Coursera, State Dept Join on Free Classes for Refugees

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

The U.S. State Department has announced a partnership with Coursera in an effort to allow refugees around the world to participate in thousands of massive open online courses for free for their first two years of college.

Set to launch on World Refugee Day, the program is live on refugees.coursera.org.  Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said it is the hope of the initiative that refugees are given the opportunity to gain “important skills that will help them in the global economy.”

The program allows nonprofits around the world to apply at Coursera for fee waivers that will fund the participation of refugees in MOOCs that will cover the costs associated with obtaining a certificate for each course.  In addition, refugee students are guaranteed to receive financial aid themselves that would cover the entire cost of the classes they choose to take, writes Julia Glum for The International Business Times.

To date, five organizations have been approved for financial aid, including the US Department of State, Samaschool, Libraries Without Borders, Blue Rose Compass and the Institute of International Education.

“Our mission is to transform lives by providing access to the world’s best education,” Lila Ibrahim, chief operations officer at Coursera, said in the release. “We know that one of the best ways to reach the people who need education opportunities the most is by working with organizations that understand the local needs. We’re excited to partner with these organizations, including the State Department, to provide refugees with comprehensive support as they take Coursera courses — at no cost — on anything from English to Python programming.”

Four key ideas are emphasized through the program, including the effectiveness of online learning, mastery learning, peer assessments, and blended learning.

While first-year students enroll in general education courses, the following year they have the option of choosing specific classes in five areas of interest including business, engineering, and computer science.  Upon reaching the third year, students can then transfer to a partnering university in order to complete their degree, reports Megan McNulty for The Deseret News.

The idea still has a number of issues to be worked out.  For example, watching some videos and earning an online certificate is not enough to allow someone to begin a new career path; more needs to be done to get these individuals up to date on standards, policies, and practices, writes Amy Wang for Quartz.  In addition, the majority of courses offered through Coursera are in English.  Although plans exist to add subtitles and translations, the language barriers currently present an obstacle for refugees.

Some bring into question the effectiveness of the MOOC courses themselves.  However, a 2015 study found 72% of those who took MOOCs saw increases to their career benefits not long after.

The United Nations commissioner for refugees found that in all, over 65.3 million people have fled their homes as a result of violent occurrences in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Colombia, and Ukraine.