A Sanctuary Online: DCU’s Commitment to Learning for all…

This World Refugee Day, 20th June, DCU is pleased to announce a further 30 scholarships for Irish-based asylum seekers and refugees. This blog post reflects on the success of the scholarship programme so far, with a particular focus on the student online learning experience. 

world-refugee-day-photos-download-1-1080x6752As we recognise World Refugee Day this year, many people welcome the proposed end to Direct Provision, Ireland’s system of accommodating asylum seekers instituted 20-years ago in 1999. The difficult living conditions of people in the Irish asylum seeking community are well documented, but little has been done over the past decade to improve the system of direct provision.

As of January 2018, there were 5,096 men, women and children, including 801 families, living in the 34 direct provision centres across 17 counties in Ireland. Residents spent an average of 23 months in direct provision, while 432 people had been in this system for 5 years or more. 

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Direct provision centre in Lissywollen, Athlone in 2013 |Image by Braca Karicption

In 2016, DCU became the first Irish university to be designated as a ‘University of Sanctuary’ for its commitment to welcome asylum seekers and refugees into the university community. Since then, the University has offered multiple scholarships to Irish-based asylum seekers and refugees at the third level. In particular, the DCU Connected Scholarships for online study have been well received in part due to the geographically spread location of the direct provision centres. 

Generally, Irish-based asylum seekers are not entitled to free higher education, including the opportunity to access Springboard+ courses. Problems faced by those who want to enter third level education in Ireland include lack of access to logistical requirements, financial difficulties, digital competence, recognition of their previous accreditations, and difficulty in finding a sense of community.

james_brunton_001These challenges are illustrated by a team of DCU researchers in the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) who have documented the student experiences of asylum seekers studying under the University of Sanctuary scheme. A recent article appearing in Open Praxis reports a stark divide between their dual identities of being ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘online learners’. According to Dr James Brunton, it was found that identification with the university community was contrasted with ‘disidentification’ with the ‘asylum world’. Importantly, a more connected approach to supporting refugees transition into higher education was found to have a positive impact on their overall online learning experience.

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Table 1: Supports provided for online University of Sanctuary scholars

Supports for University of Sanctuary scholars include pre-entry and on-entry actions such as online socialisation courses through the VLE and other targeted services, such as on-campus orientations, logistical aids such as provisions for laptops and broadband, and dedicated academic support throughout the year. Some of these supports and services are outlined in Table 1. 

The NIDL research demonstrated the importance of flexible, online, open study routes at higher education levels for underrepresented groups, such as those in direct provision, as a means to reducing some of the major structural, financial, digital, and social barriers typically associated with students in their circumstances. As one research participant said, 

“The asylum world is very, very depressing, you’re constantly anxious, you’re constantly in limbo… But again when I flashed back to the support that DCU is giving me, I tell myself no, I cannot let this happen. And so when I think of the support that the DCU family has given me, it’s like a voice talking to me”.

orna_farrell_002A more recent publication appearing in Research in Learning Technology reports, according to Dr Orna Farrell, that “one of the challenges of the University of Sanctuary scholarship scheme, particularly for online students, was to ensure the scholars felt a sense of community during their studies”. When asked what made them feel part of the DCU community, one of the participants said:

“I think the services that are offered by DCU. Like it’s like the community within a community that I belong to my own community but then I have the DCU community. Everybody’s welcoming, you are at home.”

The NIDL research team concludes that our qualitative research strengthens the idea that access programmes such as the University of Sanctuary scholarships can facilitate participation in higher education for refugees, and a sense of community, provided the necessary support is in place.

On a personal level, the transformative impact of the DCU Connected Scholarships were vividly illustrated during the Opening Ceremony of last year’s ICDE World Conference on Online Learning. Olufunke Olarinoye, a University of Sanctuary scholar, shared her own brave and emotional story giving a unique insight into the real impact that online education can have on life and the hopes and aspirations of learners beyond the virtual classroom.  

This year, DCU is continuing its online study scholarship programme for Irish-based asylum seekers and refugees with 5 DCU Connected and 10 DCU FutureLearn scholarships. Applications are now open and the deadline for submissions is 10th August, 2020.

Further reading

  1. Brunton, J., Farrell, O., Costello, E., Delaney, L., Foley, C., & Brown, M. (2019). Duelling identities in refugees learning through open, online higher education. Open Praxis, 11(4), 397.
  2. Farrell, O., Brunton, J., Costello, E., Delaney, L., Brown, M., & Foley, C. (2020). ‘This is two different worlds, you have the asylum world and you have the study world’: an exploration of refugee participation in online Irish higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 20, 1-15.

Five Lessons from Learning in the Light: Reflecting on the Onlining of Irish Higher Education

By Mark Brown

Speaking from Washington DC on the morning of Thursday 12th March 2020 the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, announced that all schools and higher education campuses across Ireland were to close at 6:00pm. This news was not totally unexpected, but the short notice caught many people by surprise and resulted in a flurry of activity within and across Irish educational institutions.

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The campus and school lockdown quickly evolved to other sectors with the Government introducing new regulations requiring all bars, restaurants and shops to close. At the time of writing, Ireland remains in a tight lockdown situation until current restrictions are reviewed on May 18th, 2020. However, there is every indication that social distancing requirements will continue for the foreseeable future and seriously impact the start of the new academic year.

No alt text provided for this imageWhen Dublin City University (DCU) hosted the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning back in November 2019 no one amongst the 800+ delegates from over 80 countries could have predicted the great onlining of Irish higher education in the weeks and now months since the Taoiseach’s announcement. The pivot to rapidly teach online has forced us to think around corners and fast-track the future (Brown, 2020). While history teaches us to be wary about making speculative claims about the future it is highly probable that online education will never be the same again (Brown, Costello & Nic Giolla Mhichil, 2020). In 2012, the New York Times declared it was the “Year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012) and now 2020 is likely to be known as the year when online education helped us to keep teaching and keep learning. With the benefit of hindsight there is a prophetic quality that rings remarkably true to this extract from Learning in the Light, a poem written by Réaltán Ní Leannáin for last year’s World Conference:

“We no longer stop learning when the darkness gathers,

Those old webs have crumbled in this era of light.

In an age of information, learning squats tight in our grasp, within reach of all.”

On the whole the Irish response to emergency teaching online in the face of darkness and incredibly challenging circumstances has been remarkably positive and relatively successful. The period from March 2020 to May 2020 can be described in three phases:

(i) get online quickly,

(ii) get organised to develop appropriate alternative assessments, and

(iii) get thinking about future scenarios and next steps.

While the Irish story of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic is still being written the unprecedented pivot to online learning will be etched forever into the history of higher education (Brown, 2020). As we pause, look to the future and enter a new stage, however, what lessons can we learn from the experience so far? Although the following reflections and five lessons drawing on the experiences of the NIDL team do not claim to be a definitive or representative account of how Ireland has responded to the Covid-19 global pandemic, hopefully they contribute to useful learnings and further conversations as we move forward.

You can read the five lessons and the rest of this blog post on Mark’s personal Linkedin account.