument for U of C would be to move gradually into hybrid learning for undergraduate students, with perhaps more online distance learning in the final year, but this is not discussed – it’s either face-to-face teaching or distance, which is a false dichotomy.
  • the seems to be a solution (online learning) linked to a problem (no money) without a clear rationale or explanation as to how it’s going to solve the problem.

When I finished reading this article, I wasn’t sure I was living in the same world as the academics and administrators at the University of California. I think they should get out more (or maybe I should). Or maybe it’s just a bad article.

PCs or mobile phones: where is the future for e-learning?

© Devicepedia.com

The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national papers, in its excellent series on Africa, had an article that really made me sit up. Here are some quotes from the article – try substituting e-learning for the xxxxs

‘It’s part of a phenomenon that has people in Africa adopting new technologies that have been slower to catch on in more developed parts of the world, where individuals and institutions cling to older, existing infrastructure.

“Five years ago, when we launched, the [institutions] were not convinced that mobile xxxx would ever work,” said Brian Richardson, co-founder and managing director of Wizzit. “In fact they said it wouldn’t work – they said nobody would do xxxxx on a cellphone when they had a perfectly good PC in front of them. Their mindset was really focused on their existing ….. customers.”

“I think there are enormous opportunities in Africa,” he said. “But I’m not sure if Western models are going to work here. It’s going to require a different way of thinking. It takes time and innovation to uncover different models and technology.”

No, unfortunately the article was not about e-learning in Africa (but it could have been). Instead it was about a company (Wizzit)  doing banking online. ‘After Wizzit pioneered the technology, the banks caved in and created their own mobile banking services, which now have about five million customers in South Africa alone.’

I have mentioned in previous postings that I see real innovation in e-learning coming from Africa, and probably nowhere more than in the use of mobile learning. If the banking sector is anything to go by, watch out for mobile learning developments in Africa too: some applications are already on display at the e-Learning Africa conference about to start on May 26-28 in Lusaka, Zambia.

York, G. (2010) Africa leads the way in mobile money Globe and Mail, May 12