York project offers higher education to refugees

picture of a group of York students with the York ACU teacher

Every day, hundreds of young people from ethnic minority groups in Burma (Myanmar) flee persecution and violence to live in refugee camps dotting the border with Thailand. For these individuals, life is precarious and higher education is viewed as a precious lifeline to a new and better existence.

For many, actually getting a higher education often requires a herculean effort due to devastating storms, threats to personal security, extreme poverty and continuing armed conflict and human rights violations in Burma’s ethnic minority areas.  A pilot project funded by York’s Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) is working to turn the dial on that reality by bringing University-level liberal arts courses directly to the students in the camps.

“The project, ‘Borderless Education: Intercultural Learning for Refugees’, gives students at York University an opportunity to take a course, while migrant and refugee Burmese students who are half a world away in camps on the Thai-Burma border take the same course,” says York geography Professor Robin Roth, the course instructor.

Robin Roth head shotRobin Roth

It is part of a larger global effort initiated by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) to bring higher education to young people living in precarious situations in refugee camps in locations such as Burma and Kenya. York University is the only Canadian postsecondary institution involved in the effort.

Delivering the lectures to students thousands of miles away has been made possible through the Internet and a technology known as Camtasia Relay, which is used to stream Roth’s lectures and makes them available to the students in the camps for downloading through Moodle, an open source course management system. Tutorial sessions involving interaction with the students in the camps are done in real time using Internet video calling via Skype. The project relies heavily on the ingenuity and perseverance of a small and dedicated group of York faculty who provide a Western-style University level course to a cohort comprised of 39 young people in the camps, while also providing a rich intercultural experience for students at York University.

Roth, who is a professor of geography in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, is a political ecologist with experience in Thailand. Her research investigates conservation conflict and the resulting livelihood change in the forests of Northern Thailand. The project’s lead is York anthropology Professor Wenona Giles, who is the deputy director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. They are assisted by York doctoral candidate and teaching assistant Ei Phyu Han, who is researching gender identity formation of Karen refugees from Burma along the Thai-Burma border. Han migrated to Canada at the age of six from Burma with her family in the aftermath of the brutal Wenona Giles head shotrepression of peaceful demonstrations in 1988.

Wenona Giles

“The students in the camps are part of an 18-month diploma program in liberal arts started by the Australian Catholic University. There is a consortium of universities involved in the project, which York University has recently become a part,” says Roth. “I lecture to my class at York University and it is captured and made available online through Moodle.” York University was asked to participate in the initiative by the ACU program coordinator, Duncan McLaren.

Delivering the lectures to students in the camps has not been without its trials, says Roth. “One of the biggest challenges has been reliable Internet access for the overseas students who are studying in Study Houses. They either stream it or download it as a podcast. They then watch the lecture in the study house and participate in an online tutorial via Skype with Ei Phyu Han. The York students participate in an onsite tutorial.”

The inaugural course for the project is “The end of the Earth as we know it: An introduction to global environmental change”. Through engagement in a set of scholastic concepts, it offers students exposure to differing life situations and the ways that people in these situations approach problems, says Roth. “From all accounts, students at York and in the camps enjoyed the course,” she says.

The current group of students with Maya (far right), their ACU English teacherThe current group of students with Maya (far right), their ACU English teacher

The key challenge has been the time difference, says Roth.  Other challenges include the rhythm of life in the camps and the constraints on the refugee students that can interrupt their education. “The refugee students will often have to leave the study house and return to the camps for a census. In one case, a student had to return to the camp to deal with the aftermath of a landslide, which devastated the camp. Sometimes, for reasons related to personal safety, students will have to ‘disappear’ for several weeks,” says Roth. “This presents some very real pedagogical challenges.”

She is currently researching different models of group work that would work around possible long absences by the refugee students. Roth is also looking at enhancing the interaction between the York students and those students in the camps through Facebook and other social media tools. “There has been online chatter between the students and as part of the course work they have shared their biographies,” she says. “Both sets of students are extraordinarily diligent. The refugee students are very eager to learn and many view education as a key to changing their lives.”

Ei Phyu Han

With continued funding, Roth is hoping to develop the course and the mode of delivering online education further. Roth and Giles are also working on enhancing York University’s relationship with Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand, which is one of the universities in the region accepting applications from the Burmese refugees. “The goal of the project and the ACU program is to help the refugee students gain the transcripts and exposure to Western-style lectures so that they can gain admission to degree programs in Thai universities, or universities of their countries of resettlement,” she says. “York’s involvement through the AIF is important for achieving that goal.”

For more information on the program, visit the Borderless Higher Education website, or the Academic Innovation Fund website.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor