Hack the Edu System – Ignite Talk at #2016DML

tl;dr: I gave an Ignite Talk at #2016DML in which I talked about access to Higher Ed for refugees in Germany. In the transcript below, I am inviting you to give feedback and to suggest ideas. If you want to dig in deeper, there also is a Google Doc with first ideas.

Here’s a recording of my talk

As I write this post I am on my way from Hamburg to Los Angeles, both excited and a bit nervous about the upcoming #2016DML conference at UC Irvine in California. This is the the first time for me to be presenting at an Ignite Talk session and I don’t have that much experience at international conferences to begin with. When I submitted my proposal, I would not have imagined for it to be considered and so I didn’t pay too much attention to the format itself. I followed an “I’ll see about that when I get there” attitude. So, I am on my way now and I have decided that this will also be the first time for me to publish a blog post about a talk I am giving. I am doing this for several reasons:

1. There is a huge chance that I am not going to convey my message during the talk. I might forget something, I might choose a different wording, I might be too nervous and forget something. Gardner Campbell (!) might let me know that my five minutes are over when I am not done yet. So I will use this post to provide something like a script of my talk. I know there are many issues that I could follow up on in greater depth but this post is not the space for that.

2. As you will (hopefully) see by the end of my talk, I hope that the ideas I am kicking around will receive some feedback. After all, the DML conferences have been places where some of the greatest minds from the world of digital media and learning convene. So, while there is certainly not time for constructive feedback during my potentially embarrassing five minutes on stage, I hope that you will find the time to comment on this post, send me email, annotate with hypothesis, comment in this Google Doc or send me a tweet.

3. This is the most obvious of my three main reasons: I am privileged that I am able to afford a trip to Irvine out of my own pocket and without institutional support. Not everyone is able to do this – be it due to a lack of money, a lack of time, immigration or visa regulation or for personal reasons. So, whenever possible, we should try and make stuff openly available to anyone on the web. Also, I need feedback – so who am I to ask only the folks at #2016DML for their opinions?

Okay, here goes my talk – any feedback is much appreciated:

I want to borrow an experiment from Vincent Zimmer of Kiron and ask a simple question: Imagine yourself to be a refugee somewhere. Let’s say Aleppo to reflect the current news cycle and let’s say you’re 20 years old. Now imagine you have two minutes to pack your stuff before you leave. What will you take along on an exhausting and dangerous journey towards Europe? Now, raise your hands if you thought of your high school diploma or your college transcript of records!

My point is this: for the challenge of opening up study paths for refugees in Germany, there are no easy solutions, no one-size-fits-all processes will serve a diverse group of people who are trying to access higher education.

German bureaucracy is trying to develop just that: one-size-fits-all information, procedure and process. Information on the German educational system is not crafted for refugees (even though it is branded differently), it is distributed between several agencies, and it hardly reflects the recipients’ situations. This process illustrates that we present information but we know very little about the recipients of the information, the ‘target group’.

We don’t have the facts. When immigrating to Germany and applying for asylum, we don’t always ask refugees about their educational attainments, we don’t always know whether someone is a student of architecture or nursing, or whether someone completed secondary school.

Still, we present undirected information on how to study in Germany on websites, for download as PDF. Sometimes we translate into other languages. I know a thing or two about the German System of higher ed, but I cannot make sense of some of the information even though it deals with the system I inherit and it is presented in my native language.

Information is distributed in formats that are not hackable or forkable. There is no way of commenting, of asking questions, or even to easily copy and paste from a PDF to Google Translate because many use mobile devices. The aim seems to be to adapt refugees to the German system of higher education while the system seems reluctant to change. We offer online courses on the subject. To participate, learners have to identify themselves as asylum seekers online. They give up their identities, their names, their profile pictures. We ask refugees who have fled wars, persecution and an environment that taught them to stay ‘under the radar’ to self-identify as refugees and asylum seekers online.

To recap: we know little about the refugees who made it to Germany. Yet, we demand adaptation to a one-size-fits-all system. We discriminate and, instead of listening, we provide universal answers to questions we made up on our own.

