One year after #2016DML

tl;dr: I am giving a brief update on what happened to the ideas I was kicking around in my #2016DML Ignite Talk about refugees hacking the education system. I am also briefly describing a class in which students and refugees tell stories and share their perspectives.

One year has passed since my trip to #2016DML and my Ignite Talk. Lots of things have changed for me personally since then and, more importantly, not many things have changed in the way that refugees’ access to German higher education is designed. What has changed, though, is that fewer people make it to Germany and, to many, the perceived urgency of finding ways to integrate them into the education system has lessened a bit. This is not to say that nobody is working on that, not at all, it is rather becoming the ‘undercover operation’ that it has been before 2015. Some organizations, Kiron for example, have gained some ground. Mostly, however, it is left to the federal states and the universities to organize the efforts around studying in Germany. And that’s a good thing, I think. This is exactly the kind of problem that should be solved by society, its democratic organizations, its elected officials, and with tax money. On the other side, this makes changes in the information ecosystem hard to push for, difficult to implement. We’re still talking about a massive bureaucracy organized mostly by PDF for download. 

In December 2016, I left my job at the Hamburg University of Technology, where I would have tried to test and implement some of the ideas from my Ignite Talk. Independent from that, I had the chance to work with Cornelia Springer and Anna Heudorfer at the University of Hamburg in a class of refugees and students, I published a couple of posts about this over the last year. We had the opportunity to work with students and refugees to tell their story and share their perspective. This could be related to finding a place at a university, but also to anything else they cared about, their daily struggles in making sense of German culture and bureaucracy, or a small arts project. In the beginning, we had a music composer among the participants of our class and one team started to kick some ideas around what they as a group could do with that skill (he quit the class after a couple of sessions, quite a bummer). Others thought about video or photography as a medium but most of the teams wanted to write stories.

One of the refugees in our group decided to write down his biography from a perspective of loss of love, loss of connections and starting anew. Others wanted to go into differences between cultures in more or less granular details. How do you shake hands, how do you sit down at a table, what kind of music do you listen to – things like that. The goal was to create something that could theoretically be published. We tried not to be pushy as we could tell from our conversations that not everyone was really taken by the idea to publish their own content online, for sometimes obvious and sometimes not so obvious reasons. This task required persistence from everyone involved, our students, the refugees but also the educators. Things that would be quite clear otherwise had to be newly debated and this felt good.

Some teams of students and refugees struggled during the semester, some of them because the refugees found work or a place at a university somewhere, some because refugees moved and some because students left the class. The teams had lots of challenges: accessibility of technology (laptops, phones), technical savvy, language barriers but they also faced some challenges to find the right medium (video, music, images, text) and to fight the right fit in a group.

It was interesting to see this quite diverse group interact, how they negotiated topics and mediums with one another and others. I usually would not recommend to highlight one or only few of them. In this case, however, we are only publishing one project and I therefore have no conflict here:

Rayén and Omar tell Omar’s story as a refugee. In 15 short stories, each describing a stage in Omar’s fleeing, they write about Omar’s journey from Syria to Germany.

Omar made great progress in his German language skills during the semester (he was one of the strongest German speakers in the group from the start) and he shared meticulous details about his journey. Rayén asked detailed questions to understand the sometimes underlying implications of Omar’s story, she also put the finishing touches to the 15 short stories in writing. They both seemed to have a clear understanding of what they wanted to achieve and how they wanted to go about that. We had various conversations about anonymity and privacy (I was very often reminded of the conversations I had about these issues with Kate Green and others in Towards Openness projects) and the two of them decided that it would be good to publish their stories if they only appeared with their first names.

So here’s a link to the first of their stories, they will publish two of these per week over the next couple of weeks. The stories are published on a blog called “my voice” that Anna created with others in 2015. This gave Omar and Rayén a bit more freedom to publish rather than using a blog provided by the university. It is in German language but I hope you can make sense of it by using automatic translation if you’re interested.

Even though this project has not been about access to higher education in Germany directly, I think I have learned some things about enabling or helping refugees to ‘hack’, as I then said, the education system. Writing these learnings up will probably be another post or two and I am already looking forward to the pre-conference workshop by Justin Reich and Mimi Ito on equity by design in learning technologies to help me make sense of all of this. Hope to see you there!


Header Image by Roman Kraft via unsplash

One Comment

  1. As one of the co-coordinators of the refugee-student-proejct, I want to add some thoughts about chances and challences of such projects:
    1) one of the biggest issues, as Christian described, is to keep students and refugees motivated. From the refugees’ perspective it seemed like some had chosen to participate in the project mainly to meet new people or to get some advice on how to manage Germany’s university and other buearocratic systems. Which they had every right to do! So we were shifting between acknowledging their interest in other topics then publishing and still trying to illuminate the good things that could come with publishing online… participation in public discourse, raising their voice…
    2) With this also came the challenge to explain the German media system from licencing issues (which photos can I use?) to media attention (what is the public interested in?) to matters of quality (how “well” does text have to be written?).
    3) Thirdly, and maybe the most challenging was to really make it a project on eyelevel. We often caught ourselves deciding over the heads of our participants or applying a very “German” way of thinking. For the students it turned out to be quite hard at times not to let it become a classical “I am interviewing a refugee” situation but to make it a collaborative project. Omar and Rayén did very well here though!

    Still, I think that we should stick to the idea of joint media projects between students and refugees, because
    1) some of the outcomes were great! In the current political atmosphere we need more narratives of this kind.
    2) working together on a project (in comparison to being matched “just” to meet up for coffee like in many buddy programs) can create a basis for further (political) work or simply friendship on a deeper level.
    3) It might still be hard for refugees to get into German universities but by making them a part of our courses (and really a part, not just guests or an audience) can give them an insight into the way of thinking and the learning culture and get them involved with students and university life. Which can be part of the undercover operation, like Christian called it.

    So, I am looking forward to hearing how the workshop went and would be pleased about some feedback on our project!


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