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Articles Mentoring

Accessing higher education: Online mentoring for Syrian students

Navigating the higher education system in a different country has never been easy – especially for refugees. Understanding the complex eligibility criteria, going through the application process, writing powerful personal statements, collecting, translating and preparing the required documents and submitting an error-free application is challenging for learners wanting to access higher education.

To tackle this, PADILEIA has launched a new mentoring programme in Jordan and Lebanon, helping Syrian refugee students and local students to apply for a scholarship and access a higher education course.

The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) produces and delivers blended higher education programmes to Syrian refugee students and local students in Jordan and Lebanon. Students can access curricula that provide micro-credentials in relevant fields, augmented by student support services and pathways into locally-delivered formal academic qualifications. The partnership aims to broaden access to high-quality educational programmes, provide a foundation for further higher education and prepare students for their futures.

Working with the Syrian Association for Education Development, PADILEIA’s new mentoring programme provides one-to-one tailored support for PADILEIA students wanting to apply for a HOPES-LEB scholarship and start their undergraduate studies.

The programme ran from 10 to 31 August 2020, with 4 hours of direct contact each week. 23 students were supported by 23 Arabic-speaking professionals who were scholarship recipients themselves. The mentors guided PADILEIA students to prepare their documents, write their personal statements, and complete and submit their application.

Through direct online mentoring – involving audio and video calls on Zoom, chat on WhatsApp, and working on living documents via Google drive – mentors and mentees worked through the application and the required documents in detail, making sure that everything was submitted correctly and on time. The effort paid off – in total, 22 of the 23 students managed to successfully submit their applications on time.

Looking ahead there are plans to build on this success: the programme is planned to run around major scholarship opportunities in Lebanon and Jordan throughout 2021 for PADILEIA students.

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Articles Digital Learning

Helping young Syrian refugees to access university and support their communities

Across Lebanon and Jordan, many talented young people are desperate to study for a university qualification but face significant barriers. In this article, colleagues from King’s College London discuss a unique project that is helping displaced young Syrians to gain vital skills and access higher education.

“What I really want is to be able to go to university….” This is what we heard again and again from displaced Syrian youth in Lebanon and Jordan at the start of our project, PADILEIA (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access), three years ago. As university graduates ourselves, we were not surprised: we were very aware of how university had transformed our own lives for the better.

Across Lebanon and Jordan, an estimated 76,000 Syrian young people aged 18 to 25 want to study for a university qualification but face significant barriers – such as recognition of prior learning, English language ability (a key requirement for regional universities), access to the internet, and disrupted schooling. 

The PADILEIA project was conceived to tackle these barriers. Together, an unusual partnership of three universities (King’s College London, American University of Beirut and Al al-Bayt University in Jordan), one non-governmental organisation (Kiron Open Higher Education in Germany) and a private company (FutureLearn, based in the UK) are helping to support the higher educational needs of Syrian refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon via digital and blended learning. The project is also extending this support to disadvantaged local students in Lebanon and Jordan.

Accessing higher education

The PADILEIA project offers students the chance to take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in subjects such as Business, Entrepreneurship and Healthcare. Designed by King’s College London academics, the MOOCs provide ‘taster’-style introductions to courses, and can accommodate unlimited numbers of students. There’s also an English language MOOC, to help students brush up their skills in readiness for university.

For students who want to dive deeper, the project offers eight-month Foundation degree courses, helping students to meet entrance requirements for universities in the region and abroad. Students are selected by interview, removing the need for past exam certificates, which many students are unable to provide due to school disruption. Alongside academic learning, students receive career counselling and mentoring on university and scholarship applications. Over the last two years, 47 of our Foundation course graduates earned scholarships and the courses received a 95% recommendation rate from participants. In total, 183 students have graduated since 2017, and another 240 students are projected to graduate by July 2021.

We also have over 5000 students studying on curated blended courses that are recognised by local universities and can be used as credit to transfer to these institutions. 

Online and blended learning 

PADILEIA courses are principally delivered online – students are able to study from home, which makes our offerings very flexible and accessible. We also provide face-to-face blended learning in our PADILEIA Campus, based in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, enabling students to engage with the course in a group setting. Facilitators with subject knowledge guide students through the courses, and offer support on digital and English language skills. 

