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The Role of MOOCs in Humanitarian Affairs

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Author: Draego Zubiri, Project Manager, FutureLearn

The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) aims to facilitate access to higher education for those displaced and affected by the Syrian crisis in Jordan and Lebanon, including disadvantaged local populations. It is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), through the Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme. 

Together, FutureLearn, King’s College London, American University of Beirut, Al al-Bayt University, and Kiron Open Higher Education provide a suite of online and blended learning educational offerings to target learners in Lebanon and Jordan, ranging from online short course (MOOCs), study-tracks, and certificate programmes.

FutureLearn and King’s College London work closely to deliver a range of foundational short courses, with topics ranging from English, Healthcare, Business to Digital Skills. These courses are available to any learner across the globe, who will be given a Certificate of Completion from King’s College London and FutureLearn upon completion of the course. 

As the project is now well into its third year, well-earned successes have been celebrated, considerable lessons have been learnt and acted on, and plenty remains in store for how the programme can continue to deliver even greater value to its target learners. As a key player in transforming access to education worldwide, FutureLearn must continue to posit the question: what role do MOOCs play in transforming and providing access to education for individuals affected by conflict and displacement?


What MOOCs have to offer

Firstly, FutureLearn’s social learning platform provides displaced people with a sense of shared learning, where learners are able to converse, tell stories, and share lived experiences with other learners, fostering a sense of community and identity which is often lost by these individuals. As two learners commented:

Thank you King’s College London and FutureLearn for this course. This is a great course, which has helped me improve my English. I enjoyed interacting with others in the chat. I made new friends and hope to see them again in the second week. See you soon!

I finally finished my first week and just wanted to thank my teacher for the support and for responding to my comments. I enjoyed meeting students from different parts of the world. This has been an exciting experience. Good luck to everyone in the second week!

Secondly, the affordances of MOOCs allow for themselves to be easily accessible to a broad range of learners. FutureLearn’s mobile-friendly programming ensures that the MOOCs are accessible to all learners across all smart devices. Similarly, courses can be designed to ensure they are accessible to even those with low bandwidths or slower internet connections. Language support may also be provided in digital formats for learners of varying cultural backgrounds on an as needed basis.

Thirdly, MOOCs are by nature scalable learning assets requiring minimal overhead from organisations while being able to provide learners with ongoing access to education anywhere in the world regardless of time and place. To date, 180,000 learners have accessed the FutureLearn MOOCs by King’s College London, with up to 3,700 learners self-reporting as refugees based either in Jordan, Lebanon, or worldwide.* It is also worth noting that more than 90% of these learners have reported a ‘positive’ learning experience with the MOOCs.**


Barriers and challenges faced

While MOOCs offer a number of powerful affordances that have been driven and enabled by the Digital Age, there remain barriers and obstacles specific to reaching these hard to reach audiences and displaced individuals. For one, in order for MOOCs to be successful they must be appropriately promoted to these audiences for them to be made aware of the offering. Refugees and displaced people may not always be directly accessible by conventional above the line marketing activities. And in such circumstances, stakeholders on the ground, such as governments, UN agencies (UNHCR), INGOs, educational institutions, and third sector parties, therefore play a pivotal role in promoting these MOOCs and ensuring they reach their target audiences.

MOOCs alone are also not always sufficient in providing the holistic support needed by these vulnerable populations. Learners may need additional face to face support and require additional scaffolding through their learner journey in order for such provision to be effective. PADILEIA has sought to set up study hubs, such as that in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, for example, where the MOOCs as well as other PADILEIA educational offerings are delivered and facilitated through the support of a full-time facilitator. Alongside the option to learn on the blended and facilitated model, the study hubs also provide learners with access to computer and mobile devices, a stable WiFi connection, potable water, and public restrooms.


The future of MOOCs in humanitarian affairs

What does this mean for the use of MOOCs in contexts of mass displacement? FutureLearn and MOOCs alone will not be sufficient to close the deepening educational divisions left by the Syrian refugee crisis, as it is evident that such targeted interventions require multi-level and multi-stakeholder support and collaboration in order to maximize this provision and deliver the holistic support needed by such populations.   

Programmes such as PADILEIA are fundamental in stringing together a wide range of stakeholders, with a variety of complex strengths, capabilities, and opportunities to reach the most vulnerable and displaced members of society. While barriers remain, the success of MOOCs in international projects such as PADILEIA, however, suggests that MOOCs will continue to play a greater role in humanitarian affairs in providing free access to education to those most in need. The way in which they are deployed, supported, and augmented by wider targeted international efforts and initiatives, however, must continue to be honed and refined over time. We are likely to see increasingly closer and more diverse forms of collaboration between private sector, government bodies, higher educational institutions, and non-profit organisations, in the wider quest to transform access to education for all, where MOOCs will undoubtedly continue to play a key role in achieving this.

* Based on an optional anonymised online survey on learner beneficiary status.

** Based on an optional anonymised online survey on learner satisfaction.

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