The Kiron family

We revisit the social start-up that gives refugees access to higher education, meeting a 24 yr.old Syrian beneficiary and a Kiron co-founder, both of whom’s future plans build on this ingenious scheme. Interview. 

Ehab Markus Kressler
2 March 2017

Markus Kressler and Kiron co-founders.

Markus Kressler and Kiron co-founders.

The Social Start-up Kiron Open Higher Education was founded in 2015 by Vincent Zimmer and Markus Kressler. Kiron is the world’s first online learning platform, that enables refugees to have unbureaucratic access to higher education and successful learning through digital solutions. The blended learning model 2.0 of Kiron consists of an online study phase of average two years followed by approx. two years at a partner university of Kiron to finish with a fully accredited bachelor degree. Refugees can start studying immediately and regardless of their asylum status, language skills and free of charge. Kiron aims at fostering an economic as well as social integration in host countries and empowers refugees to step back into a self-determined life through studying. Therefore, the program is embedded in an ecosystem of support services, centered around the student’s needs.

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Ehab, you were studying mechanical engineering and had finished your diploma in Syria when the war began. What happened to you then?


Ehab - part of the Kiron family.Ehab: When I finished my studies, the government called me up for army service. I decided instead to find work abroad: I didn’t want to be in the army. But there were so many Syrians looking for work abroad, and the education systems were very different. I went to Africa, to the Ivory Coast, working as an engineer for one year. But I had also taken an interest in volunteering work to help the children in the local communities to an education. That interest had started back in Homs, in 2013, when I was a team leader for UN volunteers in my city. I began to see what you could do in this international organisation. In Africa I got more interested in the UN work to support people with food, with education. I started to read more about politics, diplomacy, international relations. Then I got ill with malaria, and I had to move to Istanbul.

There I did any work I could find, as an engineer working on alarm systems, using my Arabic and English and French language skills which I first learned at school in Syria, to help the company to export those systems. Again, I searched for opportunities to work with the United Nations, and offered to help out with a youth conference for one week in Qatar which was part of the UN humanitarian summit. That was interesting. I began to realise that I could be much more successful for whatever society I was living in when I was active in the political sector and could be part of the decision-making process. Then, a month later, the UN asked me back, this time to Geneva, and they made me a youth representative speaking on their behalf around the world. This was a huge leap forward for me as you can imagine, as a refugee in Istanbul.

But it was the same for me as for anyone human, when I began to really think about how I might build a future for myself, I knew I needed further education. The problem was that I had built up quite a lot of experience, but in the United Nations, if you have no relevant academic qualifications, then that prevents you from advancing. So I was always afraid I was going to lose any opportunities that came my way. My goal was to get the academic qualifications that would support my work experience in the UN.

From Switzerland, where I was by now involved in working with the United Nations in a peace camp, I made my way to Germany and I began to think about humanitarian work, and search on the internet for opportunities that would allow me to make more of a contribution in this field. Life as a refugee was so full of problems. We couldn’t study if we didn’t speak German and that would take two years; we were constantly asked for documents that were back in Syria; and so I could see a lot of doors that were open for others, in the university in Bielefeld, that were all closed to me.

That was when I came across Kiron on the internet, and immediately it felt like the most amazing life-line – a line of hope. Someone was saying to me – come, you can move forward from where you are now. I started to read more about the scheme offered by Kiron, what it enabled me to do.

RB: What was it that was so enabling ?

Ehab: The first thing was the opportunity to study the social sciences: all the volunteering work and especially my working experience with UNHCR had made me see the world in a different light. But this ambition also went back to my experience of war in Syria, watching, over three years, how the paramedics worked and the disaster experts and what helped them to be effective. As a team leader of UN volunteers, I began to see how I was capable of helping a lot of people to take decisions, how I was able to relate to young people around me in local youth ngo’s in Syria, and it made me want to change my study track. The moment the war started in 2011, it made us all larger than we had been as ordinary everyday people.

