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The first online university for refugees

Signal of change / The first online university for refugees

By Will Ingram / 16 Nov 2015

Germany has launched the first online university exclusively for refugees, offering free higher education anywhere in the world.

Kiron University is based in Berlin, and currently offers courses to 1,000 students, with at least 15,000 other refugees demonstrating interest in involvement.

Enrolment requires documents including refugee status proof from the UNHCR, and all students need to participate is access to the internet (or the ability to download offline courses when able to get online).

Funding has come from a crowdfunding campaign, and partner universities that include Yale, Harvard and MIT contribute courses.

The first two years of the university course are made up of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and the third year allows students to attend a traditional university and attend regular courses, all of which will be in English.

Image caption: Computer class at Nakivale Settlement, Uganda

Image credit: Stephen Luke / Flickr

So what?

The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes has undergone the biggest leap ever seen in a single year according to the UNHCR, which has been fuelled by geopolitical instability around the world.

Prof Ernst Schmachtenberg, President of the Kiron University partner institution RWTH Aachen University, says that “in the present situation, the integration of refugees into our society is an important task [and] education is a decisive factor for this integration”.

Despite the heated debate around refuge across Europe, this is part of a trend of welcoming and forward-thinking measures by non-state actors. Another example is the ‘Airbnb for refugees’, Refugees Welcome, which was set up in 2014.

Will Kiron University help enable fuller integration of refugee communities, and support recognition of the advantages of refugee integration?

Internet access for refugees is poor and inconsistent, however Facebook’s recent announcement that it is working with UNHCR to roll-out internet in UN refugee camps may allow more refugees to benefit from Kiron University. However, even with internet, might the lack of official documentation be a barrier for some refugees?

The university also heightens the potential of another trend. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are rapidly rising in popularity, and in 2014 the number of universities offering MOOCs doubled to around 400 universities. A total of 2,400 courses were offered by summer 2015.

Kiron University signals that this trajectory has reached a point where it can be exploited by social justice and political causes. Another recent example of this is the United Nations Environment Programme’s MOOC on ocean litter.

The power of opening up education to people in unstable states or with poverty stricken surroundings has enormous potential build a more secure future.

As the trend for open-access education online continues will we see it as a way to address more social justice issues, such as income inequality or geographical isolation?


Al Jazeera (October 29, 2015) Online university for refugees launched in Germany

Kiron University

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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