Home > Research > Publications & Outputs > Refugees’ Online Learning Engagement in Higher ...

Electronic data

  • 2023WitthausPhD.pdf

    Final published version, 4.47 MB, PDF document

    Available under license: CC BY-NC-SA: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Text available via DOI:

View graph of relations

Refugees’ Online Learning Engagement in Higher Education: A Capabilitarian Analysis

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date20/06/2023
Number of pages287
Awarding Institution
Award date12/06/2023
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


There are almost 90 million forced migrants globally, many of whom could benefit from online higher education; yet evidence suggests extremely low retention rates of displaced people in online learning. Since retention is often seen as being linked to engagement, this study aimed to understand the nature of student engagement by displaced learners in online higher education (HE) and to identify practical ways in which higher education institutions (HEIs) can support displaced learners to engage in online learning. The methodology included both empirical and theoretical components. The empirical study focused on a qualitative analysis of the lived experiences of ten online Sanctuary Scholars enrolled on an online master’s degree with a UK university. The theoretical analysis involved integrating concepts related to online engagement from the HE literature with those from the Capability Approach. A thematic analysis of the empirical data found that, while conversion factors such as trauma and “lifeload” presented obstacles for all the Sanctuary Scholars, some graduated, whereas others withdrew from the programme without completing it. The findings point to a nuanced web of interactions between resources, enablers and constraints (positive and negative conversion factors), capabilities, engagement and personal agency for each research participant. The original contribution of this thesis is that it proposes a Capabilitarian Online Engagement Model, which shows how engagement along four dimensions is underpinned by specific capabilities; it also illustrates how engagement fuels the capability for further engagement and highlights the role of student agency. The study contributes to theoretical understanding of displaced learners’ engagement in online learning, while practically, it offers insights to HEIs for fostering online engagement. Socially, the thesis adds to the growing body of open research in the social sciences.