My family are always surprised to see what I do now. My mother always says, “You're a young man. Don’t try and do more than a young man has to do in this life.” But I can’t go back now to what I was before. I meet a lot of young people and when we speak together, they seem consumed by video games, cars and sport. They don’t have this driving curiosity in German policy, in the conversation going on in Geneva now – but my mind can’t go back to those preoccupations any more.

Kiron allowed us to think about what young refugees could do in the longer term to help Syria when we go back there: it will have so many problems. We will have to rebuild our country after this stupid war. So we shouldn’t just be thinking about getting an education. We should be working out the kind of work we really want to do. And Kiron helped us break through all the bureaucracy in Germany which prevents young refugees from thinking about anything – so this was invaluable.

Kiron always talks about how we have to make the move from refugee to student. This is a real life change. Because also when you arrive here, and the community treats you as a refugee – it’s very hard. You are poor, fleeing a needless war and incapable of doing anything useful in life because you don’t have any experience, any education. But when you become a student, it is also a good thing for the community. You are someone who is trying to improve yourself, and to make a contribution.

So then I realised that with Kiron I could study in English. I didn’t need to learn German and lose two years from my life before I could do anything. No, from 2016 I could start studying the political sciences in English and during those two years I would have the time to learn German and attend a German university.

RB: So what kind of support did you get to make this quite radical shift from one type of learning to another?

Ehab: Well, the first thing is the Massive Open Online Courses themselves (MOOCs) which we have access to on some very well-respected websites such as Coursera or edX. In these courses, you have a lot of video and pdf's, student comments and question and answer sessions. The course organisers help you with their commentary.

You can contact Kiron’s Direct Academics and join one of their classes. But Kiron has other forms of support to offer you too: we have student mentors who can understand our experience, advisers who can help us with various problems; and Kiron forums online and offline where we can have really productive conversations with other students.

We have a lot of support from partner universities. In Bielefeld, I am in contact with political and social scientists and also students of both at the university. If there is something on the internet I don’t understand, I can meet up with them and they will explain what’s going on. At the same time I am asked to sit in on German classes of political science, so that I have an opportunity to grasp the specialist vocabulary. This also helps us to prepare ourselves for the first year at university, because we have a chance to see university life.

RB: I believe you are already putting your education to good use by setting up in cooperation with the United Nations a project called, ‘Syrian youth for peace’? Tell me more?

Ehab: Actually, Kiron has helped me in this also. Every time I come across a problem with this project, thanks to them I am in touch with so many people who can help me find a solution. This has really helped me a lot! I can always turn to my Doctor at Bielefeld University and also the Kiron Direct Academics – who are interested in this project too. Syrian Youth for Peace now has a website, and we have decided what our goals are and what we need to achieve them. There are four founder members with different mindsets, from different communities, people living in Germany, UK and elsewhere and we have come together to support Syrian youth to help them to education too. It really goes back to my first point. Nothing is more important than education, to build our human communities, to enable young people to play a role in bringing about peace and empowering women and children through education. Without education we cannot do anything for our common future. I will send you a userlink and you can understand more about Syrian Youth for Peace.

I’d like to finish with this sentence. You can say that now Kiron is my community. There are a lot of students like me who are of the same mind. Kiron has been the best thing that ever happened to me, supporting me in building my future. Syrian youth in a ruined country have no concept of the future. But we can help them build a new country. When we talk about a Kiron family, that’s not just a phrase: it is a reality.

Markus, Kiron co-founder.

Markus, Kiron co-founder.

Meet Markus

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Let’s go back to Strasbourg at the World Forum for Democracy 2016, where you received the Council of Europe’s Democracy Innovation Award. Since you started up in 2015, you have received several awards, which must help you to establish your reputation in the world. Is that right?

Markus Kressler (Markus): Of course it’s always nice to have our work appreciated by receiving awards, we are really thankful for everyone who believes in our mission.

But yes, at the end of 2015, we were not really being listened to, despite the fact that we were pretty convinced that we had found a solution that would enable displaced people, refugees to access higher education. But for the bigger foundations it was just too much of a risk in the beginning, too much of an innovation for smaller ones, who maybe didn’t really have the financial means to help us out.

