Online learning opens up so many doors. At Kiron Open Higher Education, a curriculum based on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) enables us to remove significant barriers faced by refugees in accessing higher education – to which currently less than 1% of the world’s refugees have access.

MOOCs are free, hold unlimited spaces, generally don’t require specific documentation or degrees for participation, and are often in English. The majority of MOOCs are also self-paced, allowing students to study when is most convenient to them, a key benefit for our students. MOOCs are therefore ideal in providing refugee students with educational opportunities that advance their potential and chances in host societies, rather than having them sit idle until their legal documentation comes through, they’ve learned the local language, or have enough resources to attend university.

As much of a game-changer as MOOCs are, they do come with challenges, which is why we offer an innovative blended learning approach at Kiron. A pivotal and growing component of our educational concept, which we are further developing within the INTEGRAL² project funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), is the Direct Academics (DA) program. The DA program consists of synchronous, small-group learning formats called tutorials and courses that mirror more traditional classroom settings but are online. Tutorials and courses typically run for 8-10 weeks and serve 10-15 students on online conference technology such as Google Hangouts and Google Classroom. Tutorials and courses complement the curriculum and support students in the successful completion of their studies by providing a space to work through content and interact with instructors and fellow students. A look at our key goals:

  • Increase student-teacher contact hours through synchronous, online teaching sessions
  • Utilize a blended learning approach to complement MOOCs and enhance the overall study experience
  • Ensure that students cover learning outcomes not included in MOOCs
  • Provide key skills such as academic writing to increase overall study success
  • Offer personalized feedback to reach individual study goals and to encourage students to reflect on their learning progress
  • Build and foster a lively, interactive, supportive community among Kiron students and instructors

During INTEGRAL², our focus is on developing a pedagogical concept for online tutorials and courses that is personalized yet scalable. By the end of 2017, we aim to have 30% of all modules in all four study departments supplemented by a tutorial or course. The goal beyond that is to have all modules covered by tutorials that are recurring and consistent offers within the curriculum.

So, how do we plan on achieving all that and what have we achieved so far?

In DA, we work closely with Kiron’s curriculum coordinators to identify which tutorials are most needed: Is there an especially difficult learning outcome students are struggling with? A specific MOOC students are struggling with? A key academic competency our students need to ensure their success in the module or study track? These are the questions that guide us in choosing which tutorials and courses to prioritize and design. Since September 2016, we have offered seven tutorials and courses that fill needs within the curriculum: Academic Writing, Calculus 1, Intro to Business & Economics, Mechanics 1, Physics Module tutorial, Marketing Module tutorial, and HR Module tutorial. These have been invaluable in helping us test new techniques, centralize our administration and coordination of our offerings, and gather feedback from students and instructors that are informing the design and research methods for our next round of tutorials.

Pedagogically, we want to go beyond a normal frontal didactic format and design supportive and engaging online learning environments. This includes appealing to three levels in every tutorial or course: the interactive, emotional, and social. The interactive means that we aim for active participation of our students. We want to create safe learning spaces for students, especially important at Kiron where students come from various educational backgrounds, ages, and language levels. The emotional can be achieved through storytelling, for instance using stories to interact with students on content rather than dry definitions or facts. The third level, social, is critical not only for DA but Kiron as a whole. DA tutorials and courses are a prime opportunity for students to gain a sense of community and this can be fostered through peer feedback, sharing work, and chatting in sessions or on their Google Classroom. The community feeling is not just an obvious plus for our students, but it’s the core of our pedagogical approach: students who engage in study communities are better performing and benefit from peer-to-peer support.

While online tutorials and courses are the meat of our offering, we are also testing the potential of offline tutorials. The Berlin Study Weekend in early March 2017 was our first offline event, designed to prepare students for final exams in two MOOCs. For both, we organized to have qualified tutors on hand from our Kiron Volunteer pool to work with the almost 50 refugee students from all over Germany who attended. The study sessions were accompanied by Kiron info sessions, personalized consulting sessions, study group sessions with peer-to-peer learning methods, and interviews to figure out the needs of the students. After getting to know each other and experiencing the study group, the students showed a lot of interest in other DA offerings, and we are curious to see if it leads to increased engagement online.

Photo: A group shot from the Berlin Study Weekend, March 2017

In addition to designing tutorials on a pedagogical level, there is a lot Drum und Dran (as we say in German) to ensure that the DA program runs successfully. Here’s a taste of what else we’re up to!

INSTRUCTOR RECRUITMENT & ONBOARDING

Kiron relies on volunteers for many aspects of their program and DA is no different. Leading a DA tutorial or course, however, requires a significant commitment (~4-5 hours a week) and specific background pedagogically and regarding content. In response to this, we have professionalized our recruitment strategy by creating detailed volunteer job announcements for specific tutorials and courses and circulating these at universities to attract highly qualified and motivated instructors. In the future, we also aim to make more and more content available to our volunteer instructors to allow them to focus on facilitating the actual personalized learning processes rather than spending their time developing materials.

Photo: Sophia Burton and Manuela Verduci explain Direct Academics on video

Leading a DA tutorial or course is a different teaching experience than to which many of our instructors are accustomed. The vast majority of teachers don’t have previous experience teaching in an online environment nor working with refugee students. This led us to design an instructor onboarding program, to introduce our instructors to the potential challenges and circumstances they may face as well as to outline some tools and tricks to support them. Our video onboarding package will include five sections: Intro to Direct Academics, Benefits & Challenges in Online Learning, Online Didactic Tools, Intercultural Awareness, and How To/Technology (using Google Hangouts and Google Classroom, for instance). But this is just a first step: we are planning to realize a blended training program for our instructors that leads to certification, made up of seminars, webinars and MOOCS, to guide them through innovative online teaching formats and prepare them to deal with the much more pronounced diversity they find in online environments.

STUDENT RECRUITMENT & COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT

Engaging and motivating students in a purely online environment is no easy feat and doesn’t end at the student recruitment phase. We work closely with Kiron’s student services and product teams to further develop our communication with our students, convey the purpose and importance of the DA program, and improve our retention rates. We’re currently trying out new methods to reach our students about tutorials and courses rather than a simple email, for instance trying out text messages and social media.

Photo: Creative outreach to students for a DA tutorial

RESEARCH

One of the main priorities of this initial phase of the DA program is to measure its impact on student’s overall study success – before we scale up, we must see what works best! This includes designing student and instructor evaluation forms that help inform our offerings, ensuring that we keep close track of student numbers and participation from sign-up (which communication approach worked) to during the tutorial (how active were they). In addition, we will compare the outcomes of students in the DA tutorials and courses to those who do not take part.

Direct Academics is, in many ways, an interactive exercise in trial and error. As we’ve discovered along the way, setting up a tutorial or course is not necessarily difficult. The tricky part – but where things get good! – is in the implementation and sustainability. Setting up a tutorial effectively means accounting for and accompanying it through all stages: coordination and administration, instructor and student recruitment, onboarding, curricular planning, community management, technological support, and measuring outcomes. But it’s also extremely worthwhile. Just recently, we received an email from one of our students, who wrote the following while signing up for an upcoming physics tutorial: “I appreciate your support and hard work towards refugee students. The Kiron team is doing a wonderful thing for the sake of refugees, which to have a higher education which is greatly important.”