I Don’t Expect the Change the World, I’m Going to Help in Whatever Small Way I Can Part III

It’s August and now is the time for me to recover from stats class and get a few projects done before school starts in a few weeks. That means I’ll share the last section of my literature review. In the meantime, you can save the date on your calendar – in case any of you want drop by Hawaii – to see me speak at the 8th International Conference on Education and Social Justice in Honolulu.

This lit review should now be published on Open Praxis! (It’s not though, but it should be soon. Keep your eyes open for it.) It’s my first published journal article, so it’s very exciting. You can read my blog posts which are an earlier version of the article or the much-refined version all in one place here Vol 10, No 3 (2018) — just kidding, it’s not on their site yet.

This post is the third and last section that I’ve published on my blog and is part of the earliest version of this lit review that I submitted for my class. It took a few turns along the way and is a different paper now than what I started with. In Part I I began with an introduction to education for refugees. In Part II I addressed the importance and benefits of this much neglected aspect of refugee life. Here I discuss online learning and the programs that are the forerunners of this spectacularly innovative way to address education for refugees.

Online Learning in the Camps

Because refugee situations were never intended to be long-term (Dahya, 2016), the whole structure of education for refugees is constructed like a house of cards. The ultimate result is that there is little research in this area.  If refugees in camps are intended to be integrated elsewhere in short order, there is no need to create educational programs thus there is no focus on higher education (MacLaren, 2012). As a result, there is little to no funding, and if there is no funding then there are few programs and, as a consequence, there is no basis for a rich body of research. However, more recently there have been a few online and blended tertiary programs that contribute to the research in this area. The following will discuss each program and look carefully at the research that was written about each.

The earliest program of higher education in a protracted refugee situation that used online learning was a blended program in a camp in Thailand that began in 2002 (MacLaren, 2012). According to MacLaren, refugees had fled Burma because of intense political unrest that had been part of the, “longest-running civil war in the world” (p. 103).  After considerable planning by Australian Catholic University, a previously successful online program was adjusted for the situation in the Thai refugee camp and enrolled its first 21 students. Of those students, 17 graduated with the program’s diploma in Business Administration. A subsequent program granted a certificate in Theology to 5 students in 2009.

MacLaren (2012) gives an overview of the research that was undertaken by Simon Purnell by request of ACU and their committee that initiated the program called Refugee Tertiary Education Committee in 2006. The biggest weakness in this study is that there is no direct access to the research – it was commissioned by the body that paid for the program – therefore, it was also not part of the peer-review process. However, it does seem – although this is not clarified in the article – that there is an independent researcher who conducted the research.  The other major weakness in the overview on this study is that there is only a single sentence that describes Purnell’s methodology. Purnell used several focus groups and a questionnaire, but it is unknown how many students participated or what the content of the questionnaire would have been. These are all deep flaws in the transparency of this work.

A later study was done in 2009 (MacLaren, 2012). Although, however weak the previous review of the work had been done, there is even less concrete information on which to gain an objective view of the quality of the more recent study. In this work the researcher or commissioned body is not even mentioned.

The methodology, however, deserves considerable respect for the attention it paid to the needs of the people being studied. This included an intentionally casual approach to gathering research by a previously termed “hanging out” method (MacLaren, 2012). This procedure was used because of the habit of researchers in the camps to use the students for their own purpose of research then leave little evidence that there was real concern for them as people. Another problem within this body of research is the inability to find students for follow-up because of the transient nature of refugee camps, which is seen in this research. Some refugees are repatriated – sometimes to return to the camp at a later date – some are moved to different camps and some are accepted into other countries. While a few refugees may find relief elsewhere, the need for the camps, and the camps themselves, remain intact. In this case, 13 of the 18 students that completed the program contributed to the research.

While these studies are far from the standard of academic integrity, it appears that may not be the major concern of ACU. A pilot program was implemented for a group of people that have lost the attention of the international community – which tends to fund and implement these endeavors. If there is progress toward implementing much needed educational structure, then perhaps solid academic procedure should come second.

The second of three online programs that has taken place in refugee camps was implemented in Kenya in 2014 (Abdi, 2016). This undertaking was a collaborative effort on behalf of several Canadian (York University and University of British Columbia) and Kenyan (Kenyatta University and Moi University) universities collectively calling the project Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER). The major focus in this program was teacher training; the purpose of this concentration was twofold. First, it created employment opportunities for refugees upon repatriation or immigration to another country. Second, it intended to create a greater resource for education within the camps. If there were more teachers, then more students could be reached. More importantly, teacher training with refugees moves the historically colonialized educational system to education that implements principles and values based on the pre-colonized culture.