So we decided to do a big crowd-funding campaign then and there, which turned out to be a really big and successful social crowdfunding campaign, and that was really the starting point. We would have cancelled the project otherwise at the end of the year. We had been working about a year on it on a voluntary basis, but even without paying people, we had been able to attract around 35 really highly motivated volunteers who shared this vision.

So after the first foundation stepped forward, slowly we also started to produce results, and then the appreciation began to come in. I’m just back from Paris now, having received the UNESCO ICT award from the Director General at a great event where we got to know a whole lot of new and inspiring people.

RB: Congratulations! So was it the crowdfunding breakthrough that induced political decision-makers, people from business and science to take you seriously would you say?

Markus:  Basically, we just knew that once we began taking students on, on our platform, we had a certain obligation to fulfil their expectations and this required some basic financial means to enable them to complete the two-year programme. This was the major reason for the crowdfunding campaign. We couldn’t have done this on a voluntary basis any more: we needed to have at least a basic income to ensure the quality of our results. So, after the crowdfunding there were 300 articles in the press within 60 days, which was when we got the democratic thumbs up for our project.

Suddenly this made other people who maybe didn’t want to work with us before rethink their decision. We went into talks with some foundations first, and once we had convinced them to support our mission, we met with the public institutions and other partners. The Schöpflin Foundation gave us our first substantial funding for a long period of time. Since September, the BMBF (Ministry for education and research) is also supporting us financially. That was really when we knew that OK, this was going to work, and we could scale up in terms of numbers.

RB: Just how important is the invention of Massive Open Online Courses, (MOOCs)?

Markus: That’s the core of everything. Without these MOOC’s we couldn’t do what we are doing. This is a movement in open educational resources which is still pretty new to Europe actually. In the US they were a little bit ahead of us. I think the first time the US Senate talked about them was in 2008: in Germany it was only last year that they really put it on the political agenda. So this was a resource that not many people knew about when we started Kiron, but we knew about it, and we also knew how educational systems or curricula work.

Basically, if you can ensure through MOOCs, which are local forums of university-level content, that people can achieve certain outcomes, and we can really scientifically prove this, there is no reason for universities, or educational institutions, not to work with open educational resources as well. That is what we are still trying to prove on a scientific basis, but the results so far look pretty promising.

RB: How significant is that development for education, for democracy, for combatting inequality, for social cohesion?

Markus: It’s extremely important I think. Just last year with the Sustainable Development Goals – number four on high quality education, number seventeen on achieving goals through partnerships, and also goals for diminishing inequalities in our world – these are the goals that the UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR and also major governments have been committed to achieving since 2013. MOOCs are one of the first developments in education that take us in this direction, and I’m pretty sure there will be something after MOOCs, or complementing their work that exactly taps into those goals because they are free from location constraints, they don’t really have a capacity problem, there is no time limit – you can study according to your own time schedule, and these are all elements that I also have personally experienced are very very important especially for refugees, since it is hard for them to stick to a fixed schedule, study the language of the host communities, and also study wherever they currently are. When the recent big wave of Syrians came to Europe, they spent years waiting – often between 4-7 years and some people were in camps for ten years – more than enough time in which to do a whole bachelor and master programme!

RB: Would you say that the refugees who find Kiron are necessarily a self-selecting group? How far can you reach out to the disadvantaged?

Markus: There is definitely a certain self-selection on the part of our students. We also try to create, in comparison to conventional or MOOC providers, a certain degree of up-front restriction. What that means is that we always have the core value that we don’t want to create any barriers for people to access our system, but we need to ensure that someone at least understands a basic level of English so that this person can study our MOOCs.

Once simultaneous translation becomes available we will definitely be rethinking that, but for now, at the end of the day we are an educational institution, and that’s why people give us money, and so they look out for the numbers of those students who go successfully through our system, and of course we have to invest resources in every student who enters our platform. We have already had the experience that some of them really like our social events and our online language courses, but pretty much sign up for these features without studying, and as long as we have limited resources, unfortunately, we can’t really cater for that.

