At Kiron Open Higher Education, refugees need no more than a smartphone and internet access to get a university education. For the last two years, the Kiron team has been building a pool of online courses in cooperation with universities worldwide. Today, they have 2,700 enrolled students. Vincent Zimmer, the 27-year-old co-founder of Kiron, talks about technology and his vision.
When did you first hear the word “refugee”?
Vincent Zimmer: I first heard it from my grandfather when I was around seven or eight years old. He was a refugee from the Czech Republic. I grew up with my grandparents. They taught me the importance of working hard, being humble, and achieving progress. It also made me understand that investing in one’s own education is fundamental. It is the only thing in life that cannot be taken away from you.
Kiron Open Higher Education
The goal of Kiron is to provide refugees worldwide with access to higher education and the opportunity to graduate with an accredited bachelor’s degree. For up to two years, the students take online courses in the following study tracks: Business & Economics, Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Political Science, and Social Work. After that, they can apply at a university and continue their studies in order to get a diploma.
So you made the business case for Kiron pretty early.
Vincent Zimmer: Kind of. I actually began to work on Kiron’s model at the end of my Masters studies in London, before the refugee crisis started affecting Europe directly. At the time, I already had some experience working for an NGO that was supporting refugees. During my stint at this NGO, I met a refugee in Istanbul who did his best to educate himself by using university courses that were available online and by reading everything he could get his hands on at the local library. This was when the concept of Kiron was born.
The business model of Kiron is based on digital technology. Can online courses make up for the real-life experience in a classroom?
Vincent Zimmer: Kiron is definitely tech-driven. But our main mission is not educating the five million refugees who currently need education. It is about giving them inspiration and a tool for their own empowerment. You do not need to be in a classroom for that.
I see us paving the way for education systems for everybody, not just for refugees.
Still, technology plays a major role.
Vincent Zimmer: Of course, innovations and technology make it easier and more affordable to deliver education to more people. Generally, online courses have a high drop-out rate. Our completion rates are much better. The reason may be that Kiron students are more motivated, because they see the bigger picture. We are also supporting our students through additional offline and online services such as a mentoring program that helps them not to feel alone in their efforts.
How do you make sure to constantly refine your education concept?
Vincent Zimmer: Most importantly, we listen to our students. They are the real experts and have great ideas on improving our work! Based on our students’ input, we, for example, made sure to focus more on preparatory courses that help students with language challenges and general skills like academic writing. In addition, collaboration and strong partnerships are key for our continuous improvement. We have implemented quite some research and development measures together with partner universities and ask them to challenges our work with their expertise as often as possible. Internally we have strong quality assurance and evaluation processes that make sure we incrementally further develop our educational approaches based on evidence and data.
How do you envision the future of Kiron?
Vincent Zimmer: I see us paving the way for education systems for everybody, not just for refugees. If we can make it happen for displaced people around the world, it can happen for anyone.
In 2016, Forbes magazine presented Vincent Zimmer as one of 30 under 30 who are championing Europeans' rights and their political movements. He became part of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network in 2015 at the Berlin Global Forum.
You are thinking about expanding?
Vincent Zimmer: Yes, in different directions. With our experience, we can bring about changes in the higher education system in Germany and Europe as a whole by introducing digitization and raising awareness. Second, we try to create new education systems worldwide as we are already doing in Jordan and France. There, we have partnerships with universities on the ground and a lot of knowledge transfer. So, we will definitely keep a focus on refugees and internally displaced people.
What is your advice for a young social entrepreneur trying to make an impact?
Vincent Zimmer: Whether a project flies or not has little to do with an individual idea, but everything with the right timing. And this is the hardest thing to predict. People shouldn’t be afraid of failure; they should keep their ears and eyes open. This helps to see and grasp an opportunity to achieve something great.
Vincent and his team have come a long way in the last few years. Support them by sharing their story!