2. Dezember 2016

Higher Education 2.0

How an innovative organization is providing Higher Education in a refugee camp

Today we are facing an unprecedented number of 65,3 million forcibly displaced personsworldwide and this figure is constantly growing. These persons are either on the run, live in refugee camps or are settling into a completely new and foreign environment. Either way, difficult circumstances like this inevitably have an impact on the education of every child and adolescent. While some of them are lucky to be resettled, and integrated into an existing schooling system in the respective host countries, other youths are forced to waste their most productive years in places without proper educational structures. Because emergencies like wars, conflicts or natural disasters often lead to protracted refugee situations with a refugee spending an average time of 20 years in a state of limbo, a secured form of education provision must be established without doubt. Measures to provide primary and secondary education are in place already but what about higher education?

Applying for Mercator, I engaged myself with the idea of a “University-in-a-box”. This term refers to the “School-in-a-box”, UNICEF’s standard response in humanitarian emergencies, which consists of a portable kit equipped with learning material that enables teachers and children to create an instant classroom anywhere in the world. The school-in-a-box covers primary and secondary education, but the needs of those young people who had to interrupt their tertiary education due to emergencies are not yet adequately addressed. “It is simply not feasible to establish universities in refugee camps” is the common narrative. But why not? In times of innovative technologies, online university courses and omnipresent internet access, it should be feasible to also create a “University-in-a-box”.

The idea sounds equally simple and unreasonable: combining demand, i.e. the need for portable, flexible, cheap and easily accessible higher education, with supply, i.e. university degrees through completion of online courses by means of technologies. It is important to mention that the World Wide Web already offers an incredible variety of the so called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and that many Higher Education Institutions are already applying a model of traditional university based classes plus additional online distance education programs.

Kepler – Reinventing Higher Education

For my first Mercator placement, I flew 10 000 km to Rwanda to work with an organization called ‘Kepler’ that applies the model of blending online learning with in-person instruction to inhabitants of a refugee camp – hence, implementing the concept of a “University-in-a-box” by providing higher education to refugees. Learning about Kepler while working for UNHCR’s DAFI program, it became clear to me very quickly that this would be the ideal place to get to know a model of portable and flexible higher education.

Launched in 2013 in the capital Kigali, the nonprofit university program Kepler offers a low-cost U.S.-accredited degree collaborating with the American Southern New Hampshire University and facilitates enhanced chances on the job market after graduation. Themed “Reinventing Higher Education”, Kepler is by now offering free higher education to more than 400 students on the Kigali campus by applying the concept of a “flipped classroom”. Individually and at their own pace, students stream lectures and complete online assignments that are developed by leading universities and that are provided on online course platforms like MOOCs, Khan Academy etc. Besides that, a team of trained teachers facilitate the online courses, answer questions and lead critical discussions about the independently learned content. All they need apart from teachers is laptops, electricity and internet access. Thanks to that flexibility and portability, the Kepler management came up with the idea to bring their university model to a remote and almost inaccessible place where higher education otherwise is an alien concept: to a refugee camp.

Kepler Kiziba

In 2015, Kepler extended their program to Kiziba refugee camp, one of the six refugee camps in Rwanda that was established 1996 after the genocide and is currently home to 17 000 Congolese refugees. Kiziba camp is situated in the Western province of Rwanda on a remote hilltop and hence hard to access. Even if the students had the means to apply to one of the national higher education institutions, a commute to and from the camp would be cumbersome or utterly impossible. Since the refugee students are not able to reach university, Kepler makes sure that the university is reaching the camp. There, the Kepler teachers provide their university program to 46 refugee students every day by applying the Kepler Kigali model.

One year in, the Kepler Kiziba program bears its first fruits: refugee students who had never used a computer before are now able to create Excel spreadsheets, to organize their tasks through online project management tools and to type 50 words per minute.

But apart from teaching valuable skills for future employers, the Kepler Kiziba program is also about generating hope in a hopeless situation. Most of the students grew up in Kiziba camp and completed primary and secondary level in the camp’s own schools but never thought about the possibility of any kind of education beyond secondary school. Therefore, the opportunities Kepler offers in Kiziba camp cannot be underestimated. It is a great chance for every single student but also for their families and communities in the camp. Now they have reasons to encourage their children to complete secondary school in order to be able to apply for the university program. Earning a Bachelor’s degree offers firstly an escape from dependency on charity handouts and secondly a serious opportunity in the national labor market – even with the stigma of holding a refugee ID – and thirdly, it offers an unimagined level of independence.


Bringing technology-based higher education into a refugee camp with its own rules and norms of course invites several challenges and problems. First and foremost, the camp is not connected to the electricity grid meaning that Kepler first had to set up solar panels to make use of solar energy. Unfortunately, the power as well as the established internet connection are not always reliable. The Kepler building uses housing from the secondary school compound and can only start classes once the pupils have finished their classes which is around 2 p.m. This way, some of the students have the chance to work in the morning to contribute to the family’s income but at the same time this means, they cannot fully concentrate on their studies or are tired. Others must care for the children of family members. Moreover, a necessary level of security for Kepler to operate in the camp is not always provided. Sometimes it takes the whole Kepler Kiziba team and management to discuss and decide if the situation in the camp allows the teachers to drive in every day with 46 laptops on board.

Despite all these daily challenges, the Kepler Kiziba students turn up to class every day and work independently hours before and after the actual classes in order to improve their English language skills or to work on their online courses. If during a regular tropical storm the rain clatters on the tin roof of the classroom, the Kepler students just speak up. If the secondary school claims its building for the whole day, the students move to the community’s library. Bad weather conditions, security concerns, power shortages – the Kepler Kiziba students always manage to brave difficult conditions to continue their education. It is the students’ adaptability and flexibility that convinces everyone that Kepler means hope in an otherwise rather hopeless situation.

And here it is: a model for the University-in-a-box. And the best thing is that the Kepler concept is not only deployable all around the globe hypothetically; in fact, it is developed for duplication. „We want people to copy us,“ says Jamie Hodari, the former CEO and Co-Founder of Kepler. „We want people to steal everything and anything we create. Our intention is to create a university in a box, a kit, down to every lesson plan.“

Just at the beginning of my Mercator year, this request serves as an encouragement to further gain insights into similarly innovative higher education concepts and to spread the idea of a portable and anywhere accessible university education.