The greatest strength of this study is the ability of the researcher to recognize and address the needs of the students. Abdi (2016) addresses very poignantly the purpose for this research and the affect it has had personally:

The data used in this article draws on research conducted for my doctoral dissertation, which explores the role of education in post-conflict societies, such as that of Somalia, in bringing about sustainable peace and justice. As an educator and researcher who grew up in a relatively peaceful Somalia, I am haunted by questions about how education can be used as a vehicle to reimagine peace and unity in my homeland. (p. 22)

Other areas of effectiveness of this work include – while qualitative like the other studies – several types of data collection including, “semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, observations and written notes” (p. 22).

To the great benefit of this body of research, Abdi (2016) has taken into consideration the social justice issues that should be a concern of researchers in the field. However, the methodology of this study is less than supportive of a rigorous and thorough study. Within the article, there is only a single paragraph that even addresses methodology, and there are only two related sentences within that paragraph. We are told that there are 19 participants, that the use of critical pedagogy is used for data analysis, it is a qualitative study and we are given the research gathering methods. We are not given any other information on the participants or the type of or specific questions that are asked. These areas could be more extensively addressed as well as including a larger participant group.

Additional programs were set up in Kenyan camps (called Dadaab and Kakuma and another in Nairobi) by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) with several iterations (Wright & Plasterer, 2010). The first was on an undisclosed date but in partnership with the University of South Africa. A second program began in 2010 through JRS with several Jesuit universities, and a final program in 2011, with the University of Denver, Colorado. The problems with this program centered on the weaknesses of the infrastructure, mainly that the Internet was so slow that it was essentially unusable. Later changes were made that significantly improved the Internet speed. Wright and Plasterer note no specific positive results were given in this study of the online learning because the focus was a general look at the positive effects of higher education.

The methodology for the Wright and Plasterer (2010) study was stronger than in the previously mentioned studies. Qualitative data was collected from 15 interviews from “representatives” of organizations participating in running the camps. There was also an intention to gather opinions from people that hold a variety of educational roles in the camps. This description from Wright and Plasterer (2010) detail the exact nature of the data collected, “Triangulation was used through the collection of ‘rich data’ in the form of verbatim transcripts and in situ observation from two different camp settings, along with primary and secondary documentary research” (p 45).

The major weakness of this study, as noted by Wright and Plasterer (2010), is the lack of student voices. The researchers intentionally choose this method because it protected the refugees from feeling taken advantage of, which was a developing pattern with researchers in the camps. As a consequence, we do not hear directly from the students, yet they are protected from any exploitation. Wright and Plasterer also noted the possible biased nature of the feedback from organizers rather than students.

Perhaps the most thorough studies conducted on online programs are performed by Thomas Crea. His first work appears to be a follow-up to the program that Wright and Plasterer (2010) attended to in the Kenyan camp called Kakuma, although there were additional locations added to the 2010 – 2014 program.  The focus of this study was to look at the effectiveness of the pilot project objectives (Crea & McFarland, 2015). The objectives were to provide adequate Internet service, and provide online tertiary and community service programs – for which the students were expected graduate from by the end of the pilot. The results indicated that the objectives were all successful to some degree.

This is the first piece of research that focuses exclusively on a specific online program rather than higher education in refugee camps in a more general way.  And the first step in looking closely at this program would be to address the effectiveness of the program objectives, which is precisely what Crea and McFarland (2015) accomplish. Their methodologies are meticulous. This is also the first study that uses quantitative data. They explain the procedure of coding data, “to produce a grounded theory of the [students’] perceptions and understandings” (p. 240). It included both administrators and students for a total of 122 participants over the three locations and two programs. Data was taken from 22 focus group discussions and gender demographics were also included.

Crea’s 2016 follow-up study looked more closely at the urgently needed students’ perspective of their experience with tertiary education in the camps. He asked the following questions:

  • How do refugees characterize their current quality of life, related to education and beyond? (2) What are the main benefits of participating in higher education for refugees? (3) What are the main challenges to this participation, related to the program design, implementation, and context? (p. 14)

It appears that the same group of participants was used in the 2016 Crea study as in the previous 2015 study.  There were 96 participants from the Malwai and Kenyan camps, although 10 of those participants were not students and there was no explanation for the addition of those participants. An additional 26 students from Jordan were included.

Again, there was quantitative data that was used as well as additional qualitative data (Crea, 2016). Participants were given the WHOQOL-BREF quality of life survey. The survey identifies four life areas including: physical health, psychological health, social relationships, and environment. There are 26 total questions formulated from each of these areas.  The results indicated strong reliability in physical health and environmental well-being. Reliability was not as significant in psychosocial health. Research assistants within teams coded and identified themes with the exception of the Jordan results, which were analyzed by the author.

Crea (2016) included additional focus groups using a semi-structured methodology.  There were 29 participants in the Kenyan camp for a total of 9 focus groups. The combination of both qualitative and quantitative research provides evidence of a well-structured study. In the Malwai camp there were 57 students and 10 staff with 9 focus groups. In Jordan there were 26 students making up 3 focus groups.

