The online transition means high-quality HE for all is within our grasp


In a matter of weeks, universities have been forced to move their teaching from campuses to computer screens. While many are still struggling with this quantum leap, some have performed wonders and a more permanent shift at least to blended learning has been discussed. The question seems to be “not if but when” this will occur.

As a result, there will soon exist an enormous portfolio of high-quality, assessable courses that, in theory, could be used by anyone, anywhere and at any time. And there are millions of talented individuals within displaced communities who can benefit from this unexpected development.

The fourth of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals relates to the provision of “inclusive and equitable quality education” and “lifelong learning opportunities for all”. We now have a rare opportunity to put the major universities at the forefront of the online revolution with the numerous donors willing to fund the pursuit of the SDGs and the numerous regional universities in a position to deliver them. These regional universities can now play a more powerful social role by offering online or blended learning to displaced communities within their regions – and beyond.

Their help will certainly be needed if the UN is to achieve its ambitious targets for educating refugees. At present, only about 3 per cent are enrolled in tertiary level education, but the ambition of the Global Compact on Refugees and the #15by30 movement, is to increase this to 15 per cent by 2030. A brave new world is in the making, in which higher education is viewed as a human right. But universities must play their part.

One positive of the pandemic is how it has highlighted some unique education models and knowledge networks that have previously been established to support higher education access for the displaced youth. Much can be learned from them.

The Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, founded in 2016, consists of 27 university and non-governmental organisation members. It was formed specifically to support quality higher education in conflict and crisis zones via online learning. Several members of the CLCC have applied this expertise to the Covid-19 crisis at their own institutions. For instance, Southern New Hampshire University and their partners at Kepler, LASeR, Scalabrini and Jesuit Worldwide Learning have been able to provide internet vouchers for their students, as well as laptops for student use during quarantine. They are also sourcing solar charging stations so that students can keep their devices powered to study, and are offering counselling for students via WhatsApp.

Because these programmes are blended, they too have had to pivot, but this was much easier given the enabling factors already in place: digital literacy skills and flexibility were built-in from the start. The lack of face-to-face time is not ideal, but it enables learning to continue.

Canada’s York University, a part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees initiative, has also provided students with bundles so that they can use their mobile phones to meet virtually and collaborate. York has had to revise its assignment structure, noting that extended written work is too cumbersome for phones. Students are able to submit shorter journal entries, as well as extended oral presentations submitted via WhatsApp.

The university is also piloting an interesting student support model, in which on-the-ground graduate students (refugees enrolled in a master’s programme) work as on-site mentors, working directly with course directors in Canada to help deliver online courses. The mentors are responsible for providing direct support to up to 10 undergraduates on a weekly basis.

Moreover, the Instructional Design for E-Learning working group within the CLCC has been providing support to help university professors in Jordan develop the skills to design pedagogically sound online and blended courses: skills that not only benefit faculty in the short term, but are designed to build capacity in the long run as a greater emphasis is placed on blended learning regionally.

We are now at a crossroads. If we strengthen such inter-institutional links and create new ones, we can begin taking strides towards ending the inherent inequalities in higher education and help universities reach an entirely untapped pool of talent and potential via digital means.

It will take institutional will and commitment, but it would be an unexpectedly welcome outcome of Covid-19 if the most vulnerable were to benefit most.

Author Bios: Gül İnanç is a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University and the co-director of newly-established Centre for Asia Pacific Refugee Studies at the University of Auckland. Charley Wright is a connected learning specialist at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s Division of Resilience and Solutions.