The increasing number of migrants and refugees places demands on European education systems. According to the UN, only 50% of refugees have access to primary education, compared with a global level of more than 90%.
Furthermore, only 1% of refugees are participating in higher education. Education, however, is regarded as the key to helping migrants improve their language skills and knowledge about their host country, and also to finding employment. This goes beyond formal education programmes.
Technological opportunities are seen as cost-effective, scalable and flexible ways to skills development for migrants and refugees. However, although free digital learning (FDL) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were initially conceived as means of democratizing access to education, the use of MOOCs by vulnerable groups (including migrants and refugees) and less educated individuals is much lower than expected.
In order to assess the extent to which MOOCs and other free digital learning offers, such as mobile learning, are effective and efficient ways of developing the skills needed by migrants and refugees, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre conducted a research project in the second half of 2016 in collaboration with external experts. The study included a literature review, a mapping of relevant initiatives (see online catalogue), and the results of twenty-five interviews with key informants from ten different FDL initiatives and four focus groups with thirty-nine migrants/refugees, in different situations and with different profiles.
The JRC has just released the final report of the study: Free Digital Learning Opportunities for Migrants and Refugees: An Analysis of Current Initiatives and Recommendations for their Further Use. The report could be of interest to educators, providers of initiatives and policy makers. The main results of the study are presented below:
- Awareness: There is a lack of awareness of FDL among migrants and refugees. The use of adequate communication channels such as social media or FDL “ambassadors” may increase awareness.
- Flexibility: FDL allows migrants and refugees start acquiring the skills they need for asking for asylum, a resident's permit, housing or looking for employment, even before they arrive in the host country. The use of FDL in refugees’ countries of origen and refugee camps has been identified as an opportunity.
- Complement vs substitute: Migrant/refugee learners perceive FDL as a complement to face-to-face formal and informal/non-formal learning rather than a substitute. Targeted, blended (a mix of online and face-to-face learning) and facilitated (as opposed to self-learning) approaches are considered the most effective means of engaging migrant/refugee learners. Face-to-face education is valued because it establishes a social network.
- Adaptation: Initiatives should adapt to learners’ characteristics. The developers of FDL initiatives should take into account the fragility and diversity of migrant/refugee target groups. Co-development with learners and cooperation with other initiatives and sharing of good practices can be helpful. Technology should also be adapted to the restrictions of the target groups (e.g. in some camps, internet connexion can be difficult).
- Language learning: This is a first-priority for the general migrant and refugee community. Mobile apps could provide easily accessible first steps towards language learning and integration. Blending language training with other content acquisition enhances the efficacy of FDL initiatives.
- Recognition, quality assurance and accreditation: FDL Higher Education initiatives should consider using Bologna tools and pursue recognition by European quality assurance agencies. Efforts should also be made to encourage employers to recognise FDL oriented to labour market skills.
- Sustainability: FDL should not rely only on foundational funding, such as crowd-funding or grants. Diversification of funding, cooperation between initiatives, alternative income mechanisms and good communication channels to reach target group is needed.
Finally, the study identifies two main research gaps that need to be covered in order to continue improving the design of an adequate offer of FDL for migrants and refugees. First, most FDL initiatives belong to the Higher Education sector and little evidence is available about other migrant/refugee learning groups and their digital learning needs. Secondly, the lack of specific (public) data on participation and completion makes it difficult to understand how refugees and migrants use FDL and the effects it has.