The results indicate that the participants valued education because of the skills gained and, “feelings of empowerment, related to their expanded worldview” (Crea, 2016, p. 16).  One of the greatest perceived benefits for the students was the support they could provide for their communities because as educated people, they were held to a higher standard of respect. Students appreciated the opportunity to have access to education, which they might not have had access to otherwise, as well as having a chance to learn English. As is expected with any educational program, there were weaknesses. There was an obvious cultural bias in the class materials because the books were published in North America. Communication with instructors tended to be inconsistent and students had common difficulties aligning the expectations of the instructor with the realities of living in refugee camps. Most importantly, students struggled because basic necessities were often lacking including food and clean water. Crea made program recommendations based on several of these areas.

A third study was undertaken by Crea and Sparnon (under review) within the same previously noted program. To follow a thorough investigation of the JC:HEM program, this study examined the perspectives of faculty and people facilitating the program. Participants were interviewed and given a survey and 43% completed at least part of the survey. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used. Overall, the response from faculty and staff was that the program had positive effects on the students’ lives. A central theme that came from both staff and faculty was the need and importance of good communication throughout the length of the program.

One of the weaknesses of this study was the low response rate to the survey. It was also not articulated as to why interviews were used for staff and a survey was used for instructors. Although, both of these criticisms could be attributed to the instance of using volunteer instructors and the difficult logistics of communicating with students in a sub-Saharan refugee camps.

Possible Areas for Future Study

There are several areas within this oeuvre that, if addressed, would provide a more well-rounded knowledge base. The obvious first area would be a study that is published, and has undergone the process of peer review, from research within the discipline of educational technology. Sociology has gifted us with some preliminary yet strong research in which to base future inquiry.

Second, more quantitative studies would contribute to the majority of the qualitative research done thus far. It would also be beneficial to have larger groups of participants. It is unfortunate, but understandable, that the previous researchers constructed their work as they did. Within refugee camps, the population is understandably transient, the infrastructure is weak and inconsistent so tracking students and gathering quantitative data and getting feedback from large groups of students is problematic. Therefore, few quantitative studies and smaller sample sizes are to be expected.

A strong area to add an educational technology contribution to this field would be to find a missing piece for which online learning can fill a hole in the already existing sociological literature. Some possible directions of interest might be: using online learning design to focus on the educational needs of women, designing instruction that is more culturally sensitive and supportive of the cultures in which the instruction takes place and designing ESL classes to supplement the other classes in the programs.

The benefit of having no previous research to work from is that the landscape is open. There is the opportunity to develop a solid structure of practices for higher education online learning for refugee camps based on strong evidence that is informed by well-constructed research. A good foundation would be to begin with a needs analysis. Once a direction is determined for how to proceed, then it is possible to move forward in a way that best benefits the people that want an education.

Works Cited

Abdi, F. A. (2016). Behind Barbed Wire Fences- Higher Education and Twenty-first Century Teaching in Dadaab, Kenya. Bildhaan- An International Journal of Somali Studies, 16(1), 8.

Beech, H. (2017). Bangladesh Plans to Build Huge Refugee Camp for Rohingya. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/16/world/asia/rohingya-bangladesh-refugee-camp.html

Crea, T. M., & Sparnon, N. (under review). Democratizing education at the margins: Faculty and practitioner perspectives on delivering online tertiary education for refugees.

Crea, T. M. (2016). Refugee higher education: Contextual challenges and implications for program design, delivery, and accompaniment. International Journal of Educational Development, 46, 12-22.

Crea, T. M., & Mcfarland, M. (2015). Higher education for refugees: Lessons from a 4-year pilot project. International Review of Education, 61(2), 235-245. doi:10.1007/s11159-015-9484-y

Dahya, N. (2016). Education in Conflict and Crisis: How Can Technology Make a Difference? A Landscape Review. Germany: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.


Figures at a Glance. [Web page]. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

Gutiérrez, K. D. & Jurow, A. S. (2016): Social Design Experiments: Toward Equity by Design. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 565-598. doi:10.1080/10508406.2016.1204548

Hakami, A. (2016). Education is our weapon for the future: Access and non-access to higher education for refugees in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from: https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/2415482/Hakami_Anna.pdf?sequence=1

MacLaren, D. (2012). Tertiary education for refugees: a case study from the Thai– Burma border. Refugee, 27(2), 103–110.

Refugee. (n.d.). Retrived from: http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/refugees/index.html

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 65–73. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00338.x

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). (2012). Education strategy 20122016: Summary. Geneva: UNHCR, Division of international protection. Accessed 15 September 2017, from http://www.unhcr.org/4af7e71d9.html

Wright, L. & Plasterer, W. (2010). Beyond basic education: exploring opportunities

for higher learning in Kenyan refugee camps. Refugee 27(2), 42–57.

Zeus, B. (2011). Exploring Barriers to Higher Education in Protracted Refugee Situations: The Case of Burmese Refugees in Thailand. Journal of Refugee Studies 24(2), 256-276. doi:10.1093/jrs/fer011



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