Refugees Are Turning to Free Online Courses to Build New Lives

A partnership between the U.S. State Department and Coursera will provide access to about 1,000 classes.
(Photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)
Jun 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jillian Frankel is an editorial intern for TakePart. She is the features and student life editor at the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

Learning English, computer programming, or how to interview for a job might soon be easier for people who have fled war and sectarian violence, thanks to a new partnership between the U.S. Department of State and online learning company Coursera. The federal department and the California-based company have teamed up for Coursera for Refugees, a program that allows displaced people to gain job skills by enrolling in any of Coursera’s roughly 1,000 online classes.

The partnership will provide access to “career-relevant education at no cost—both to individual refugees and the nonprofits that serve them—offering an employer-validated learning solution with the potential to directly drive success in achieving refugees’ goals around the world,” Coursera spokesperson Kelsey Nelson wrote in an email to TakePart.

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The 65 million people around the world who have been displaced from their homes might not have a laptops, tablets, or the internet connections needed to take a course such as English for Business and Entrepreneurship. To bolster accessibility, Coursera for Refugees takes advantage of the expertise and resources of both the State Department and nonprofits that are already working with those who need assistance.

“We’re partnering with the State Department because we know we can’t do this on our own,” Nelson wrote. “Our theory of action is to support the organizations that are on the ground. These organizations can provide access to the support professionals and technology that are so important for ensuring refugees are successful. The State Department will directly reach refugees, as well as connect us to other on-the-ground organizations conducting this critical work.”

Government officials will be responsible for suggesting nonprofit partner organizations to Coursera, but other nonprofit refugee-aid agencies are also welcome to apply to participate. If their applications are approved, these groups will be given online-class-fee waivers for the refugees they serve. Then they can choose which courses will best help and improve refugees’ job prospects.

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This isn’t the first time the State Department has promoted free online learning around the world. In 2013, it launched Massive Open Online Course Camp at U.S. embassies and consulates. The camps offer online courses from Coursera as well as from edX, a platform created in 2012 by Harvard and MIT.

Given that MOOCs tend to have high dropout rates and be impersonal, some critics might suggest that an online learning experience isn’t ideal for educating refugees. A study conducted in December 2014 by researchers from Coursera, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Washington found that 78 percent of respondents who accessed online classes through Coursera already had a bachelor’s degree at minimum. The study also found a dismal 5 percent completion rate among those taking the platform’s free courses.

“Distance learning is difficult in the best of circumstances,” Keith David Watenpaugh, the director of human rights studies and associate professor of human rights studies at the University of California, Davis, told The Chronicle of Higher Education last fall about a separate initiative from the University of the People to help 500 refugees earn online degrees. “We have to be very cautious in its use against vulnerable populations like Syrian-refugee students.”

To combat the disappointing completion statistics, the program will supplement the online courses with in-person classroom discussions in areas with large numbers of refugees.

“Different organizations will provide support in different ways,” Nelson wrote. “Many will offer access to computers and opportunities to meet in-person with course facilitators, who will help the refugees move past challenges they encounter and motivate them to complete [the courses].”

The program will also learn from pilot projects that have already begun using Coursera to educate refugees. “The initial organizations we are working with are planning to reach several hundred refugees in the coming months,” Nelson wrote. “[But] we expect it won’t take long for this initiative to impact tens of thousands of lives.”