Foundations for All: Making Blended Learning Work for Refugees

Written by Dr Kate Symons, Online Learning Coordinator, MCFSP Edinburgh

How can blended learning help refugees access higher education? This is the question posed by a two-year action research project called Foundations for All, funded by the Mastercard Foundation research fund, and investigated by a partnership between the American University Beirut in Lebanon, the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Uganda, and the University of Edinburgh. Higher education is important for institutional and social development, and it is also key at the individual level where it greatly improves job prospects, enhances opportunities for creative and intellectual development, and boosts self-esteem and confidence. Yet, only 1% of the poorest 25-29 year olds in low income countries complete four years of higher education, and even fewer of these are refugees. Refugees and displaced people are increasingly permanent features of host countries, and for many nations (including our study contexts of Lebanon and Uganda), repatriation is small or non-existent. Many of the refugees in this situation want to access education and dignified work, yet struggle to access higher education due to multiple barriers (economic, administrative and cultural). Many have had interrupted education, and are also unable to prove any qualifications they may have attained due to lost paperwork.

Blended learning combines online learning (such as online lectures, discussion boards and digital resource lists) with face-to-face teaching (such as seminars and tutorials). Blended and online learning can be useful in situations of crisis and displacement because it can provide a recognised qualification and academic credits without students having to attend regularly, it allows students to study at their own pace; it can support and engage different learning needs, and can help draw together academic resources and teaching with in person and online psychosocial support, an aspect which is very important for refugees. As part of the research project, we are investigating how to design and provide blended learning through the research partnership to allow refugees in Uganda greater access to higher education.

It seems like a long time ago now (pre lockdowns!), but in February 2020 two of the three Foundations for All partner teams met up in Kampala, Uganda to workshop curriculum design and accreditation for this blended learning programme. The workshop took place over four days, and was attended by the Mastercard Foundation Program at Makerere University, Refugee Law Project, the University of Edinburgh project team members, academic and administrative faculty at Makerere University, and Refugee Law Project tutors and learners from its two project locations in Uganda (Kampala and Kiriyandongo settlements).

One of the goals of the workshop was to agree on educational aims in order to be able to design a curriculum which meets the needs of the learners. The workshop built upon two weeks of field research in Lebanon in summer 2019 focused on access of Syrian and Palestinian refugees to higher education and an existing blended bridging program (the Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access – PADILEIA) which was conducted by staff from the three partner institutions and Mastercard Foundation scholar researchers. Foundations for All is a complex project covering different work packages, so this blog post reports on a just few areas which are of particular relevance as we navigate intensified interest in blended and online learning, and considers the debates around refugee access and digital education.

In Uganda we explored the potential learner’s own perceptions of education, their ambitions and obstacles, and how they understood access to higher education. The students provided vivid articulations of the interconnected barriers and challenges, including multiple demands on time, insecure employment, forced resettlement and insecure residency, sickness and disability, gender dynamics, as well as practical challenges like connectivity. Students emphasised the importance of a meaningful pathway through education – that an access programme really should provide access (including a recognised qualification and opportunities to get financial help and scholarships). Students also spoke about the importance of being provided with an opportunity to reflect on global issues such as public health, environmental management and sustainability, along with critical reflection on refugees and displacement. Undoubtedly, the most important was the issue of psychosocial support; the multiple challenges of effectively navigating a complicated education system when one is dealing with the enduring effects of traumatic experiences and protracted precarity.

This feedback has fed into the design of the proposed curriculum for Foundations for All, both practically and pedagogically. Key points for us include:

  • Students and tutors were keen to stress that our academic programme must have a very clear focus and must not raise expectations among refugee learners that it is unable to meet. It must be clear to the learners what kind of accreditation is being provided, what kinds of access this gives, and what is the pathway after taking the courses. In particular, our students reported that without an accredited and recognised outcome, the programme will be far less valuable to the learners.
  • The academic content must also give students a reasonable chance of passing relevant higher education exams, the closest to home for learners in this case being the Makerere University Mature Entry Exam, which focusses on literacy, numeracy and specialist subject areas.
  • The programme must have integrated and extensive psychosocial support for learners. This is an area which the Refugee Law Project partners have extensive experience and they are developing this aspect of the program. Their work will likely include a dedicated, unaccredited module, training for tutors to recognise and support students, as well as a system for effective referrals to other services.
  • The programme should provide practical assistance which could include study facilities, IT and connectivity, as well as advocacy and support to navigate the complexities of higher education entry and scholarship availability. While Foundations for All does not (yet!) include dedicated scholarships for tuition fees and support, we do note the Mastercard Foundation’s ambition to greatly increase the scholarships offered to refugees. This will be so important in the future in providing Foundations for All learners (and students on similar access programmes) with a meaningful pathway to higher education.

What’s next for Foundations for All? We are of course all grounded due to COVID, so all of our research is taking place at home and meetings are taking place virtually. From Edinburgh’s perspective, our challenge for the coming six months is to design a blended learning curriculum which meets the needs of refugees, provides them with a good chance of passing a university entrance exam, and which can hopefully provide internationally recognised credit for higher education access. (In the meantime, our colleagues at the Refugee Law Project are developing a full psychosocial support programme, and the American University Beirut are developing a scoping tool and case studies working with Mastercard Foundation scholar researchers). This is challenging work, but the payoff will hopefully be a transformative programme that not only meaningfully addresses refugee’s barriers to education but also facilitates psychosocial recovery.

About Foundations for All:

Foundations for All is a two-year action-based research project which will provide insights to the Mastercard Foundation and others on how to effectively provide access to higher education for displaced and refugee young people. Using a contextualised blended learning program and qualitative research across Uganda and Lebanon, the project will focus on refugees in crisis-affected environments with limited financial resources. Foundations for All has two core and interrelated components: 1) the establishment of a university bridge program targeting disadvantaged refugee and host community members in Uganda; and 2) action research in Uganda and Lebanon aimed to inform the development of similar programs in other contexts. Through developing these complementary elements, Foundations for All will provide a viable model for the extension of blended learning and bridging programs in other relevant contexts, and insights into how to effectively facilitate access to and future success in higher education for displaced and refugee young people. Partners include the Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University; The American University Beirut; The University of Edinburgh; and, the Mastercard Scholars Program.

About the Mastercard Foundation Research Fund:

The Mastercard Foundation Research Fund supports credible evidence to helps identify ideas and approaches with the potential to alleviate poverty. Through its research, the Foundation identifies emerging trends, disruptions, and opportunities to develop evidence to inform policy and country plans. The Foundation works to return evidence to communities, engage young people in its research and builds the capacity of African researchers and evaluators.