The Hub Disruptive innovation in education can empower refugees

Disruptive innovation in education can empower refugees

By: Peggy Lynn MacIsaac, Ed.D. Candidate

Higher education can have a transformative impact on the lives of refugees. In recognition of World Refugee Day on June 20, Athabasca University (AU) Doctor of Education in Distance Education candidate Peggy Lynn MacIsaac shared how her research can help provide meaningful educational opportunities to refugees worldwide.

Who’s missing from higher education?

Peggy Lynn MacIsaac in front of a colourful mosaic
Peggy Lynn MacIsaac in a Doctor of Education in Distance Education candidate at Athabasca University.

Disruptive innovation brings new customers to an existing sector. Distance education, through an ever-changing suite of communication technologies, has a long history of doing this for many populations of learners. One such population is college-aged people living in refugee camps.

Worldwide in 2018, only three per cent of this population was enrolled in higher education, compared to 37 per cent of college-aged non-refugees. Refugees face many barriers to higher education. Unlike elementary and fundamental stages of schooling, access to higher education is narrowly protected as a human right to be available and accessible on the basis of merit. Mobility restrictions prohibit refugees from attending classes outside of camps.

Refugees live in a context of transition without knowing if they will return home, live permanently in their location of first asylum, or resettle in a third locale. They also do not know if this liminal situation will be short term or protracted for decades. At the end of 2016, 4.1 million people continued to be displaced for more than 20 years.

Distance education is uniquely well suited to overcome these barriers as a learner can start studying while living in one place and finish while living in another.

Higher education in emergencies

Educational initiatives in emergencies are hubs of transformation, and post-secondary graduates become the instruments of change in their communities. The UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 identified education as a broad-reaching effective initiative for reducing poverty, fertility rates, and child mortality—and increasing sustainable practices, disaster preparedness, and constructive political participation.

The full range of distance-education delivery formats (print correspondence, online, and mobile) are currently in use for higher education in emergency contexts. My own research explores the use of mobile instant messaging for online discussions in a York University course on education and international development, in which some of the learners were non-refugees living in Canada and some were refugees living in Kenya or Thailand. Dr. Don Dippo, the course director, described the course curriculum as exploring the transformative and disruptive power of learning to impact social, political, economic, and environmental change within the context international development. The course is part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Program, exploring international educational curriculum with international learners across multiple sites.

The course was cohort-based, allowing refugee and non-refugee learners to work together on group presentations and participate in online discussions. The first year I worked with this course, the learners lived in Kenya or Canada. In 2017, I shared results of studying that class at the ICDE 2017 conference.

“Distance education is uniquely well suited to overcome these barriers as a learner can start studying while living in one place and finish while living in another. ”

– Peggy Lynn MacIsaac, Athabasca University Ed.D. candidate

One Toronto-based learner wrote of the classmates based in a refugee camp in Daadab, Kenya: “I assumed that they would not be able to complete their share of the work due to language issues. However in working with them I realized that that was simply a stereotype I had. They were extremely engaged, in constant communication and did a lot of research and had beautiful responses to our case study project.”

Another Toronto-based learner reflected on the personal connections with international learners and the relevance to the curriculum: “Collaborating with students regarding internationally was … a refreshing concept. It was interesting to interact with them and engage in professional dialogue regarding common issues that exist internationally. It grounded me with a different perspective on education and international development.”

A third learner wrote of a shift in personal perspective: “Prior to this course I had not realized the capabilities of the refugees and the rights that they had. A big label that I grew up with involved refugees being placed in the category of the ‘needy.’”

Through individual communications, non-refugee learners began to see refugees in terms of their capacities and intrinsic rights. In 1916, John Dewey wrote, “education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession. It modifies the disposition of both the parties who partake in it.”

Connecting through AU

Athabasca University was instrumental in a series of events that led me to this research. As a student in the Doctor of Education in Distance Education program at AU, Dr. Marti Cleveland-Innes pushed me to consider potential areas of innovation within open and distance education. I have worked within distance education since 2004 and have seen the beauty of providing access to higher education for individuals who do not otherwise fit well in face-to-face institutions.

I wondered, “Who may still be left out of higher education?” For Cleveland-Innes’ course, I chose to investigate contexts in which it was unsafe for the instructor or learner to attend face-to-face classes, such as during environmental contamination (e.g. the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster), violence perpetrated against those involved in the education system (e.g. Boko Haram bombing at schools and kidnapping of learners), or a serious outbreak of a communicable disease. At the time, I referenced the Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa but we have since seen this unfold in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This cemented my interest in education in emergency contexts.

The summer following that course, Athabasca University hosted the Open Education Consortium Conference in Banff, Alta. Axel Meisen, former director of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, delivered the opening remark to the conference and encouraged the audience to create Internet-based educational opportunities for camp-based refugees.

Meisen reiterated the context for millions of people in these situations who are rich in time and have restrictions on their mobility, and for whom education can “help them immeasurably within camp and as well as when they re-enter normal life.”

“I wondered, 'Who may still be left out of higher education?'”

– Peggy Lynn MacIsaac, Athabasca University Ed.D. candidate

This was the nudge I needed to connect theoretical ideas of education in emergencies with the practical needs of a specific group of learners.

Later that same summer my co-supervisor Dr. George Siemens, who is on the International Advisory Board for the Geneva Learning Foundation, made an introduction for me that led me to study at the Geneva University Summer Institute the following year. There I studied with people who worked in higher education solely in emergency contexts.

From this, I began working with the York University course that has become the basis for my doctoral research that helps distance educators design higher-education courses for learners living in refugee camps.

There are several AU researchers whose work impacts education for refugees, including my other co-supervisor Dr. Mohamed Ally, who is a Commonwealth of Learning chair.

Peggy Lynn MacIsaac is a Doctor of Education in Distance Education candidate at Athabasca University, whose doctoral research focuses on helping distance educators design higher-education courses for learners living in refugee camps. An animated introduction to her research is available at:

  • June 19, 2020
Guest Blog from:
Peggy Lynn MacIsaac, Ed.D. Candidate