Abdullah is now 26 years old. He was in his last year of university when the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011. Forcefully displaced from his home to neighboring countries, just like many of his friends and family, Abdullah had to drop out of university and suspend his studies for well over a year while he secured a safe shelter and source of income for himself and his family. Without the necessary documents to continue his formal education in his host country or abroad, and without the English language proficiency to pursue a degree at international universities, Abdullah went online. Through perseverance, the generosity of others, and an Internet connection, Abdullah has rekindled his pursuit of education amid the protracted conflict by taking online courses in his native language of Arabic—an option that remains restricted given the limited digital Arabic content available. There is a long road ahead for Abdullah and many others like him, but online education is a start to securing job opportunities that will help provide stability for his family and, one day, his home country.
Abdullah is just one of five million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries over the past six years. Of those, almost 600,000 are between the ages of 18 and 24—the same time of life when peers in other countries are pursuing tertiary education. Whereas the global tertiary enrollment rate exceeds 30 percent, according to the World Bank, the current rate for Syrian refugees is between 1 percent and 5 percent. Prior to the war, more than 25 percent of Syrian youth were enrolled in higher education. Given this extremely low enrollment rate, the international humanitarian community has placed much-needed emphasis on attempting to solve this problem to avoid the unfathomable costs of a “lost generation.”
Our team at Edraak, an Arabic platform for open online education launched by the Queen Rania Foundation, has worked with several international and regional entities to explore how we can play a larger role in providing access to higher education for refugees. But while our resources are freely accessible and openly licensed, so far we’ve directly reached only about 3,000 refugees with online courses through implementing partners in Syrian refugee camps. And while our free courses—like massive open online courses (MOOCs)—are beneficial to the average learner, allowing them to further their careers and engage in lifelong learning, they are much less useful to refugee students. This is because refugee students have different professional aspirations and accompanying obstacles than the average learner; there are regulations around the kinds of jobs host countries allow them to do, and they need skillsets and knowledge that will allow them to contribute to the reconstruction of their home country when they return.
There is quite a long way to go, but our work and research, specifically within the Jordanian context, has culminated in a set of recommendations for both donors and organizations like ours that want to make an impact on refugees’ learning experiences. It has also alerted us to the importance of structuring any problem solving for refugee tertiary education around four very intuitive (but easily overlooked) pillars: cost, currency, connectivity, and content—or, as we call them, the “4Cs.”
For any refugee family, cost is a huge deterrent to formal or informal learning. In Jordan, for example, total monthly household income among non-camp Syrians living in host communities ranges between $100 to $400—below minimum wage in Jordan, according to an ILO report released in 2015. The Jordanian standard secondary school examination equivalency process that would allow refugees to benefit from increasing options offered by formal higher education providers, meanwhile, requires that refugees share documentation they have usually left behind or lost, and costs more than $300 per learner for the required exams and certificate—unaffordable for most Syrians living in poverty.
It is imperative that policymakers, program managers, and entrepreneurs critically examine the complete set of steps an aspiring refugee learner would go through to access educational tools and ensure that cost isn’t a serious hindrance to otherwise well-designed innovations. Policymakers must work with donor agencies to ensure that any procedural costs are subsidized appropriately, factoring in the needs of the host communities. Program owners and entrepreneurs should explore operating models that compensate refugees for the time spent at training—a policy especially relevant to men who are typically viewed as the sole providers for their household.
The purpose of education is a heavily debated matter, but it’s imperative that any education allows students to reach their goals. Education programming must provide the right currency—skills students can exchange to move closer to their aspirations. Field research suggests that higher educational programs targeting Syrian youth should not just ensure that students receive academic certification, but also enable them to reach what they reported in focus groups as their primary goal: acquiring a paying job. Trainings should be tailored to existing and predicted job openings. Program owners and donors must also think about the impact they can have on relevant policies to ensure that programs succeed. Donor funding should be attached to job placement targets.
The ubiquity of Internet connectivity has led to an uncritical approach to how entrepreneurs and others use technology to develop solutions to the refugee crisis. Technical solutions such as online learning platforms aren’t always the most convenient or desirable for refugee students. In Jordan, for example, Internet-based solutions work best for refugees outside the camps, where there is more access to technological devices and Internet service, and are more effective when optimized for mobile phones, since the vast majority of non-camp refugees own smartphones. Within the camps, students mainly access the Internet at learning centers, since 3G connectivity is blocked most of the time, and any solutions must factor that into their design. Furthermore, focus groups we conducted showed that the majority of refugee learners strongly prefer a blended learning format that includes face-to-face interaction with their instructors, compared to a pure e-learning strategy, where instruction is virtual-only and the room for peer dialogue is minimal. Finally, it’s important to realize that students’ ability to use social media platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook does not equate to an ability to learn online. Simply making content available online doesn’t work for many refugee learners. The word “connected” must take on a more thoughtful definition.
Last but not least, it is important that the content of any learning opportunity is appropriate for its target audience. Despite being the most obvious of the “4Cs,” it is quite astonishing just how little attention providers pay to providing refugee learners with content that is not only relevant to the skills they need to learn, but also presented in a language and at a level they can understand. Fueled by a lack of content in Arabic generally and the rush to respond to the magnitude of the crisis specifically, Syrian refugees have been inundated with a flood of training content in English, despite the fact that most of the Syrians we interviewed in 2016 reported very low English proficiency levels.
Edraak’s experience shows that while many donors, local service providers, think tanks, and policymakers focus on providing disadvantaged populations with the most cutting-edge technology and programming, it can come at the expense of basics. Meeting students where they are is important to avoid broadening the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”—especially given the correlation between education levels and English literacy. Bridging the gap now will later allow these populations to access existing advanced content in English.
The “4Cs” will not make the response to the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II easier, but we hope they will provide interested parties with a framework to ensure that the solutions they develop to the crisis can serve Abdullah and millions like him around the world better and more effectively. The cost of not doing so has already been too high.