Crossing Borders in Higher Education: Empowerment Through Internationalized eLearning

Presentation at 27th International Council for Open and Distance Education, October 16-19, 2017, Toronto, CA

Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) is an organization providing refugee students with the opportunity to obtain university-level degrees. This presentation draws from experiences in designing and delivering two different multi-site blended courses for BHER to learners in Dadaab refugee camps, Kenya and to York University students living in the Toronto area.  The face-to-face course components are delivered separately in Canada and Kenya, with learners sharing the online learning space. We will discuss approaches to course design, instructional challenges, and student successes.

It is imperative that students in the most marginalized and precarious positions have access to higher education and that students in more privileged positions recognize and value the lived experience of others, but the material (geographical, environmental, economical) and social distance between these learners can lead to a detrimental sense of disconnection. We will propose, therefore, that the distinct contexts of the learners, the use of educational and/or digital technologies, and the course content, must be tightly entwined to produce deeply engaging and meaningful learning experiences.

Writing: Process and Practice is a General Education course running over an 8-month period. The basic goal of the course is to build critical skills, approaches to which vary widely.  Faced with the challenge of directing a writing-focused General Education course with online tutorials for both learners in Toronto and Dadaab, creating learner-centered course components that were also writing-intensive seemed a possible solution.

The course pedagogy is therefore rooted in theories of writing, such as ecocomposition, that forefront the individual learner’s own experience and context. Activities are designed so that learners in both locations explore, narrate, and share personal experiences and perspectives. Creating a space where student-writers reflect on their own life as part of the writing process engenders a deeper investment in the act of writing.  Somewhat surprisingly considering the many differences between the two groups, the nature of the writing activities offered moments of recognition and camaraderie. The student-writers gained insight into experiences other than their own and found areas of common ground. What began as an unplanned outcome has become a pedagogical goal.

Access to digital technologies varies greatly between students in the two locales.  When Education and International Development was offered as a summer term condensed 4-week course, the students in the Dadaab refugee camp had access to their course website only once a week. To encourage collaboration between learners in both countries, student discussions for group assignments were facilitated through the WhatsApp mobile chat application.  Adopting this communication technology that was already widely used in the Dadaab refugee camps made it feasible to assign cross-cultural groups for projects.  Successfully completing group assignments with classmates at a distance through mediated forms of communication mirrors contemporary scholarly and workplace practices. Also, learners were encouraged to answer single-question polls, and to share photos, audio clips, and videos on various topics.  These initiatives were to break down preconceptions and foster community building within a short time period.  In the case of the course Writing: Process and Practice, more conventional online tools facilitate student interaction, which is not to say that newer tools are not beneficial, but that in the case of a writing intensive course which emphasizes the individual’s experiences, content is arguably of more importance than the mode of communication.

This presentation will demonstrate how encouraging students to consider and reflect on the relationship between their material and social conditions and their individual identities, and providing a means where such considerations and reflections can be shared with classmates across great distances, facilitates internationalization and, in tandem, empowers individual learners.