Online education: A mixed blessing for international students in Sweden

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many universities and students to shift from traditional to online learning methods in order to follow health and safety restrictions. While a blessing for many, for some international students, it appears to be a double-edged sword.

Online education: A mixed blessing for international students in Sweden
Remote teaching has been a mixed blessing for many students. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

When Covid-19 started hitting the mass public in late 2019 and early 2020, resulting in lockdowns around the world, education seemed to be brought to a temporary halt because of shutdowns of institutions.

Sweden has had a liberal approach towards Covid-19 throughout the pandemic and even though there is no official lockdown, universities have generally opted for distance learning, often at the government's urging. The problem of not being able to physically attend educational institutions was quickly met with responses such as holding classes and seminars online, and online learning has been a part of daily life for students since then.

A pandemic solution – but far from perfect

Most students are still working from home and rarely have to meet for school projects. In some ways, this has been considered a great response to a problem and much appreciated by a lot of students in Sweden. But it has been far from perfect – especially for many international students, as evidenced by petitions by students at Uppsala University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology. These petitions are urging the universities to cut tuition fees for the spring semester of 2021 and provide financial aid due to Covid-19, respectively.  


Safe distance learning is one of the many benefits of online education during Covid-19. Some international students who emigrated to Sweden for education, however, feel that for them the withheld experience of education in a foreign country outweighs the positive side of online education. While some universities in Sweden have transitioned completely to distance learning, others struggle to balance the traditional and online styles of education. Even though Swedish universities are self-sufficient to support distance learning for students, international students are often still required to travel to Sweden to register for study programmes.

Amber Javed, who recently moved to Stockholm from Pakistan to pursue a master's in media management at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, sheds light on her perspective on the struggles of international students. 

“I came to Sweden with the hope of an educational degree which will provide me with experience and  opportunity to practise the technicalities of my education. But due to Covid-19, I have only been attending online classes for which I shouldn't have to travel in the middle of a pandemic,” said Amber Javed.

Asked why she had to be in Stockholm to keep her place on the course, she said: “Some study programmes require you to be at university by a certain deadline to register, otherwise you have to give up your place for that specific year. Which was not possible for me considering I am a scholarship holder.”

Students walking through an almost empty campus in Stockholm in May 2020. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Students are also looking at universities with hope regarding the struggle to find accommodation during these chaotic times. “I believe that the government should take some measures to make it easier and cheaper for international students to get accommodation during Covid-19,” said Silvia Nedecka from Slovakia, who is doing a master's in media communication and cultural analysis at Södertörn University.

However, Nedecka believes that despite these shortcomings, the Swedish educational system itself makes students reach for a better version of themselves with their broad teaching techniques and understanding of different backgrounds. 

'I could have attended all my classes from my home country'

When asked about the preferred education styles, both students said that they would always prefer traditional means of education which allow them to meet new people, connect with them, and experience their education in a completely different and engaging way than through distance learning. On the one hand, online education gives students a choice to stay safe, on the other, Javed argues that the limitations outweigh the benefits.

“As an international student, my motivation for moving to Sweden was to get out of my comfort zone in order to learn more, practice more and connect more,” she said.

“These were the factors that I was willing to travel for during a pandemic but now when I am in Sweden, I can't help but think that I could have attended all my classes from my home country as well. This would have saved me money in these uncertain times as well as the risk of traveling amid the virus.”

Javed believes that it's hard for teachers as well as students, and is still hopeful for the future and grateful to be in Stockholm. 

Amber Javed and Silvia Nedecka. Photos: private

'A blended approach with online and face-to-face interaction would be more effective'

Simon Okwir is a researcher at Uppsala University who was interviewed to understand the struggles of  international students from a different angle. It's important to get a perspective from a teacher who over the years gets a better understanding of why international students might be struggling to cope with online education and what can be the coping strategies students can practise while following coronavirus restrictions in Sweden.

Okwir, when asked about his opinion on online education, said: “Teaching in the digital age is to make education accessible for many people in the world who can't travel. But the classroom environment will always remain as a formal standard teaching style for interaction. Online education can be considered an enabler in this discourse because if you attend everything online then you cut out the human elements. I think a blended approach with online and face-to-face interaction would be more effective during uncertain situations in future.”

Okwir also shared his thoughts on the dilemma of international students and their experience being cut short by the pandemic. He said: “Education for international students is not only just about learning but a very integral part of it is to experience the Swedish culture and connect with people from across the world. It is unfortunate for the students this year but I know students that are trying to find their way by acclimatising themselves, attending outdoor sport events, and keeping themselves busy by learning the Swedish language online. They are also trying to find ways to meet in small groups keeping in mind the Swedish guidelines.”

Simon Okwir, a researcher and teacher at Uppsala University. Photo: private

In the field of education, many universities are now considering automated courses, some of which will be completely without human elements which suggests that online education in some shape or form is here to stay.

One thing is for certain, that the ever-changing situation during these uncertain times suggests that students, specifically international students, have little choice but to adapt to the fact that things are not the way they could have been without the pandemic. The important thing is to learn from and enjoy every experience students can acquire during this pandemic, hope for a better future, and make the most of their time in Sweden, argues Okwir.

He also believes that it can be especially difficult for international students who come from sunny countries and to come to Sweden only to be in your room all day can be very daunting in the beginning, but he is certain that this situation will be very different in post-corona times. He advises students to try to keep their spirits high in the meantime: “As a student, you have to be quite aware of the situation we are in and try to use every possible opportunity that  comes your way. Students should try to learn about Swedish culture, talk to local people, develop friendships because everything relies on relationships, which tend to be transactional in Sweden.”

Syeda Shehreen Fatima is studying media management at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.

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How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.