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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Schooling for refugee children: how MOOCs support teachers in the world’s most challenging situations

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 June 2019

Diana Laurillard and Eileen Kennedy, UCL Knowledge Lab

More than half the world’s refugees are children. Most of these children will spend their whole childhood away from home, with little access to education. In the context of the Syrian crisis alone, more than 2 million of that nation’s children have dropped out of school within Syria or in neighbouring host countries.

Our research aim is to test whether this kind of very large-scale educational challenge can be addressed by using the global platform of a MOOC as part of the solution.

Teachers can have an enormous impact on the lives of such children, providing continuity and support for physical, cognitive and social needs, in addition to education. In Lebanon, where a quarter of the population is made up of refugees from both Syria
and Palestine, teachers carry the responsibility for providing the basic schooling for these children whose educational and emotional needs are diverse and very challenging.

Such teachers need support to fulfill their critical role. But is it feasible to provide professional development for all these teachers, who need to discover how to help their most disadvantaged learners? IOE research and development projects have been investigating how we can do this through the large-scale technologies now available to education. Our newest project, launched today (June 24) as part of our work on the RELIEF project, is a new MOOC running in both English and Arabic developed with teachers and teacher-educators in Lebanon. (see article from NORRAG Special Issue 02 here).

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The course Transforming Education in Challenging Environments, will help teachers build and share the knowledge needed to teach children in any challenging context, including those affected by conflict and displacement.

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The normal complexities of guiding thirty learners with a range of needs through a single curriculum are tough enough. For teachers working in places affected by mass displacement the challenges are multiplied by the physical lack of resources, the emotional traumas that stay with the children for years, and the social diversities of many cultures and languages in one classroom. The IOE is committed to supporting the professional development of such teachers, who work in some of the most challenging professional contexts, around the world.

We are working with partners to find ways to reduce global inequalities through education. The right partners are essential, because the task is huge.

In recognition of this, IOE Director, Professor Becky Francis, signed up in April to the TPD@Scale Coalition, whose principle aim is to “to contribute to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal SDG4 for Education, ensure inclusive and quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Those two little words “for all” belie their meaning – this is for everyone on the planet. Achieving the SDGs means working at the very large scale, hence the need for this Coalition of international organisations and universities to collaborate.

UCL is a partner of the open online learning platform, FutureLearn, which means we can offer a professional development programme that is free and open to anyone across the world. Many of the teachers we are aiming to reach speak Arabic, so recently we also launched our first Arabic MOOC (on Community Based Research) with the platform Edraak.

The IOE has a track record of using MOOC platforms such as these to provide TPD at scale: the Blended Learning Essentials programme, targeted teachers in vocational education and achieved over 13,000 active participants in the first run, and high engagement, with over 40,000 forum contributions. Our ‘transformative potential of MOOCs’ project, with the Centre for Global HE, follows through and analyses this type of data to investigate whether the immediate value to participants succeeds in making a difference to the teaching practices in their own context*.

But we need to ensure the sustainability of projects such as these.

The new Transforming Education in Challenging Environments course acts as an online collaboration among professionals:

  • the videos interview teachers who are refugees themselves, sharing what they have learned
  • the collaborative activities encourage participants to apply these insights to their own contexts
  • in the follow-up discussions we work together to find practical ways to address the challenges the participants share.

The course is open to all who want to make a positive impact on these challenging environments – whether you are an educator, or policymaker, or NGO professional, or researcher, who wants to improve these conditions for teachers – please join us and become part of the conversation. This is our chance to make TPD@scale a reality.


*Kennedy, E., & Laurillard, D. (2019). The potential of MOOCs for large-scale teacher professional development in contexts of mass displacement London Review of Education, 17(2), 141–158. doi:https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.17.2.04  (forthcoming)

Main photo by UN Women Arab States via Creative Commons. Other photos are from Transforming Education in Challenging Environments.

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