Rope Bridge

Guest Post: “Enabling equity and inclusion for asylum seekers and refugees through open education” by Gabi Witthaus

Image by Laughlin Elkind on Twitter, CC-BY

As proponents of open education, all of us in the OER19 conference community share a commitment to  ensuring equitable access to lifelong learning for all adults. However, it is now well understood in the sector that OERs and MOOCs tend to attract learners from privileged minorities rather than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A growing number of higher education institutions and third-sector organisations are trying to address this imbalance, and so I decided to see if I could bring together key members of a few such organisations for a panel discussion at OER19. I was thrilled when all four people I invited agreed to participate, and so on 10th April we will be hearing from Barbara Moser-Mercer (Director of InZone, University of Geneva), Markus Wachowski (Kiron Open Education gGmbH), Alessandro Caforio (Uninettuno), and Gill Ryan (Open University in Scotland). The panel will discuss how open education can enable equity and inclusion for asylum seekers and refugees.

This blog post introduces the work being done by the four organisations, and offers a taster of the issues the panel will discuss. In preparation for the session, we jointly produced a Padlet in which all the presenters answered the following seven questions about their work with asylum seekers and refugees:

  1. Please briefly describe how you use open education with refugees.
  2. What challenges/ obstacles has your organisation experienced in doing this work?
  3. How is your organisation’s open education work enabling equity and inclusion for refugees?
  4. In what ways is your organisation’s work helping to “bring open education in from the periphery”?
  5. How is your organisation’s support for refugees in open education sustainable, transferable and/or upscalable?
  6. What remains to be done?
  7. Further information and links

Below are the panel members’ responses to the first two questions. We are inviting OER19 participants to add comments and questions to the Padlet, so please head on over there if you want to contribute!

Made with Padlet

University of Geneva InZone

By Barbara Moser-Mercer

Please briefly describe how you use open education with refugees: We use OERs both for formal academic courses and non-formal courses. For formal academic courses OERs provide essential learning material, while the pedagogical environments in which they function (e.g. MOOC platforms) are rarely used due to connectivity constraints in the fragile contexts InZone works [such as refugee camps]. For non-formal courses which do not provide for recognised academic credit (ECTS), we make sure that all OERs are locally downloadable, saving precious connectivity time to be used for completing assessments on-line. For courses we build ourselves to meet specific and contextualised needs in emergency contexts, OERs are used whenever possible, although due to the limited availability of OERs in languages relevant to the refugee context, the use of these materials is often limited.

What challenges/ obstacles has your organisation experienced in doing this work? The most significant challenge is certainly the abundance of OERs in English, which requires significant contextualisation to be relevant to fragile refugee contexts. OERs pitched to an audience living in high-resource environments, irrespective of their quality, are not usable in extremely low-resource environments without rather significant additional efforts of adapting them to local connectivity and IT infrastructure and use on aging devices.

Kiron Open Higher Education gGmbH

By Markus Wachowski

Please briefly describe how you use open education with refugees: The study tracks that are Kiron’s core offer to its refugee students consist of curated MOOCS. Due to meticulous quality assurance, those can be matched with traditional higher education institution (HEI) offers. Further, additional learning material is compiled to enhance study success.

What challenges/ obstacles has your organisation experienced in doing this work? The main threshold was to prove that digital learning is equivalent to on-site studies. This has been achieved via a detailed and quality assured process to generate Learning Agreements with traditional HEIs.


By Alessandro Caforio

Please briefly describe how you use open education with refugees: In 2015 we launched the University for Refugees initiative. Implementing ENIC-NARIC guidelines about the recognition of refugees’ academic careers also in case of no documentation available, and creating an online platform for application and first curriculum screening steps, we gave opportunities to refugees from all over the world for accessing higher education. Uninettuno provides programs not just in Italian, but also in Arabic, French, English and other languages. Furthermore, we provided language courses (in Italian and Arabic) also as a free mobile app, and licences for OLS language courses (usually provided for Erasmus+ students).

What challenges/ obstacles has your organisation experienced in doing this work? Having started this initiative on our own, funding is the first issue. We provided the first 50 scholarships using University budget, then we managed to have an agreement with a private bank foundation (CARIPLO) providing other 20 scholarships. Having the objective to scale up the initiative (in terms of both population and services offered), we managed to apply for European funding under H2020 program, and we’ve been successfully evaluated. Another thing to address at the beginning was the “awareness raising”: how to reach the target population? We managed this contacting directly welcoming centers and refugee camps in Italy. But the first student applying for a scholarship was a Syrian student, hosted in Lebanon. We asked ourselves “how did he find us”, and then we found out: he was googling the name of one former professor of him, Fadel Sukkar, informatics professor at Aleppo University. And prof. Sukkar collaborated with us, recording a course about Informatics for our Computer Engineering Bachelor degree program. So Harout (that’s the name of the first refugee supported by our initiative) found his former professor, his video lectures and the scientific contents produced by himself, then he discovered the University for refugee initiative, and applied for it. Other students found us in the same way, looking for their former professor, and finding their video lessons recorded and available on our online learning environments.

Open University in Scotland

By Gill Ryan

Please briefly describe how you use open education with refugees: We have been involved in the RefER project , engaging with third sector organisations and integration services in Scotland to determine learning needs and gaps in resources for refugees/asylum seekers. We have also co-created an OER  with the Bridges Programmes in Glasgow.

What challenges/ obstacles has your organisation experienced in doing this work? Challenges are ongoing. The co-production model worked well and ensured the learner voice was central. However the OER was in English. We don’t have the resource to produce OER in each relevant language, to meet the diversity of learning needs and levels. No one size fits all. Possibly the most pragmatic approach is to strive for maximum adaptabilty of OER – of content, format and accessibility.

Send us your questions/ comments before the panel presentation!

To see the presenters’ responses to the rest of the questions, and to add your own comments or questions for the panel to discuss on the day, please visit the Padlet at I will be co-facilitating the session on 10th April with Maren Deepwell, and I look forward to a dynamic conversation between the presenters and OER conference participants, starting from now!

Post by Gabi Witthaus, open educator and researcher; digital learning designer at University of Birmingham. Blog:  Twitter: @twitthaus