Refugees and Online Engagement in Higher Education: A Capabilitarian Model




Capabilities approach, online engagement, higher education, refugees and asylum seekers, forced migrants, sanctuary scholars, distance education, theoretical framework


There are almost 90 million forced migrants around the world, many of whom could benefit from online higher education, and yet there is evidence that displaced people face challenges in online learning environments. This paper reports on a study in the context of a UK university’s master’s-level distance learning program that offers Sanctuary Scholarships to forced migrants. The study’s aims were: (1) to identify practical ways in which higher education institutions can support displaced learners to engage in online learning, and (2) to add to our theoretical understanding of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ engagement in online degree programs. The methodology included a theoretical and an empirical component. In the theoretical analysis, the indicators from Redmond et al.’s (2018) Online Engagement Framework were mapped onto capability lists drawn from the literature on the Capability Approach, generating a set of proposed underpinning capabilities for online engagement. The empirical analysis, which was carried out in parallel, was based on semi-structured interviews with ten online Sanctuary Scholars. Thematic analysis of the empirical data showed how the research participants had enacted behavioral, emotional, cognitive, social, and collaborative engagement and revealed some of the ways in which engagement fueled further engagement, alongside the mediating role of personal agency. When combined with the theoretical analysis, the findings enabled the creation of a capabilitarian online engagement model. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications for institutional policies and practices around learning design and delivery to support online engagement among displaced learners, and potentially also among other underrepresented students.

Author Biography

Gabi Witthaus, University of Birmingham Lancaster University

Learning design consultant, Higher Education Futures institute, University of Birmingham, UK and independent scholar.


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