So, to return to your original question, so far we are not reaching out to great numbers of students – currently over 2000 students have access to the courses on the platform – because we are not rolling it out to thousands of people until we can really be sure that all of the systems work, and that’s what we are trying to prove at the moment with each of these programmes, especially the student support programmes that we have set up, with our academic programmes and also with our platforms and MOOCs in general and access to them.

Most of the students come through already existing programmes, such as language courses or guest lecturing programmes in partner universities. It was actually really great to see that universities rather appreciated what we were doing, because they were searching for opportunities to help tackle the refugee crisis, but at the same time they are bound by certain restrictions – they have to request passports, proof of language skills, a high school diploma and so on. That always takes time and sometimes it can mean two or three years for a person waiting for those documents. Especially during a transition period when someone has left his or her country but before they have entered another educational system – that is what our platform is for. Therefore, Kiron sees itself as a bridge builder. In this process the universities are our strong partners. Without them the whole learning-model wouldn’t be possible.

Markus and Kiron students.

Markus and Kiron students.

RB: So this is a continuous learning process on what will be effective. I have understood that by 2018 you ‘intend to successfully implement your model beyond Germany in France, Jordan and Turkey’. Isn't that pretty ambitious?

Markus: I always envisaged a five-step plan, whereby in 2015 we simply had an idea of a solution. In 2016 we created an educational model that would work, bundling MOOCs for the first time into real curricula that have learning outcomes in the back-end of our database, so that is actually where the real magic happens, because the universities for the first time can work with this, which wasn’t possible with MOOCs before.

This year is all about study success: so we want to implement gamification, student communities, we are going to test out female-only study groups, and we are currently implementing different sorts of study centres and so on. Then next year will be the first year for the big transfer cohorts. We expect that a first smaller group of students will transfer by the end of this year. But next year there will probably be significant numbers. And we will continue to roll this out in two European countries and two countries in the Middle East, because we have the ambition to be a global solution to a global problem, and for us this is really the proof of concept that we are looking for, a model that doesn’t just work in Germany, but in a second European country and also in another educational system.

RB: Has it been interesting working with other educational systems in different political landscapes. Do they look to your model for different things?

Markus:  Yes, because they are different, but actually not so different. Our first approach was one that was already centred in internationalisation, simply the idea of matching curricula individually with online courses. So pretty much like when you go for an Erasmus semester and every student sits down for hours and hours with the people from the international offices to see which courses you can get recognised as qualified for in the university in Spain you might want to attend. That’s what we did in the beginning and this is also what we are currently doing internationally.

But at the same time, there is also a growing acceptance of the European ECTS grading scale which is already comparable to the American model and some universities in Lebanon are already using this model for example. In Jordan they are using the American model, so we already have a match there. In Turkey it is a little tricky, but they also understand the benefits of identifying clear learning outcomes in their own curricula. With our German partner universities, for example, we usually match the Moocs on our platform with their curricular and define the learning outcomes. So we could just carry on and do the same with our international partners and create two systems that can work with each other. This much we know. 

For those countries that have taken in a high number of refugees, their interest in us is mainly a matter of living up to their promises in education. In Jordan and Turkey, where unemployment rates among university graduates are already high within their own population, it is hard to argue that you should invest a lot of money in universities to create places for refugees. You might be able to sell it as a temporary problem rather than a longterm problem. But your own citizens realise that they will probably be staying around. So it is a political interest they have in us, mixed up with a financial interest, as well as a genuine interest which is – just to help.

RB: Thinking of the kind of considerable generosity we see in Lebanon, for example, I can’t help wondering, speaking as I do from Brexit Britain, whether you frequently get asked by people why you are putting such efforts into helping refugees when further educational opportunities are also not there for many of your own native citizens?

Markus:  We used to be asked this much more frequently in the beginning. There were individual e-mails that asked exactly this question: “Why do you provide this opportunity only to refugees when I as a normal German citizen couldn’t get such chances by studying with Kiron?”

