The title of this blog post is a question I would like to find an answer to through my PhD studies. As a first step towards this goal, I was privileged to be able to join a group of 14 refugees who have been studying through MOOCs, supported by Kiron Higher Education Organisation, at a study weekend held in Berlin on 4-6 August. This group, from all over Germany, are amongst the first 30 or so of Kiron’s participants to have met the requirements – fluency in German and participation in a number of recommended MOOCs – to apply for entrance to German universities. (Kiron currently supports over 2,000 refugees in almost 100 countries, with offices in three focus countries; approximately ten learners are already on their way to transfer from the Kiron support programme to universities, leading the way for the group I met on the weekend.) Kiron provides academic support in a university preparatory programme as well as five discipline-related “study tracks”, and last weekend’s event was focused on the Business & Economics and Mechanical Engineering study tracks. Volunteer tutors from Kiron’s partner RWTH Aachen ran tutorials, covering a syllabus that would normally be taught over at least two months in one and a half days. Because the students had already worked through much of the content in the respective MOOCs, they were well prepared and eager to use the opportunity to augment their learning.
I was given two slots on the agenda – an hour before lunch with half the group, and an hour after lunch with the other half. In the first focus group I started by asking “What helped you learn in your MOOC studies”, and then quickly modified the question to “What helped you learn in your online studies?”, when I found that two of the learners had not yet completed any MOOCs; however they had learned online from YouTube and Google. To elicit as much information as possible in the short time available, I ran the two sessions like workshops, starting with a “silent brainstorm” in which I asked the students to write their responses to the question on A4 sheets. They then stuck their sheets on the wall, grouping similar ideas together, and we ended with a group discussion around some of the topics that had emerged. All participants consented to me contacting them afterwards for individual, online interviews, to follow up in more detail on the points they had made. Before doing so, I will carry out a preliminary analysis of the focus group discussions and liaise with staff at Kiron to identify themes that they would like me to explore further with the participants, in order to help them enhance the support they provide for their learners. I will also receive some input from my module tutor at Lancaster University, Prof. Murray Saunders, to help me shape the research plan.
It was an immense privilege to be with Kiron’s tireless and upbeat staff (Sophia, Elyzabeth, Mehmet, Florian, Donya, Milena and Laura) and dedicated volunteers (Gui and Lucille), the energetic volunteer tutors (Stefan, Aras, Ibrahim and Mihir), and the students, who were amongst the most motivated adult learners I have ever met. I was struck by the atmosphere of optimism, kindness and gentle humour that pervaded the weekend, and the strong bonds of friendship between all of us that were built in such a short space of time. I am hugely looking forward to learning more from this special community about how open, online learning can be harnessed for the benefit of refugees and the wider society of which they are a part, and will be sharing my learning journey here as I go along. I welcome comments from “Kironistas” and other open education practitioners who are interested in this project.
Many thanks to Sophia Burton and Florian Rampelt for being my “critical friends” for this blog post.