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Education for Humanity takes leadership role in refugee education

ASU to co-lead the convening body Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium.
Only 1% of refugees have access to higher education; UN goal is 15% by 2030.
Education gets only 2% of humanitarian funding; most of that goes to primary ed.
July 16, 2019

ASU initiative offers online courses to displaced communities around the world

Education for Humanity, an initiative of Arizona State University, is helping to address the needs of the world’s refugee population by extending educational access to communities affected by displacement.

The initiative, which works in partnership with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, humanitarian organizations, ministries of higher education and refugees themselves, offers online courses that are facilitated by local teachers in refugee settlements and urban communities around the world.

Now, Education for Humanity will be stepping into a leadership role as one of the co-lead institutions of the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, the primary convening body for organizations involved in connected, or blended, learning in emergency contexts.

Nicholas Sabato, director of country programs for Education for Humanity, answered some questions from ASU Now.

Question: What does Education for Humanity do?

Answer: Established in 2017 with external investment and the support of ASU President Michael Crow, Education for Humanity currently serves over 700 learners in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and will soon welcome new programs in Ethiopia and Malaysia. We have examined how ASU’s digital offerings can best be paired with local expertise and facilitation to help refugee learners meet their individual ambitions. This manifests itself in a number of ways, such as a Syrian learner in Za’atari Camp taking Learn English Now courses from Global Launch to increase employability prospects or a South Sudanese refugee taking college algebra in Adjumani, Uganda, to gain credits that transfer into a local Ugandan institution.  

We focus on providing an increasingly diverse menu of relevant, recognized postsecondary educational offerings that enable learners to gain skills, credentials and build confidence. It is our objective to continue engaging with a variety of partners to expand our offerings and number of sites to further meet the dramatic need for higher education opportunities for displaced learners and the communities that have welcomed them.

“The global community is faced with a question of how we can catalyze our communal resources to avoid a 'lost generation' of youth. ... Education is widely seen as the ticket to enhance self-reliance and stimulate economic mobility and, frankly, only 1% of refugees having access to higher education isn’t fair nor acceptable.”
— Nicholas Sabato, Education for Humanity

Q: What is the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium?

A: The Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium serves as the primary convening body for organizations involved in connected, or blended, learning in emergency contexts. The consortium aims to promote, coordinate, collaborate and/or support the provision of quality higher education in contexts of conflict, crisis and displacement through connected learning by sharing and disseminating knowledge, experience and evidence; developing innovative and good practices; and ensuring accountability to students and their communities in order to foster self-reliance.

In practice, the consortium serves as a platform for universities, nongovernmental organizations, foundations and multilateral institutions like the U.N. to come together and share promising practices and challenges and seek innovative ways for the sector to better serve refugee learners. The consortium coordinates roundtable advocacy meetings with ministries of higher education in countries of operation, most recently in Lebanon and Jordan.

A primary objective for the consortium moving forward, and part of ASU’s leadership responsibility, is to advocate for governmental policies to recognize the quality of connected learning programs as well as provide further opportunities for its member organizations to expand program operations. With only 1% of refugees currently having access to higher education and opportunities in host communities already constrained, the consortium aims to move the needle on utilizing connected learning as a means for achieving the U.N. refugee agency’s stated objective of increasing refugee access to higher education to 15% by 2030.

Q: What will Education for Humanity’s new leadership role be?

A: The Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium is coordinated by two co-lead institutions, and Education for Humanity will be assuming one of these positions in January 2020. Upon establishment of the consortium in 2016, the inaugural co-leads were UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency) and University of Geneva InZone.

After 18 months of membership, ASU was elected by its peers alongside UNHCR in the June meeting at U.N. City in Copenhagen to serve in this leadership capacity, thus providing a significant platform for ASU to guide the evolution of the refugee education sector to reflect the desires of refugee learners and member institutions. This leadership opportunity comes with significant responsibility including the promotion of promising practices for program implementation, working with ministries and funding agencies to advocate for further connected learning support, and developing complementary pathways for organizations to increase learner opportunities for further education and vocational opportunities.

As co-lead, it will be our responsibility to build upon the foundation of the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium with a fresh set of eyes, seeking new ways to be inclusive of all stakeholders and empower members with innovative opportunities to further meet their strategic objectives.

Underlining the stated responsibilities of ASU in this role is the need to call further attention to the lack of resources currently available for organizations offering higher education to refugees. On the whole, education only receives roughly 2% of the humanitarian funding comprehensively and, of this 2%, the vast majority is allocated toward primary education. Of course, this focus on primary education is entirely warranted, but we see it not as a mutually exclusive investment and hope to raise awareness of the immense benefits, direct and indirect, that can result from further support of tertiary education for displaced learners.

Q: How will this directly affect refugees?

A: The backbone of any successful consortium is a commitment to shared objectives amongst its members, and we’re fortunate that the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium was founded on a set of principles that are uncompromising in the commitment to the inclusion and reflection of refugee ambitions in all program designs. It is a tenet of the membership application process to demonstrate responsible connected learning practices and position learners at the center of all of our programs.

As such, we see the consortium as both a mechanism to promote quality educational programs for refugees but, perhaps more so, a convening platform for organizations to collaborate in providing more pathways for refugee learners to achieve their goals. For example, there are currently a number of programs that provide university preparatory offerings but relatively few that provide verified teacher training programs, so the consortium can highlight these gaps and promote the creation of relevant offerings that have been voiced by learners as areas of interest.

Ideally, the consortium can serve as a win-win-win platform that leverages institutional strengths for the benefit of refugees. In Amman, Jordan, for example, ASU provides our Be a Successful Online Learner modules that introduce strategies for engaging in a connected environment and build confidence in doing so. We partner with Jesuit Refugee Service, an NGO with facilities and teachers in Amman, and then learners that complete our courses matriculate into a Bard College academic program also being offered with Jesuit Refugee Service. Learners in Amman, therefore, are able to engage in a streamlined experience that involves three different organizations to reach a specific academic goal. It is our hope that more of these collaborative opportunities will germinate within the consortium and scale to better serve refugee learners.

Q: Why is this work important?

A: Though statistics rarely communicate the nuances of a situation, I think it’s important to first communicate a snapshot of the current global displacement emergency. There are currently over 70 million individuals displaced, 26 million of whom are refugees, and over half of these individuals are under 18 years of age. Of the 26 million refugees, 84% are currently residing in developing countries such as Jordan, Uganda and Ethiopia. Eighty percent of these individuals have been displaced for a period of over five years, often residing in refugee camps or, more often, living in urban communities of the host country. Though refugee resettlement to a third country (such as the United States, Canada or Australia) is often discussed, the reality is that only 1% of refugees are currently being resettled to third countries and resettlement is therefore an extremely unlikely option for most refugees.

Given these statistics, the global community is faced with a question of how we can catalyze our communal resources to avoid a “lost generation” of youth. Humanitarian organizations and UNHCR continue to provide support for basic needs of refugees but, particularly for those in protracted situations, the question is often, “What next?”

We hope that this type of work can eventually answer that question. Education is widely seen as the ticket to enhance self-reliance and stimulate economic mobility and, frankly, only 1% of refugees having access to higher education isn’t fair nor acceptable. With increasing connectivity and the importance of developing digital skills, the use of technology as a support mechanism in connected learning in tandem with local partnerships provide a natural solution to the current levels of educational inaccessibility.

It is therefore incumbent upon leading global organizations that prioritize access to education to do so, and the consortium serves as a mechanism to help us all do so responsibly. Whether a refugee learner is interested in starting her own business or becoming a lawyer, it is critical for institutions like ASU and other organizations to collaborate globally and locally to afford such opportunities, enabling learners to gain skills and develop professionally to contribute when the time comes to eventually rebuild their home country or contribute in their new environment.

It is therefore our humble view that this work is not only important for refugees themselves, but is in fact a critical endeavor that is undeniably in the best interest of the global community at large, and we are proud to be a part of it.

Top image by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU offering rapidly deployable online courses to refugees, displaced people

March 1, 2019

Education for Humanity partners with local groups for access to higher education

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

Every day, more than 44,000 people are forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution, conflict or generalized violence. Millions cross borders into new countries seeking safety, bringing with them a determination to positively contribute to their new communities. 

More than 85 percent of these refugees flee to developing countries, often without the ability to continue their education or get jobs. Restricted to a refugee camp or trying to make ends meet in an urban center, many want to gain skills that will benefit them in their new communities and also when they return to their countries and rebuild.

Education for Humanity, an initiative of Arizona State University, is meeting that need by offering online courses to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Uganda and Rwanda. Soon, the program will expand to Ethiopia and Kenya.

“Once food and shelter are handled, often the next concern is, ‘How do I continue my education?’” said Nicholas Sabato, director of country programs for Education for Humanity. The initiative is managed by EdPlus, the unit at ASU that creates technology and forges partnerships to develop new ways of teaching and learning.

More than 68 million people are displaced around the globe, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, and fewer than 1 percent have access to higher education.

Most refugee-education programs focus on primary schooling, according to Pamela DeLargy, senior adviser on international development initiatives in the Office of the President. She has worked with refugees for more than 20 years, most recently with the United Nations in Ethiopia, before coming to ASU last year to help advance Education for Humanity.

“They completely forget the young adults who are refugees or people who were already in college who had to flee,” said DeLargy, who is also a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies. “There are tens of thousands of these people who would be going to college if their home country was safe.”

With the first courses offered in fall 2017, Education for Humanity deliberately started small. In 2018, 422 learners took courses. But there have already been successes: Some of the program’s students were hired by international organizations after completing a few of the English-language courses.

“Overwhelmingly people see education as hope,” Sabato said. “In each setting, learners have responded extremely positively to this opportunity, demonstrating incredible commitment in engaging with the courses.”

Education for Humanity faces complicated challenges. Every country has different requirements for accreditation and many of the refugees live in areas with limited infrastructure and internet connection. Many refugees are so busy with the responsibilities of daily life that finding time for classes is difficult. Most have never learned online before. But ASU has been able to leverage its expertise and partnerships to deliver a variety of online coursework.

“Some learners engage with the intent to gain quick skills for employment and others see it as an opportunity to pursue a degree,” Sabato said.

Young people in Uganda take courses through Education for Humanity

Education for Humanity launched in Uganda last year, offering courses to refugees from South Sudan. Photo by Marc Alan Sperber/EdPlus at ASU

Most of the students are ages 18 to 35, and they typically learn in a room set up with several computers. Local teachers are hired as facilitators on site to help guide the students.

The course offerings are based on what the refugees and the local partner want, as well as the host countries’ policies toward refugees’ livelihoods.

“In the Middle East, English language offerings are paramount,” Sabato said. “In Uganda, it’s a bit different because there is so much more freedom for refugees to move and work and have access to different opportunities, so being on a degree pathway has been in high demand.”

Education for Humanity offers a course in how to successfully learn online and English-language courses from Global Launch as well as content from ASU Online. The program is developing “micro-credentials” in areas including teacher training and entrepreneurship to serve as the midway point between short-term skill development, like English courses, and a long-term degree pathway. 

Sabato spends a lot of time working with partners in the host countries, such as humanitarian agencies and ministries of education.

“In a given trip, I meet with learners, refugee aid organizations, U.N. Refugee Agency representatives and host country government officers who determine which programs are allowed to run in the camp setting,” he said.

“I gather that information and bring it back for discussion. There is a lot of two-way communication between ASU and our program sites, determining which courses are of most value and how they can be offered appropriately.”

Coursework developed for western audiences must be contextualized for students in Africa and the Middle East, he said.

One of the biggest challenges is poor internet service.

“Even if there is connection, it’s often slow. It may work well for one person but is inevitably challenging for 25 people in a class,” he said. “If our courses have any media, like video or photos, it tends to cause delays so we had to tailor our content to make it low-bandwidth friendly.”

Education for Humanity is now working on partnering with SolarSPELL to deliver an agribusiness course to an unconnected refugee settlement in Uganda. SolarSPELL, a solar-powered, offline digital library that provides localized educational content, was invented by Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

The courses are free for the refugees. Education for Humanity was launched two years ago with support from a private donor and matching funds from ASU.

“Without President Crow deciding that this was a worthy endeavor, this would never have happened at all,” Sabato said.

“Moving forward we’re looking at a mixed model of continued ASU operational support along with external funding from foundations and governments — U.S. and foreign — to support the project.”

A critical key for success is Education for Humanity’s partnerships with nongovernmental organization partners, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, where ASU serves as the higher education provider in conflict-affected countries around the world.

“We’re seeking partnerships with like-minded humanitarian agencies around the world, through which we can complement their existing services with our educational offerings,” he said.

“We intend to be reflective of President Crow’s vision of a rapidly deployable higher-education option for crises as they emerge.”

Education for Humanity aims for gender parity among its students, but it’s a challenge.

“One of our programs in Amman, Jordan, was 80 percent female, which was quite unique. Of course, we were extremely pleased with that level of engagement,” he said. Most classes are around 40 percent female, and family responsibilities are often cited as reasons for dropping out of the courses.

“We’re trying to figure out flexible ways to keep them engaged and continuing the courses, like offering them at different times of the day or utilizing centers that have child care,” he said.

“Another component is having staff accompany them home from the center at night.”

While many Westerners perceive food, shelter and medicine to be the most pressing needs for refugees, education is critical for their future, DeLargy added.

“Almost half of the refugees in the world today have been refugees for more than 20 years,” DeLargy said. “There are refugee camps that are 30 and 40 years old. There are two or three generations of people who haven’t been able to go home.

“If you look at the Syrian refugees, it’s been five years now. You can’t stop education or you get a whole generation of people who are not literate and don’t have the skills to properly contribute.”

Those skills are critical if the refugees want to go home, she said.

“In any post-conflict environment, you have to have human resources to rebuild the country — teachers and doctors and engineers and planners and electricians,” she said. “And if you don’t have that, conflicts are likely to last longer too.”

Top photo: Education for Humanity launched in Uganda in 2018, offering "Be a Successful Online Learner" courses and first-year university courses. Photo by Marc Alan Sperber/EdPlus at ASU

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News