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April 22, 2012, Sunday

How much ICT do Turkish schools need?

A few weeks ago Education Minister Ömer Dinçer spoke at the İstanbul Chamber of Commerce (İTO) about a new social studies textbook for the younger generation that the chamber had had commissioned with the approval of the ministry.

The book is primarily aimed at introducing fifth graders to the concepts behind innovation, calculated risk-taking and business as such and historic personalities who were the forward-looking thinkers of their times (such as Marco Polo). “Ticaretin Efsanesi” is to be available in all public libraries, too. Listening to the minister I was reminded of the fact that whilst Turkey is in the midst of re-structuring its primary and secondary educational system (rolling out FATİH, introducing 4+4+4, see below) the ultimate key to its lasting success will be whether curricula and textbook (or information and communications technology [ICT] enabled) contents are brought in line with the realities and requirements of a globalized, 21st century world. I am not simply talking about replacing one or two textbooks -- what is required is a complete rethinking of which contents are suitable for what age-group and in what (foreign) language if appropriate.

How much ICT do teachers want?

In this context I wish to first draw on the expertise of a number of Turkish academicians upon recommendation by UK-based educational systems developer Taner Kodanaz, himself a specialist in all matters ICT and, in particular, curricula development. The first analysis I consulted dates back to the year 2006, “Complexity of Integrating Computer Technologies into Education in Turkey,” written by Sadegül Akbaba-Altun from Başkent University’s College of Education. What I found interesting in this piece is that although we tend to employ ever more technology it is the human dimension that matters most. Akbaba-Altun stresses that “… human involvement is an essential ingredient of ICT integration.”

Two years later during 2008 a colleague from Başkent University -- Yasemin Gülbahar -- in collaboration with İsmail Güven from Ankara University stated that whilst teachers are ready to embrace ICT in the classroom, they are “facing problems in relation to accessibility to ICT resources and lack of in-service training opportunities,” lifted from “A Survey on ICT Usage and the Perceptions of Social Studies Teachers in Turkey.”

It seems that teachers are willing and able to use ICT in the classroom but are aware of the dangers of allowing technology to take over from themselves, hence there seems to be a need to address the “human factor in all things ICT.”

The other point that these two and two further studies I consulted before writing up this contribution shows that the training of trainers, aka primary and secondary school teachers, is something lacking in Turkey until this very day.

How much ICT is good for children?

Being a father myself with one daughter enrolled in a Turkish primary school the subject of ICT is a constant issue. Our head teacher had warned us that a new phenomenon had entered both classroom as well as society in general: the “screen child.” What she wanted to say is that children far too often sit in front of the television, play games by means of smartphones or use their very own mobile phones to send text messages. They constantly look into a screen instead of talking face-to-face or engaging in other activities.

Whereas convincing teachers of the benefits of using ICT in their classroom seems to be a task that can be managed as long as government resources allow for equal distribution of hardware and software all over Turkey and as long as teachers are adequately trained for their new roles allowing children to use ICT without interruption would send the wrong signals. Being myself a great admirer of the FATİH project, which will bring ICT literally to each and every Turkish classroom, I shall come back to this point later; I am of course concerned that what my head teacher spoke about comes true and that one day soon our children will be unable to take their heads away from whatever big or small screen they have in front of them.

So what is the ‘technical’ debate all about: FATİH and 4+4+4

Whereas Turkey’s political opposition was up in arms (literally speaking, too, engaging in untoward fist-fights in Parliament) upon learning that primary and secondary education would be restructured (commonly referred to as “4+4+4”) hardly anyone reacted against the introduction of tablet computers into the Turkish classroom. Hence, splitting school education into three blocks and re-introducing middle schools between primary and high schools, all for a period of four years (thus the 4+4+4 slogan adopted for the public debate) has become a political issue whereas ICT has not.

Let me sum up FATİH first. Over the course of the next four years all primary and secondary schools in Turkey will be equipped with interactive boards, and pupils will receive their very own personal tablet computer. Learning will become interactive so to speak, and currently 52 pilot schools benefit from the project rolled out step by step. It involves millions of tablet computers for hundreds of thousands of classrooms in tens of thousands of schools. It is massive indeed. Yet once implemented Turkish schoolchildren will be at the forefront of educational development and ICT and most probably become world leaders in this regard!

The 4+4+4 structure is more charged in the political sense. The government promotes its inception as returning to the status of a democratic educational system, whilst the opposition thinks it would allow children at an age too young to face the choice of either attending a vocational school or preparing for an albeit later entry to university and continuing all three segments including high school.

Personally speaking, I am a supporter of FATİH -- as long as my concerns about how much time children should be allowed to use ICT per day are taken care of -- and I am not anti 4+4+4 either. I do believe in a strong vocational element in any modern country as at least for the foreseeable future not each and every future graduate will want to work in front of a computer as what is commonly called a “symbols analyst.” There is industry, and there is agriculture. There is business as such -- how many company owners hold a Ph.D.?

The real obstacle -- curricula development!

I do of course carefully evaluate my own daughter’s textbooks. We -- as an extended family -- have many more children currently enrolled in Turkish schools. I have seen many of my own extended family’s kids turning teenager to ultimately enter university or go into business. Hence, what was and is being taught in Turkish schools is nothing I am unfamiliar with.

On the contrary -- and speaking with all due modesty -- because of this insider knowledge I must admit that even once FATİH has been fully implemented four years from now and even when 4+4+4 has become just a technical term for an overhaul of the national educational system (and no longer a raison d’étre for physical attacks on the floor of Parliament) in which all children are able to succeed according to their own abilities and professional desires, none of this will lead to any tangible results unless the ministry manages to change almost the entire national curricula and all related textbooks regardless of whether distributed in print format or made available at the click of a mouse or with the tip of your finger.

Turkey needs to modernize the actual contents of its curricula and not just the way they are taught. This is the real task for the ministry, all teachers, all schoolchildren and of course all parents. A colossal undertaking to say the least but for a country that reinvented herself and established civic democracy from the remains of what was military and many other forms of unwanted tutelage in less than a decade is something absolutely achievable!

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