The answer is: Kiron is offering a solution for those who for various specific reasons do not have access to higher education, who are refugees. What we are doing is supporting the refugees who need that support and also deserve it after all the things that they have been through. They just need a small break to help kick things off. More and more people are beginning to understand that it is not so much a matter of us solving all their problems, as Angela Merkel used to say, but it is more about creating tools for them to solve their own problems. That’s probably all we need to do. Once we have created those tools, in the end they will become contributing members to our society.

Every economics institute in this world, including the Adam Smith Institute, which has one of the best studies on this by Executive Director Sam Bowman, agrees that even the worst refugee is an economic zero. They will only become an economic minus if they take to a life of crime or become a burden on the healthcare system. At the worst, they create one supply and one demand and the local economy has to be able to absorb that. The minute someone is educated and can contribute to society, they raise the GDP, the taxes that pay for everyone living in that society, and that is also a plus for the locals already living there since it is worth hundreds of euros. People are beginning to understand that logic.

RB: The flexibility of the modularised model you have, with this combination of offline and online, and a variety of types of support seems to me to offer an important educational formula which might have all sorts of applications for the future? Would you agree?

Markus: I remember when we first started sketching some ideas of what our platform could look like, and to develop the first pitch, I took a trend map of a research institution and tried to identify what kind of ideas we were tapping into with our initial idea. Pretty much all of the major top twenty trends of our century were ones that had something going for us, and there was not one trend which was against what we were doing.

Education in general is tending to move away from formal degrees and towards individual achievements. If you look at computer science, a lot of good students never finish their degree and quit before because companies like Google and Facebook are actively searching for these weird geniuses who soon notice that they can earn a ton of money after just two years’ experience in coding! So that is one trend that we refer to as ‘unbundling our education’. Smaller chunks of education already have a certain value. You won’t become a business professor, but you may become an accountant and be able to read a balance sheet and set up some financial planning for an organisation.

But as you said, the meaningful combination of online and offline is so important. For me, the worst case scenario is clear. I attended two universities: at one I was studying psychology and at the other, the arts. For me in the arts, the very worst thing would have been not to have any human interaction any more because everything had suddenly become digital! That is the picture that people sometimes get of Kiron – Ooh they are putting refugees in dark basements to study and become little health care machines for the future because that is a flourishing industry, but without any interaction any more! 

Actually it is exactly the opposite. To better respond to our student needs, we created personalised teaching and interactive learning opportunities and launched several student support programmes. Our learning model is based on a concept called "Blended Learning 2.0": our study tracks combine asynchronous open online courses (MOOCs) with synchronous and complementary live online tutorials provided by Kiron Direct Academics. This means that we will provide tutorials and exercise courses that accompany the MOOCs and support our students to achieve their academic goals.

In addition we offer supplementary student services such as the counseling or the Buddy Program in which the student's needs are addressed as far as possible. For example in our Buddy Program, Kiron students are matched with local students who can support them in their studies, share experiences, have fun together and learn each other's languages.

RB: Do you get the impression that your Kiron students do contribute something important to the diversity and liveliness of your partner universities?

Markus:  Yes, that is true in several ways. There is this tendency that with every major crisis in our world, we tend not to see the big revolutions that often accompany those upheavals at the time. I think mankind often comes out of crises stronger than we were going in. In Germany that is true of everything digital, for example. We first discussed an electronic ID card twenty years ago, and now because it was the only way to keep track of all the people suddenly entering our country – they have finally done this thanks to the refugees.

But that is also true for universities who have been thinking for quite some time about how they can use the opportunities held out by digitalization for their own teaching. The acceptance of online curricula would never have been as ready or as open-minded, had we not been doing it urgently for a socially disadvantaged group.

And of course besides this it is obviously a real added value to have people who come from such different backgrounds and cultures. There are also loads of things that are hard to explain, but sometimes when you talk with some of our students, they bring with them such an incredible sense of affirmation and hopefulness and determination about the future, that I am jealous of them. Where they get that positive outlook, I just don’t know. But it is really something to learn from on a human level.

RB: So this talk about the Kiron family extends to you as well.

Markus: Yes, exactly.

RB: I’m glad to hear that…  well thank you very much! 

Kiron students.

Kiron students.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData