Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How relevant is open education for refugees?

Group work in progress on-site and online
As part of my involvement in the ongoing European project MOONLITE, examining the use of MOOCs and open education for social inclusion and employability, we arranged a hybrid webinar workshop at the recent EDEN 2017 conference in Jönköping, Sweden. The workshop asked the question "How relevant is open education for refugees?" and comprised a combination of input from project members with group discussions both on-site and online. All the results from the session, group work, slideshows, link to the recording and links to other projects are gathered on a common Padlet page.

Padlet page with collected notes, slideshows and links from the workshop
We provided an overview of current projects and initiatives that offer MOOCs as a pathway to cultural and linguistic integration, higher education and employment and then asked the participants to answer questions assessing how relevant this form of education is for such a target group. I blogged on this topic recently, MOOCs for refugees - work in progress, and the ideas from this post very much reflect the workshop discussions. The benefits of using open online courses (massive or not) were clear to all participants, namely:
  • Easy access, always available
  • Mobile-friendly courses
  • Large variety of courses in many languages
  • No fees
  • Flexible
  • Preferably combined with on-site support, face-to-face groups with own language support
Obstacles to using open courses with refugees were more numerous and some have not really been resolved:
  • Do refugees accept MOOCs as being culturally acceptable and relevant?
  • Very heterogeneous group and hard to find any common denominator
  • Lack of awareness of open education
  • Lack of digital skills and experience of online education
  • Cultural adjustments take time and many suffer from stress, preventing them from focusing on learning
  • Are open education solutions addressing the right problems?
  • Lack of recognition of open education in the host country
  • Poor infrastructure in refugee camps
  • Recognition of prior learning
  • Provision of support and mentoring (both face-to-face and online)
We also asked whether existing initiatives had succeeded in meeting the needs of refugees. The general feeling was that although there were many success stories the use of open education is still largely fragmented and with very limited impact. The vast majority of refugees are still not aware of open courses or are unable to take advantage of them for the reasons noted above. MOOCs are only one of many options to address the challenge of integrating refugees into their new countries and top priority for most of them is recognition of their skills and getting hold of credentials that are valid in their country of residence. If open online courses can lead to such educational hard currency then they will be popular. They must be seen as a pathway to higher education and to employment, very much the focus of our project!

MOOCs and other types open education should focus on the most essential skills: language, socio-cultural integration and online study skills. However, in almost all areas a combination of digital and face-to-face solutions is essential. Refugees need to make personal contacts in their new homeland and online education can therefore only be part of the solution. The group discussions offered many examples of services and solutions that offer a smoother pathway to integration. Matching refugees with people working in the same profession is one method already in use in many countries. A Swedish initiative called Welcome is an app that enables refugees to make contact with Swedish volunteers to chat online or to meet up for a coffee and discussion. Another Swedish initiative, Minclusion, is developing mobile apps for learning Swedish and facilitating intercultural communication. The key is putting the refugees in contact with local people who can help them with everyday questions, language development, legal problems, coaching/mentoring, job shadowing and just everyday human contact.

Online learning can be very effective for people whose lives are otherwise full with career. family and friends. For refugees human contact, building up a new identity and regaining broken confidence are the main priorities. They can benefit from online education but always combined with physical meetings and support.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Background music and other distractions

If you have something important to say, it is only logical that you want to be heard. So why do so many insist on adding background music that all too often becomes foreground music, drowning out the speaker? It may seem cool and I'm sure many people can cope with the combination. However it excludes people with hearing difficulties (and that includes most of us over 50) as well as those who are not native speakers of your language and need to hear what you are saying with a minimum of interference. Every week I watch educational videos where the speaker has to compete with unnecessary music. Even if I can hear the voice I can't concentrate because the music irritates me. Either music or speech but not both.

The same applies to slides. Think about inclusion every time. Yellow text on a green background is very hard to read. So is text on top of a photo. Or too much text on one slide. Slides should only show key words or short concise messages. If you want text on a photo create a text box with a plain background so the text is clearly visible. Clarity benefits everyone.

Sometimes these mistakes are combined and the effect is that most people will switch off. It's easy to do but we need to become more aware of making our material as accessible as possible and cut the potential distractions to a minimum. Even if you have clear slides and have cut out the music don't assume that everyone understands every work you say. Add subtitles to your film as extra support and reinforcement. It's not only people with hearing difficulties who turn on the subtitles. Many people appreciate the reinforcement and for those whose command of your language is not so good subtitles are essential to understanding.

Keep it simple please and cut the potential distractions.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Building the e-learning quality chain

Chain by robpatrick, on Flickr
"Chain" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by robpatrick

At this week's EDEN 2017 conference here in Sweden there were several discussions about quality in technology enhanced education. There was a consensus that although we have sound quality assurance systems, certifications, strategies, policies and research we have still not reached mainstream integration and acceptance of educational technology. Even if some institutions have succeeded, they are prevented from full integration due to pressure from both government authorities and politicians who demand increased accountability and base their budget decisions on league tables and shallow evaluations. There are lots of success stories at faculty, institutional or even regional levels but to move forward we need a chain reaction involving all levels.

How can we enhance existing quality structures? This requires more than simply checking learner satisfaction at the end of each course or module. Quality is often mistaken for this checklist approach where each link in the chain tries to give answers that will satisfy the criteria of the next level. We ask learners to evaluate both the teachers and their own performance on each course module but the questions is whether learners recognise good teaching when they see it? Often students give the most positive evaluations to teachers who provide them with the material they need to pass the test rather than recognising the value of teachers who help them work things out for themselves.

So how can we develop learning literacy at all levels in the educational chain?
  • Learners need to develop the meta-cognitive skills to become conscious learners. To put it simply, they need to learn how to learn, becoming aware of the learning process and learning to monitor their learning through reflection and self-assessment. They need to develop their collaborative learning skills and realise how learning is a social process rather than simply cramming facts. These skills will be vital in their professional life where their development will depend on being able to learn new skills without waiting for someone to organise a course to help them.
  • The next link in the chain are the teachers who need to become more aware of their own teaching and how they themselves learn. They need to develop new skills, work in teams, learn to become facilitators rather than content providers and so on. This involves a greater emphasis on pedagogical development and how educational technology can complement and enhance traditional practice. At the teacher level this means learning to enable.
  • For this to happen we need institutional leaders who are aware of their leadership, have learnt how to empower, motivate and reward and can create a culture of sharing, support and common purpose among all staff and learners. This means learning to empower.
  • However none of this will happen without the next link in the chain. Government authorities and international bodies must lead the way by providing frameworks, strategies and policies that inspire and guide. Learning to inspire.
Today there are good examples of all the above but in order to create a true culture of learning each level must work as a chain and be clearly linked to each other. If any link in the chain is weak or missing it will never be sustainable and for me the reason why we have not achieved mainstream integration of educational technology is because one or more links in this chain are missing.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Let's stop generation generalisation

More than ever we seem to love making sweeping and often dangerous generalisations about sections of the population. Despite a complete lack of scientific evidence, we are continually drawn to narratives that assume that everyone born between certain dates, in a certain geographical area or even the entire population of the world not born in our particular country all share common personality traits. I've written about this many times but I was particularly fond of a heart-felt appeal against simplified generalisations in an article in Forbes Austria by Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree, The made-up nonsense about generations at work.

Concepts such as Generation X/Y/Z or Millennials are often used to justify educational and corporate strategies, workplace design and even government policy on the grounds that these groups have a completely different mindset to older generations. This entire generation, according to the narratives, want flexibility, freedom, adventure, fun and personal development and don't want to be trapped into old-fashioned ideas like job security. They are said to be constantly changing jobs and always looking for new challenges. Minaar and de Morree decided to do some research into this and came up with results that largely bust the myths. So-called millennials actually don't change jobs any more today than 20 years ago (around 3%) and when asked about what qualities were most valued in any workplace the answers from all generations were largely the same: purpose, meaning, freedom, autonomy, fun, and personal development.

I suspect that the reason many young people do change jobs is due to the abundance of short-term contracts and project jobs that are often the only form of employment available. Given the choice most people have very similar ambitions and job security is probably top of the list for us all. Without that basic security, knowing that you'll still have the job next month and even next year, is essential to foster the sense of community and mutual trust that in turn leads to creativity and efficiency in an organisation. Insecurity and competition on the other hand leads often to fear and mistrust.

The article ends with a plea to look beyond these convenient and often empty generalisations and realise that the generation gap is not as wide as we would like to think. This applies as much to the workplace as it does in education.

It’s time to stop believing all this made-up nonsense of different generational needs and the blaming cultures that result from it. We better start figure out our similarities and our expectations when it comes to creating highly inspiring workplaces. It’s time to start asking employees what they want in the workplace, regardless of their age and regardless of the generation they belong to. Only then we can make a radical shift in the way we organize work. Only then we can create more human, more engaging and more thriving organizations.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

MOOCs for refugees - work in progress

One of the early promises of the MOOC movement was that they would provide access to high quality education to millions who would otherwise never be able to attend a traditional campus course. After a few years of MOOC development, many studies showed that this promise was not being fulfilled (see for example this study from Harvard University) and that the courses attracted mostly digitally literate graduates looking for professional development or exploring interesting new fields. The mass migration from war-torn Syria provided a potential testing ground for the philanthropic visions of many MOOC advocates and a number of innovative projects and initiatives were started to offer a range of open online courses to refugees with the opportunity of turning the certificates into credible credentials.

At present there a wide range of initiatives offering MOOCs to refugees both in Europe and in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, most notably Kiron Open Higher Education, Coursera for refugees, Jamiya Project and Education without borders. I am working in an Erasmus+ project called MOONLITE looking at how MOOCs can be used to foster employability and enhance social inclusion for refugees. Many universities offer courses to help refugees learn the language of their new country or to help them adapt to a new culture and society. There are also numerous examples of grants available to help refugees into higher education, especially those who are already qualified in professions where the host country has a shortage.  A full review of initiatives is available in a European Commission JRC Science for Policy report, Free Digital Learning Opportunities for Migrants and Refugees (2017).

However it is not simply a matter of offering open online courses and expecting them to be welcomed, even if they can lead to recognised qualifications. An important factor is the refugees' attitudes to online education and whether or not they have any experience, as revealed in an article in Times Higher Education, Online higher education ‘unappealing’ for Syrian refugees. It describes a recent study of refugees' attitudes to education and was presented a the recent British Council Going Global 2017 conference (Syrian experiences of HE in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey). Many refugees are skeptical about online education and naturally have a greater trust and respect for the forms of education that they recognize and experienced before the war. Online courses were in fact the least desirable form of education when given the choice and a traditional classroom course was most attractive.

Research based on interviews and focus groups with 178 young Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey found that the majority thought online lecturers were less competent than those teaching face-to-face, were wary of the lack of accreditation of some online programmes, and felt self-motivation, time management and maintaining momentum would be difficult “in the chaos of camp life”.

For many education should offer the opportunity to get away from the monotony of camp life and attend a real college so it's not surprising that the online option was less attractive. However, I suspect that you would find a similar skepticism in even developed countries. Despite the growth of online education the majority of people have still never experienced the form and are therefore wary of it. often viewing it as a poor substitute. Many who have tried it have met poorly designed and uninspiring courses that are often simply self-service and self-study platforms with little or no interaction. There is still a greater respect for and understanding of traditional educational models and Syrian refugees are no exception.

Stand-alone MOOCs can only really reach the digitally skilled, experienced students with good study skills, resilience and usually also fluency in English. The majority of those who may benefit from open education need practical on-site support to give them the necessary skills and provide them with friendly advice and encouragement on the way. So open online education must be complemented by on-site practical support to be fully effective. If the courses are in English the students may be able to read and understand the material but would benefit from support groups where they can discuss the concepts and issues in their own language. Language support groups will also be necessary add-ons and the TraMOOC initiative is already translating many popular courses into a variety of languages. Many organisations are already providing such services and there is a growing movement of MOOC meetups around the world where MOOC learners help each other and get support from local educators.

Effective online learning starts, ironically enough, with face-to-face support and community building. As the learners gain in confidence and skills they can navigate the online space for themselves but that initial scaffolding is essential.

You may be interested in a couple of webinars we have organised in the MOONLITE project, both of which feature prominent initiatives involving open education and refugees.