In many ways, and by any standard, Turkey is a vibrant country. Those who follow events in Turkey closely would definitely agree, as they must nowadays have difficulty with following the dizzying pace of events and making sense out of them. To be more concrete and specific, it would be appropriate to mention a few hot topics in the news in the past week.
To begin with, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially proclaimed his objective of “raising devout generations which embrace [their] historic principles” and equated being a non-devout with being a “drug addict.” In a different occasion, the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) physically occupied the Parliament’s rostrum to protest various amendments proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Kicks and punches followed. In the middle of the week, as a part of a probe into the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), the alleged urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a prosecutor has summoned the head of National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, and four others, including the former head and deputy head of MIT, to answer questions about secret talks the agency held in Oslo with the PKK. Upon this, AKP blocked the investigation and prepared a new law to stop arbitrary arrest of top government officials. In addition, the prosecutor was removed from the case hastily. On the following day, Erdogan had his second surgery for noncancerous intestinal polyps. Even though the weekend was quiet, Turkish security forces raided the headquarters of several labor unions, as part of the ongoing operations against KCK and detained around 100 people countrywide on Monday. At the time of this writing, thousands of soccer fans were shouting slogans outside a Turkish courthouse in support of 93 suspects, including the jailed president of the last champion Fenerbahce, who went on trial in a massive match-fixing scandal1 which has plunged the country’s multi-billion-dollar league into chaos.2
Unfortunately due to this vibrant, complex, and unpredictable political atmosphere, media and political analysts can sometimes overlook or pay inadequate attention to noteworthy developments in Turkey. One such example is the under-coverage of the implementation of the Movement of Enhancing Opportunities and Improving Technology Project, abbreviated as FATIH, despite arguably being the most significant and ambitious educational investment of Turkey in recent years. This article can hopefully give a basic understanding and insight into the FATIH Project, the existing problems of the education system in Turkey, and the debate regarding the necessity of implementing the project in question.
The FATIH Project
As Altunbasak and Ayci argue, Turkey has grandiose targets for 2023, the centennial celebration of the Republic of Turkey. In parallel with these ambitious goals, such as national automobile and aircraft production, it has planned to make giant investments and to leap forward in various areas of strategic importance.3
Education is indeed one of these areas. Accordingly, under the FATIH Project, 40,000 schools and nearly 600,000 classes will be equipped with the latest information technologies and turned into computerized education classes (Smart Class) to have a well-educated generations to realize the above-mentioned goals.4 In addition, all students and teachers will be provided with tablet PCs, while the classrooms will be equipped with interactive smart boards that are compatible with tablet PCs between 2011-2014.5 It is planned that educational e-contents will be created by harmonizing curriculums with information technology supported education and new e-books and educational objects will be prepared for each course.6 With the project, textbooks will be thoroughly eliminated, as students will access course materials using their tablet PCs. The project, which is expected to cost about 3 billion Turkish Liras (around 1.7 billion US Dollars), represents the largest single allocation of resources to education in the history of modern Turkey.7
On February 6, 2012, the project has been implemented in 52 schools in 17 provinces across Turkey, with a total of 12,800 tablet PCs issued to ninth grade students as part of a pilot program aiming to integrate state-of-the-art computer technology into Turkey’s public education system.8 On the very same day, Prime Minister Erdogan stated that “Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul and put an end to a dark era, the Middle Ages, and went on to start off a new era. With the FATIH project, we are also closing an era to embark upon a new one.”9
Then came the controversy. Granted, the FATIH Project is a bold step, and has the potential to revolutionize the education system in Turkey. However, much debate revolved around the questions regarding the necessity of implementing such a billion-dollar project, at a time when there are still imbalanced conditions in every aspect of Turkish education system, including, but not limited to, the university exams, language of the education, as well training programs for teachers.10
Existing Problems of Education in Turkey
While it is beyond the scope of this article to pinpoint all the problems in the education system in Turkey, it is worthwhile to specify some in order to reflect how grim the situation actually is. To begin with the country’s international score card, in the education section of the Legatum Properity Index, which annually assesses the economic growth, personal well-being, and quality of life in 110 countries, Turkey ranks 76th out of these 110 countries.11 According to the index, even though Turkey places around the global average in terms of access to education, there is an under representation of girls in primary and secondary education in Turkey. Classes are above average in size, with a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 23 primary school pupils per teacher. Also, 35% of citizens express dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided in their local areas, and less than 50% of Turks think that children in their country have the opportunity to learn and grow every day.12
