The reason that there are so few research studies which look at online learning in protracted refugees situations is the result of the domino effect. One situation affects another and the result is that there is little research in this area. Refugee situations were never intended to be long-term (Dahya, 2016), thus there is no focus on higher education (MacLaren, 2012), as a result, there is little to no funding (MacLaren, 2012), and then there are few programs and if there are only a few programs, then there can not be a rich body of research. However, more recently there have been a few tertiary programs that are either blended or online in these situations. The following will discuss each program, and look carefully at the research that was written about each.
The earliest program of higher education in a protracted refugee situation that used online learning was a blended program in a camp in Thailand that began in 2002 (MacLaren, 2012). According to MacLaren (2012) refugees had fled Burna because of intense political unrest that had been part of the, “longest-running civil war in the world” (p. 103). After considerable planning by Australian Catholic University, a previously successful online program was adjusted for the situation in in the Thai refugee camp and enrolled its first twenty-one students (MacLaren, 2012). Seventeen of those students graduated with the program’s diploma in Business Administration. A subsequent program granted a certificate in Theology to five students in 2009 (MacLaren, 2012).
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MacLaren (2012) gives an overview of the research that was undertaken by Simon Purnell by request of ACU and their committee that initiated the program called Refugee Tertiary Education Committee in 2006. The biggest weakness in this study is that there is no direct access to the research – it was commissioned by the body that paid for the program – therefore, it was also not part of the peer-review process. However, it does seem – although this is not clarified in the article – that there is an independent researcher who conducted the research. The other major weakness in the overview on this study is that there is only a single sentence that describes Purnell’s methodology. Purnell used several focus groups and a questionnaire, but it is unknown how many students participated or what the content of the questionnaire would have been. These are all deep flaws in the transparency of this work.
A later study was done in 2009 (MacLaren, 2012). Although, however weak the previous review of the work had been done, there is even less concrete information on which to gain an objective view of the quality of the more recent study. In this work the researcher or commissioned body is not even mentioned.
The methodology, however, deserves considerable respect for the attention it paid to the needs of the people being studied. This included an intentionally casual approach to gathering research by a previously termed “hanging out” method (MacLaren, 2012). This procedure was used because of the habit of researchers in the camps to use the students for their own purpose of research then leave little evidence that there real concern for them as people (MacLaren, 2012). Another common problem within this body of research is the lack of always finding students because of the transient nature of refugee camps, which is seen in this research. In this case, thirteen of the eighteen students contributed to the research (MacLaren, 2012).
While these studies are far from the standard of academic integrity, it appears that may not be the major concern of ACU. A pilot program was implemented for a group of people that have lost the attention of the international community – which tends to fund and implement these endeavors. If there is progress toward implementing much needed educational structure, then perhaps solid academic procedure should come second.
The second of three online programs that has taken place in refugee camps was implemented in Kenya in 2014 (Abdi, 2016). This undertaking was a collaborative effort on behalf of several Canadian (York University and University of British Columbia) and Kenyan (Kenyatta University and Moi University) universities (Abdi, 2016) collectively calling the project Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER). The major focus in this program was teacher training (Abdi, 2016). The purpose of this concentration was twofold. First, it created employment opportunities for refugees upon repatriation or immigration to another country (Abdi, 2016). Second, it intended to create a greater resource for education within the camps (Abdi, 2016). If there were more teachers, then more students could be reached. More importantly, teacher training with refugees moves the historically colonialized educational system to education that implements principles and values based on the pre-colonized culture (Abdi, 2016).
The greatest strength of this study is the ability of the researcher to recognize and address the needs of the students. Abdi (2016) addresses very poignantly the purpose for this research and the affect it has had personally:
The data used in this article draws on research conducted for my doctoral dissertation, which explores the role of education in post-conflict societies, such as that of Somalia, in bringing about sustainable peace and justice. As an educator and researcher who grew up in a relatively peaceful Somalia, I am haunted by questions about how education can be used as a vehicle to reimagine peace and unity in my homeland. (p. 22)
Other areas of effectiveness of this work include – while qualitative like the other studies – several types of data collection including, “semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, observations and written notes” (p. 22).
To the great benefit of this body of research, Abdi (2016) has taken into consideration the social justice issues that should be a concern of researchers in the field. However, the methodology of this study is less than supportive of a rigorous and thorough study. Within the article, there is only a single paragraph that even addresses methodology, and there are only two related sentences within that paragraph. We are told that there are nineteen participants, the use of Critical Pedagogy is used for data analysis, that it is a qualitative study and we are given the research gathering methods. We are not given any other information on the participants or the type of or specific questions that are asked. These areas could be more extensively addressed as well as having a larger participant group.
