Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon have made remarkable use of social media and local community centers to build learning and support networks for young people seeking access to higher education, a recent report says.
The research for the report, titled “Refugee Learning Ecosystems: Reimagining Higher Education Access for Refugees,” was done by the not-for-profit organization Mosaik Education and presented to a webinar hosted by the British Council.
“Learning ecosystems” make use of informal contacts and resources which do not form part of a conventional educational system. There is no single model, but they include semi-autonomous and interactive actors and are usually learner-driven.
“Some of the learning systems and initiatives that have surfaced were quite magical even without intentional intervention,” said Ben Webster of Mosaik Education.
“With the British Council we are looking to start working with a range of partners including businesses, donors and educational institutions to support that and to connect formal institutions with informal education networks.”
The London-based Mosaik Edication provides academic guidance and language teaching to refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to help them attain higher education.
UNHCR, The United Nations refugee agency, says only 3 percent of refugee youth have access to a university education, compared to 37 percent worldwide, and has set a goal of 15 percent by the end of the decade. (See a collection of related articles from Al-Fanar Media on refugee education issues.)
Diversity of Online Learning Sources
The research found that the refugee learning ecosystems for higher education combined a range of interactive elements, including formal institutions such as universities, informal gatherings of student-led language practice groups, and study groups on social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Physical spaces provided by community, nongovernmental or international organizations also offered the means to access online courses, modules or platforms.
“Particularly striking was the number and diversity of online sources of learning, particularly on social media, as well as local community centers,” Webster said.
“Particularly striking was the number and diversity of online sources of learning, particularly on social media, as well as local community centers.”Ben Webster
The report identified several youth-led learning initiatives, such as a volunteer-based Facebook group, created by a young woman in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley region that has helped train 650 women in language and business skills via WhatsApp and Messenger; platforms for informing refugees where to access scholarships and training in Beirut; a book club created on WhatsApp, using PDF books and with 200 users; and a former student who started teaching new students at her home in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
The report also highlighted the key role played by the “integrators” through the Tertiary Refugee Student Network. This helped increase connections between elements in the Learning Ecosystem through various online and offline channels.
“Integrators support young refugees who find it difficult to access or navigate the diversity of learning opportunities and pathways available to them,” Webster said. “They have strong social networks; they identify opportunities and make connections between networks and leverage resources.”
The report cited HS, a student-led online platform on Facebook, as a good example of an integrator. The platform connects over 70,000 users to education opportunities ranging from scholarships, vocational training, and language training and volunteering.
A Push to Accredit Informal Initiatives
Community-led initiatives lack accreditation of their programs and program leaders, but Francis Randle, a connected-higher-education specialist with UNHCR, said the U.N. agency will advocate a policy of accreditation for connected higher education to open opportunities for learners.
“That entails collaboration with local education ministries and local education bodies in order to ensure that the courses which are offered are relevant and accredited locally. Otherwise you will have a lot of courses offered which don’t lead to meaningful certification,” Randle said.
Valerie Hannon, board director and co-founder of Innovation Unit UK, called for close collaboration with employers to make sure that the kinds of accreditation which are created are meaningful, and can open doors for learners.
“Learning ecosystems is a very new concept and accreditation and innovation is a very big feature of these ecosystems,” Hannon said. “We need people to come together around shared objectives and definitions and come out with new rules.”
Multi-Aid Programs, or MAPS, a local community organization founded in 2013 in the Bekaa Valley, helps prepare young refugees in marginalized communities to access higher education by offering online competency-based bachelor’s degrees in partnership with Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education Movement.
“Learning ecosystems is a very new concept and accreditation and innovation is a very big feature of these ecosystems, We need people to come together around shared objectives and definitions and come out with new rules.”Valerie Hannon
Board director and co-founder of Innovation Unit UK
Their main physical space in the Bekaa, with a mixture of seminar rooms, classrooms, computer labs, pseudo libraries and informal meeting spaces and plans for a café space, is intended to create a “campus feel” for learners. (See a related article, “In Rural Lebanon, Lessons for Children, and Humanity.”)
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Bayan Louis, project coordinator with MAPS, appealed for additional investment in rural areas where marginalized refugee communities are mostly located.
“Investment is needed in blended learning that combines online academic and non-academic support, like coaching sessions, mentorship programs and peer to peer support,” Louis said. “Investing in vocational education is also valuable especially for those who cannot access educational opportunities.”
“It is also vital to spread awareness about the available educational resources in the area and then link them with the local businesses and companies.”
Some initiatives in the refugee learning ecosystem may have weaknesses in terms of the quality of materials or instruction, but their reach and scale are significant, she said, adding that these ecosystems present an opportunity to connect refugee- and community-led initiatives with technical support from formal education institutions.