MOOCs and their potential for Education in Emergencies (EiE)

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Wars and natural disasters disrupt the provision of education, as chronic crises and early reconstruction focus primarily on core humanitarian objectives such as water, sanitation, health, food and shelter. And yet, Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education, which should contribute to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations, and contribute to maintaining peace. Written by Barbara Moser-Mercer, Director InZone



Education does represent a vital protection mechanism, it contributes to political stability and develops leadership potential in fragile states. But one of the first impressions upon setting foot in a refugee camp is that of bare survival, followed by a sense of awe regarding the extraordinary resilience refugees exhibit in the face of protracted displacement from their home communities. Having lost everything, education is by far the only asset they own, and at the same time the most promising prospect for bettering their lives and improving their livelihoods.

MOOC-type courses are said to democratize education, to provide access to knowledge for everyone, irrespective of their personal circumstances and geographic origin. The digital (r)evolution has allowed us to bring on-line learning to scale and as is the case with most disruptive developments, not all shines as bright as it is made out to be; but amid a lot of the hype there is uncontested potential for MOOCs to contribute to the objectives set out in the campaigns Education for All and Education 2015+.

InZone set out to research how MOOC-type courses could indeed provide access to higher education for all. The case study research “MOOCs in fragile contexts” is set in Dadaab Refugee Camp, the world’s largest camp on the border between Kenya and Somalia and home to 450’000 refugees. Several refugees signed up for and followed a 5-week course on teaching on the Coursera platform, while the researcher followed the same course in a high connectivity environment. Among the challenges for the refugee learners were not only interrupted connectivity and the lack of technological infrastructure, but also linguistic and cultural challenges, proficiency in English to comprehend shades of meaning in quizzes modeled on multiple-choice exams prevalent in Western cultures, teaching and learning styles that represented a clear departure from traditions refugees had grown up with in their home countries, and differences in intellectual cultures. Life in fragile contexts is shaped by concerns about security and protection, access to water and food, and by a motivation to improve one’s livelihood. While these daily struggles have reinforced refugees’ resilience, hope for change is difficult to pin on Western-style courses, which transmit knowledge that is not easily reconciled with the dire realities of their existence.



Do we therefore need to declare a state of emergency for MOOCs? Are they not fit for emergencies? How far-fetched is their claim of democratic access to education? The InZone case study concludes with recommendations as to how learners in fragile contexts can benefit from on-line education provided course developers are aware of the challenges, design and develop courses learners will be able to access, in language(s) they will understand and which will respect humanitarian principles: Accepting a 90% attrition rate for a MOOC does more harm than good – it creates expectations and holds out hope, but then fails to deliver on these aspirations.

InZone and CERAH are currently developing a MOOC on Humanitarian Communication which will go on-line in the fall of 2014 and which respects the many constraints learners in fragile contexts face.



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