Additional programs were set up in Kenyan camps (called Dadaab and Kakuma and another in Nairobi) by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) with several iterations (Wright et al., 2010). The first was on an undisclosed date but in partnership with the University of South Africa (Wright et al., 2010). A second program began in 2010 through JRS with several Jesuit universities, and a final program in 2011 [I realize these dates are incongruent. Perhaps there is a later edition of this study?], with the University of Denver, Colorado (Wright et al., 2010). The problems with this program centered on the weaknesses of the infrastructure, mainly that the Internet was so slow that it was essentially unusable (Wright et al., 2010). Later changes were made that significantly improved the Internet speed (Wright et al., 2010). No specific positive results were given in this study of the online learning because the focus was a general look at the positive effects of higher education.
The methodology for the Wright and Plasterer (2010) study was stronger than in the previously mentioned studies. Qualitative data was collected from fifteen interviews from “representatives” of organizations participating in running the camps (Wright et al., 2010). However, there was an intention to gather opinions from people that hold a variety of educational roles in the camps (Wright et al., 2010). This description from Wright et al. (2010) details the exact nature of the data collected, “Triangulation was used through the collection of ‘rich data’ in the form of verbatim transcripts and in situ observation from two different camp settings, along with primary and secondary documentary research” (p 45).
The major weakness of this study – as noted by the authors – is the lack of student voices (Wright et al., 2010). The researchers intentionally choose this method because it protected the refugees from feeling taken advantage of, which was a developing pattern with researchers in the camps (Wright et al., 2010). As a consequence, we do not hear directly from the students, yet they are protected from any exploitation. Wright et al. (2010) also noted the possible biased nature of the feedback from organizers rather than students.
Perhaps the most thorough studies conducted on online programs are performed by Thomas Crea. His first work appears to be a follow-up to the program that Wright et al. (2010) attended to in the Kenyan camp called Kakuma – although there were additional locations added to the 2010 – 2014 program. The focus of this study was to look at the effectiveness of the pilot project objectives (Crea et al., 2015). The objectives were to provide adequate Internet service, provide online tertiary and community service programs – for which the students were expected to be graduated by the end of the pilot. The results indicated that the objectives were all successful to some degree (Crea et al., 2015).
This is the first piece of research that focuses exclusively on a specific online program rather than including higher education in refugee camps in a more general way. And the first step in looking closely at this program would be to address the effectiveness of the program objectives, which is precisely what Crea et al. do (2015). Their methodologies are meticulous. This is also the first study that uses quantitative data. Crea et al. explain the procedure of coding data, “to produce a grounded theory of the [students’] perceptions and understandings“ (p. 240). It included both administrators and students for a total of 122 participants over the three locations and two programs (Crea et al., 2015). Data was taken from 22 focus group discussions and gender demographics were also included (Crea et al., 2015).
Crea’s (2016) follow-up study looked more closely at the urgently needed students’ perspective of their experience with tertiary education in the camps. Crea also, “examine[d] survey data collected from these students related to their quality of life, and compare[d] these data with their assessments of higher education as a means of exploring the context of their education” (p. 12). It appears that the same group of participants was used in the 2016 study as in the previous 2015 study. Again, there was quantitative data that was used as well as additional qualitative data (Crea, 2016). Participants were given a quality of life survey as well as participated in focus groups. The combination of both qualitative and quantitative research provides evidence of a well-structured study.
The results indicate that the participants valued education because of the skills gained and, “feelings of empowerment, related to their expanded worldview” (Crea, 2016, p. 16). One of the greatest perceived benefits for the students was the support they could provide for their communities because as educated people, they were held to a higher standard of respect (Crea, 2016). Students appreciated the opportunity to have access to education, which they might not have had access to otherwise, in addition to a chance to learn English (Crea, 2016). As is expected with any educational program, there were weaknesses. There was an obvious cultural bias in the class materials because the books were published in North America (Crea, 2016). Communication with instructors tended to be inconsistent and students had common difficulties aligning the expectations of the instructor with the realities of living in refugee camps (Crea, 2016). Most importantly, students struggled because basic necessities were often lacking including food and clean water (Crea, 2016). Crea (2016) made program recommendations based on several of these areas.
A third study was undertaken by Crea and Sparnon (under review) within the same previously noted program. To follow a thorough investigation of the JC:HEM [I’m not sure how clear I’ve been on the make up of this program and may need to explain in more detail.] program, this study examined the perspectives of faculty and people facilitating the program (Crea et al., under review). Participants were interviewed and given a survey and 43% completed at least part of the survey (Crea et al., under review). Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used (Crea et al., under review). Overall, the response from faculty and staff was that the program had positive effects on the students’ lives (Crea et al., under review). A central theme that came from both staff and faculty was the need and importance of good communication throughout the length of the program (Crea et al., under review).
One of the weaknesses of this study was the low response rate to the survey. It was also not articulated as to why interviews were used for staff and a survey was used for instructors. Although, both of these criticisms could be attributed to the instance of using volunteer instructors and the difficult logistics of communicating with students in a sub-Saharan refugee camps.