In addition, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 results released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in December 2010, Turkey stands as the 32nd among 34 OECD countries and 40 percent of Turkish 15-year-old students cannot reach basic competence level in mathematical literacy. Moreover, socioeconomic background plays a huge role in determining the success of Turkish students, and schools are more or less segregated in line with the socio-economic background characteristics of their students.13 Eurostat’s education statistics of 2011 further indicate that Turkey is one of the European countries with the lowest percentage of people with tertiary education and with the highest percentage of individuals aged 18 to 24 who have finished no more than a lower-secondary education, and who are not involved in further education and training.14
Unsurprisingly, low foreign language education in Turkey remains as a serious problem. In 2011, Turkey has ranked a dismal 43rd out of 44 countries in the English Proficiency Index (EPI) created as a standardized measurement of adult English proficiency.15 The report also points to educational spending as a key indicator of proficiency in English. Countries that rank in the top 25 of the EPI test spend an average of $32,000 on educational institutions per student, whereas Turkey only spends $12,708.16
To elaborate more on the problems, the reasons why students and teachers suffer the most in the Turkish education system are arguably the serious lack in equipment, insufficient number of qualified educators, crowded classrooms, high dropout rate due to low family incomes and pessimism about their higher-education prospects,17
and the private course-oriented system that allegedly prepares students for the higher education where there is excess demand and insufficient supply. To illustrate the last point, in 2005 the number of applicants to the nationwide competitive examination was 1,851,618 while only 20.5% of these were placed at a university program.18
Another core problem, according to Sambur, is that Turkish students are not given the chance to develop themselves freely. “In [Turkish] education system the concept of self-realization is lacking. The questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What I should become?’ are not asked.19 According to Ozturk, on the other hand, the general problem Turkish students face at school is a lack of nutrition, as poor diet influences both the mental and physical development of young students.20
Apart from these, Turkish education is almost completely teacher-centered and based on memorization. The teacher talks and the students listen quietly. Standard operating procedure is to memorize random information for exams and then forget everything. Students generally memorize rules and small pieces of information because on a Turkish exam, they do not ask for the most important or relevant information. They test you on the most random information to check your memorization skills.21 Related to the problem of memorization is the lack of critical thinking or lateral thinking skills with many students. Because the education system focuses on the memorization of rules, students often fail to understand concepts and fail to apply skills or methods outside of issues taught.22 Briefly, given the picture above, one would legitimately ask why implementing the FATIH Project, or pouring billions of dollars into that project, was a necessity and priority for Turkey.
If There is a “New” Turkey…
Without a doubt, the current picture of education in Turkey and mixed results of the studies to measure the effectiveness of smart classrooms on the academic achievement of students point to the high risks of this investment. Implementing the FATIH Project is extremely risky because, while there is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using [tablet PCs],23
some studies point to an increase in math and science scores, graduation rates, and attendance, as opposed to a decrease in dropout rates.24
In a similar vein, it is risky because, while some argue that chalkboard, marker board and now “smart” board may create increased costs for schools and profits for manufacturers,25 some studies find that the implementation of interactive whiteboards and laptops reduce the paper use and waste, thus, considering the increasing cost of paper and printing, constitutes a positive shift for the budget, productivity and environment.26
It is risky because, while the project’s opportunities include greater access to rich, multimedia content, the increasing use of online course-taking, and the widespread availability of mobile computing devices that can access the Internet, the vast majority of the studies looking at the effects of mobile technologies on learning are funded by the very companies and institutions that have created and promoted the technology. These studies are often based on small samples of students involved in short-term pilots, not the kind of large-scale, ongoing samples of students.27 This, indeed, decreases the validity of the studies.
Briefly, there is no guarantee that the FATIH Project will equip Turkish pupils with the needed skills and qualifications to adapt to the challenges of the changing world. There is the grave risk that billions of dollars will be spent on zero return.
Despite the daunting picture of the education system in Turkey, mixed results of the studies, and risks of the project, I personally believe that changing the culture of instruction and preparing students for the realities of the digital and global world are positive and necessary moves. Without turning a blind eye to the existing problems and actual needs of students and teachers, the FATIH Project, and similar future projects, should be merged with the current education programs in order to raise a generation that can compete in the global marketplace and become engaged citizens. Giving young Turkish minds a quality education that will allow them to enter international markets is just as important as empowering teachers and providing them in-service training, decreasing the number of students in a class, helping students develop their personalities and encouraging them to socially and actively participate within the community. In other words, these are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive projects.
Without a doubt, the transition from the “chalkboard era” to the tablet era will be a painful process. I believe it is worth enduring the pain and taking the risk in investing in future generations by implementing the FATIH Project, as it is a revolutionary move for Turkey, even in the case of failure. After all, investing in human is required and critical to Turkey’s political stability, economic growth, scientific and technological progress, and socio-economic and humanitarian advancement, especially if there is a “new Turkey” on its way to joining the ranks of major global actors on the world scene.