By Fiona Reay, Head of Client Services, FutureLearn

28 November 2018 - 07:13

Two students sitting at computers

Fiona Reay

Online social learning platform FutureLearn is one of five partners working on SPHEIR’s PADILEIA (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access) partnership, which aims to help Syrian refugees and disadvantaged host communities to develop the skills they need for higher education. Here, Fiona Reay, FutureLearn’s Head of Client Services, reflects on some key learnings from a pilot series of online Basic English social learning courses delivered to refugee communities in Lebanon and Jordan.

We set up this summer’s first run of online social learning courses to test how digital education could be delivered in a blended classroom (online and face-to-face) to refugees and other beneficiaries. The courses, developed by our PADILEIA partner King’s College London, are elementary English and pre-intermediate English courses specially created for Middle Eastern learners. They tell the stories of local characters like Samir, Maya and Amena who learn practical phrases and hear British voices. The first runs of each course attracted 25,000 enrolments globally, with just under 10,000 learners creating over 100,000 comments, illustrating good learner engagement. 

Understanding needs was critical

A course that can meet the needs of every pupil in a classroom is rare, especially when trying to deliver online learning for people with only basic digital and language skills. The team at King's College London invested in user research within the learning design phase of the course. A needs assessment deemed A1 and B2 English levels were the most critical to focus on for PADILEIA, to help participants build a credible pathway into higher education.

Online delivery allowed for data analysis and continuous improvement

A big benefit of the courses being online is that data analysis can be captured and used to both improve material for the future, and to explore current discussions in a more in-depth way. Each week learners log their sentiment in relation to the material with emojis – :), :| or :( – and have space to provide more feedback if desired. It's an easy way for educators to gauge whether the material has pushed learners enough, or has areas for improvement.

Understanding cultural differences is key to inclusion

Ensuring people learn at the best level to help them stretch and grow, while also making them feel confident enough to attempt new skills in front of a ‘crowd of peers’ was a challenge. Making a mistake in an online course could be ‘just part of the learning experience’ for one student, but outright embarrassing for another. Being sensitive to cultural differences was key.

The importance of mentors and modelling behaviour

To keep learners engaged and learning from each other in either the physical or virtual classroom, facilitators from King’s College London modelled the behaviour they wanted to see online from the students. Being curious and friendly, encouraging those who were ‘getting things wrong’ to keep ‘practising’ (whilst explaining the nuances of words) helped to keep them motivated.

WhatsApp chat message groups ran simultaneously to ‘official course commentary’, providing additional study and language support to a smaller cohort of learners. The study mentoring was provided by King’s student volunteers, who were specially recruited for the pilot, and trained in safeguarding, English language teaching and online facilitation in order to support learners. Many had already visited or taught English in refugee camps, and the best mentors had the tenacity to reinvigorate the conversation when things reached a lull, and inspire the learners to continue learning.

Sharing a photo was a good way to start a discussion, particularly with younger people so accustomed to social media. Food was also a great ice-breaker topic; students could upload photos of what they were eating with family or friends and discuss it with their peers.

PADILEIA offers additional mentorship and facilitation from partners, including the American University of Beirut (Lebanon), Al al-Bayt University (Jordan) and Kiron, an open platform providing education to refugees, as well as other schools, charity and non-government organisations.

A white banner outside, with logos from the PADILEIA partnership

Fiona Reay

Woman interacting with female studetns

Fiona Reay

Online accessibility for those in need

The courses are audio-heavy and students would listen to audio files of British voices – rather than watch large video files, which would be more difficult to stream. Learners could also download the material at the beginning of the session, so interruptions like power cuts wouldn't feel as disruptive. By also providing written transcripts of all audio files, along with Arabic translations, the courses aimed to ensure students could experience the material without unnecessary obstacles.

Now and next

PADLEIA is one year into a five-year partnership. Through university partners in Jordan and Lebanon, this first year has had a focus on mixing practical skills with learning English, as part of a Foundation Certificate to build readiness for higher education. As part of the blended model, students have also been recruited onto online study tracks as well as FutureLearn’s platform. More online courses are planned in nursing, healthcare, entrepreneurial business topics and further technical skills.

See the available study opportunities from all partners at