This blended approach and online support mechanisms enabled our programmes to respond fast when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. We were able to quickly provide internet bundles and tablets for our students and to move all study programmes fully online, whilst maintaining student support. The facilitators knew their students well, so the transition was smooth and academic achievement hasn’t suffered. 

As Ismail Ababneh, VP for Administration and Student Affairs at Al al-Bayt University highlights: “The training that our instructors received on online teaching within the PADILEIA project has helped us to move swiftly and at very short notice to online instruction at Al al-Bayt University in response to Covid-19.”

We don’t know what the future holds in terms of face-to-face instruction – but we have developed programmes that can be delivered during uncertain and challenging times, when conditions change very quickly. This is the reality anyway for displaced populations; they have seen their world change completely in a matter of days and so they are ready, yet again, to adapt, to work hard and fulfil their dreams, if supporting structures are in place.

For us at King’s, it has been a very clear lesson: programmes created to respond to displacement crises can be very useful indeed for other forms of disruption too, such as Covid-19, experienced by all of PADILEIA’s partners from Beirut to Berlin, from Mafraq to London. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, refugee students continue to wish to study and get a university degree. We hope to continue to contribute to this.

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About Articles

Breaking down barriers to higher education for Syrian refugees

The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) was formed to meet the higher educational needs of Syrian refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon. With a shared interest in innovative digital pedagogy, student support models and transferrable skills, the PADILEIA partnership consists of three universities – King’s College London, Al Al-Bayt University in Jordan, and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon – as well as Kiron Open Higher Education, a digital education NGO, and FutureLearn, a leader in online learning.

Higher education has often been neglected in traditional humanitarian response strategies but plays a critical role in providing some refugees with a degree of continuity in their educational development and in enhancing their ability to make strategic choices about their futures (1). The large number of Syrian refugees has put pressure on the host countries’ educational institutions (2), causing challenges for education access. This pressure on the overall education system also creates barriers to higher education access for disadvantaged youth in both Jordan and Lebanon. Therefore, PADILEIA’s courses are open to anyone facing challenges getting into higher education.

A needs assessment conducted by PADILEIA found several barriers to higher education including recognition of prior learning and English language ability – a key requirement for regional universities. Most participants in the study had no prior experience in online learning and, although smartphones were widely available, a stable internet connection was not.

PADILEIA has developed a three-pronged approach to increase access to higher education: 

  • Bespoke short courses: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in subjects identified within the needs assessment such as English, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Healthcare.
  • Online learning: six to 12 months of online study with student support, leading to the transfer of credits into university.
  • Foundation Course: eight-month classroom-based blended learning to provide students with the knowledge and ability to meet entrance requirements for universities in the region and abroad. Examples include foundation level maths, science and English courses as well as university application support and building 21st century skills.

The story so far

Overall, PADILEIA has found a blended approach to be the most effective to increase students’ participation and completion of courses. Mixed support methods, as well as face-to-face contact are embedded into the programme.

The foundation courses have a high number of contact hours and have proven to be highly successful. In the first year, 31 foundation course graduates gained scholarships or employment and courses have received a 91 per cent recommendation rate from participants. 184 students are projected to graduate by July 2019. Informed by needs assessment, students are selected through an interview, reducing the barrier presented by the requirement of documentation of prior learning.

At Kiron, where more of the students’ learning is completed online on curated pathways built from existing digital content, courses have evolved to include more blended learning, which has improved student engagement. A live chat function and realtime feedback from support staff has also been developed to further increase student support. This adapted model includes working in a blended delivery setting with students.

The short, fully online MOOCs take a different approach, aiming for widening participation and reach and acting as a stepping-stone to university access rather than a full pathway. Three courses have been developed so far, and have been completed by 492 refugee or Jordanian and Lebanese students. PADILEIA has also pioneered a novel form of remote support, using WhatsApp as a low-cost tool to provide mentoring. This has proven to be an accessible method, allowing 30 students at King’s College London to connect with over 100 refugee students studying through PADILEIA. Students receiving the mentoring found it helpful to speak English with a fluent speaker and were able to exchange knowledge and learning about new cultures. Future MOOCs will include assessment and support from King’s College London academic volunteers to further support learners.(1) Dryden-Peterson, S., and W. Giles. “Introduction: Higher Education for Refugees.” Refuge 27, no. 2 (2010): 3–9(2) Sherab, D. and Kirk, K. (2016) Access to Higher Education for Refugees in Jordan. Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD)-Legal Aid, p. 7

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Articles Learnings

Key learnings from teaching English to refugees online

Online social learning platform FutureLearn is one of five partners working on SPHEIR’s PADILEIA (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access) partnership, which aims to help Syrian refugees and disadvantaged host communities to develop the skills they need for higher education. Here, Fiona Reay, FutureLearn’s Head of Client Services, reflects on some key learnings from a pilot series of online Basic English social learning courses delivered to refugee communities in Lebanon and Jordan.

We set up this summer’s first run of online social learning courses to test how digital education could be delivered in a blended classroom (online and face-to-face) to refugees and other beneficiaries. The courses, developed by our PADILEIA partner King’s College London , are elementary English  and pre-intermediate English  courses specially created for Middle Eastern learners. They tell the stories of local characters like Samir, Maya and Amena who learn practical phrases and hear British voices. The first runs of each course attracted 25,000 enrolments globally, with just under 10,000 learners creating over 100,000 comments, illustrating good learner engagement. 

Understanding needs was critical

A course that can meet the needs of every pupil in a classroom is rare, especially when trying to deliver online learning for people with only basic digital and language skills. The team at King’s College London invested in user research within the learning design phase of the course. A needs assessment deemed A1 and B2 English levels were the most critical to focus on for PADILEIA, to help participants build a credible pathway into higher education.

Online delivery allowed for data analysis and continuous improvement

A big benefit of the courses being online is that data analysis can be captured and used to both improve material for the future, and to explore current discussions in a more in-depth way. Each week learners log their sentiment in relation to the material with emojis – :), 😐 or 🙁 – and have space to provide more feedback if desired. It’s an easy way for educators to gauge whether the material has pushed learners enough, or has areas for improvement.

Understanding cultural differences is key to inclusion

Ensuring people learn at the best level to help them stretch and grow, while also making them feel confident enough to attempt new skills in front of a ‘crowd of peers’ was a challenge. Making a mistake in an online course could be ‘just part of the learning experience’ for one student, but outright embarrassing for another. Being sensitive to cultural differences was key.

The importance of mentors and modelling behaviour

To keep learners engaged and learning from each other in either the physical or virtual classroom, facilitators from King’s College London modelled the behaviour they wanted to see online from the students. Being curious and friendly, encouraging those who were ‘getting things wrong’ to keep ‘practising’ (whilst explaining the nuances of words) helped to keep them motivated.

WhatsApp chat message groups ran simultaneously to ‘official course commentary’, providing additional study and language support to a smaller cohort of learners. The study mentoring was provided by King’s student volunteers, who were specially recruited for the pilot, and trained in safeguarding, English language teaching and online facilitation in order to support learners. Many had already visited or taught English in refugee camps, and the best mentors had the tenacity to reinvigorate the conversation when things reached a lull, and inspire the learners to continue learning.

Sharing a photo was a good way to start a discussion, particularly with younger people so accustomed to social media. Food was also a great ice-breaker topic; students could upload photos of what they were eating with family or friends and discuss it with their peers.

PADILEIA offers additional mentorship and facilitation from partners, including the American University of Beirut  (Lebanon), Al al-Bayt University  (Jordan) and Kiron , an open platform providing education to refugees, as well as other schools, charity and non-government organisations.

Online accessibility for those in need

The courses are audio-heavy and students would listen to audio files of British voices – rather than watch large video files, which would be more difficult to stream. Learners could also download the material at the beginning of the session, so interruptions like power cuts wouldn’t feel as disruptive. By also providing written transcripts of all audio files, along with Arabic translations, the courses aimed to ensure students could experience the material without unnecessary obstacles.

Now and next

PADLEIA is one year into a five-year partnership. Through university partners in Jordan and Lebanon, this first year has had a focus on mixing practical skills with learning English, as part of a Foundation Certificate to build readiness for higher education. As part of the blended model, students have also been recruited onto online study tracks as well as FutureLearn’s platform. More online courses are planned in nursing, healthcare, entrepreneurial business topics and further technical skills.

See the available study opportunities from all partners at www.padileia.org