The question is: what can we contribute to change? How can we hack the German education system?

What can [online] educators do? What can concepts like rhizomatic learning, connectivism and connected learning contribute to this problem? What does digital pedagogy have to offer? Are there others around the world who have had to deal with similar problems? What were their ideas and concepts?

Two statements came to mind that I want to highlight: The first is from the highly recommended keynote “Not Enough Voices” by Sean Michael Morris, delivered at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute this year. Most of you have probably read this at least once or twice, but I am going to highlight this one statement here: “We amplify silenced voices by listening. By making space for them to speak. Not safe space, necessarily, daring space. Because it’s never safe to speak.” How do we amplify the voices of refugees who are seeking access to a system of higher ed? How do we make space for them to speak instead of a bureaucracy shouting at them? How can we listen and still respect their privacy? How can we hack the system?

The second statement is from Jonathan Worths’ 2015 Ignite Talk at DML. Jonathan talked about enabling people to be heard and to participate in their own representation. Again – how do we do this? How can we enable refugees to participate in their own representation, how do we enable them to be heard? What do communities around #DigPed, #OpenPed #2016DML or #ConnectedLearning have to offer? How can we hack the system of higher education in Germany for refugees to be listened to, to participate in their own representation?

There is not one right answer to any of these questions, but there certainly are ideas, reports or projects with a similar scope. I published a short blog post as a transcript of this talk as well as a Google Doc in which I try to outline two main ideas of how to tackle this. Please comment and suggest ideas. If you know of a project with a similar scope, let me know. If you see parallels to something you have done before, I’d be happy to take your advice. Visit my blog post and the Google Doc and drown me in feedback.

Just as I started this talk by borrowing a short experiment from Vincent Zimmer, I’d like to end it by borrowing from Jim Groom, who quoted Greg Ginn at #OER16: “If you don’t like ‘the system’, you should create one of your own.”

Thank you.

Google Slides to my talk


  1. I loved your talk, I loved where you are coming from. I applaud Germany for trying even if they’re doing it imperfectly or rigidly. I applaud you for questioning and attempting to reach radical solutions. I wonder where the refugee voice is in your blogpost? Everyone you cite is a sensitive person who is on point. A Western white man (Sean and Jonathan are among the most sensitive and humble and empathetic people I know, but neither is or has been a refugee). I am so glad you started this convo and I will go to the Google doc. Every important talk should invite dialogue beyond its limited time/space and that in itself opens space for refugees to participate if you allow it anonymously on the Gdoc (I assume u did). I am forwarding this to others who may be able to help or access refugees (am sure you have access too). When I heard Merkel was nominated for peace prize, I thought Christian would disagree she has done enough.
    I always kinda liked u, but now I really want to know you because I respect your mind and heart


    1. Thank you, Maha, I’ll try and do this comment justice and unpack where I am coming from a bit. You’re absolutely right: I am in my mid-thirties (which is hard to admit) and I am living the privileged life of a white male heterosexual in Western Europe. Leuphana Digital School (one of the institutions I work for) has offered a course, aiming to ‘educate’ refugees with regards to the German system of HigherEd. And after some struggles, I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of that program because the premises seemed wrong to me (locked access, personal data, discrimination, GERMAN as the course language, I could go on…).
      It took a while until I got a chance to spend some working time on questions like these and I started trying to make sense of this from my point of view, starting with reference points in my world, so to speak. One of the things I am criticizing is that refugees are not heard on these issues (I do get the irony…). My plan was to try and come up with some guiding questions, to then collect feedback from experts in the field such as yourself and to then do a workshop with refugees in Hamburg and test the approaches and hypotheses together with them. Lots of programs and initiatives lack just that from what I see and hear. As with lots of other things, I think you can only work towards a solution and never actually reach it, but we’ll keep working on it 🙂

      Oh, and you’re right – I don’t think we’ve done enough. I get that politicians can only to some degree shape the decisions we make, but we need to do more. Looking really forward to meet again online or even in person some time, having you on board here means a lot to me. Thank you for commenting and for bringing more people into the conversation!


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