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Observing Turkey's ambitious FATIH initiative to provide all students with tablets and connect all classrooms

Michael Trucano's picture
there's something electric on the horizon in Turkey
there's something electric on the horizon in Turkey
Uruguay. Peru. The U.S. State of Maine. South Korea. Portugal.

A number of places around the world have made very large, (hopefully) strategic investments in technology use across their formal education systems featuring so-called "1-to-1 computing", where every student has her own laptop or tablet learning device.

(I provided an annotated list of such places in an earlier EduTech blog post on Big educational laptop and tablet projects -- Ten countries to learn from).

One of the largest national initiatives of this sort is largely unknown outside that country's borders. To the extent that Turkey's ambitious FATIH project is known around the world, it is probably as a result of headlines related to plans to buy massive numbers of tablets (news reports currently place the figures at about 11 million) and interactive whiteboards (over 450,000 will be placed in classrooms, labs, teacher rooms and kindergartens). The first big phase of the project began in 2011 with 52 schools receiving tablets and interactive whiteboards as a sort of pilot project to test implementation models, with results (here's one early evaluation report) meant to inform later, larger stages of (massive) roll-outs.

The project's acronymic title, FATIH (which stands for Fırsatları Artırma ve Teknolojiyi İyileştirme Hareketi, or 'Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology'), deliberately recalls the conqueror of Istanbul, Fatih Sultan Mehmet. Speaking at the project's inauguration, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted that, “As Fatih Sultan Mehmet ended the Middle Ages and started a new era with the conquering of İstanbul in 1453, today we ended a dark age in education and started a new era, an era of information technology in Turkish education, with the FATİH project.”
 

What do we know about FATIH,
how might it develop,
and how might lessons from this development
be of interest and relevance to other countries
considering ambitious plans of their own to roll out educational technologies?

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A World Bank report from earlier this year (Promoting Excellence in Turkey's Schools) notes that "The education system in Turkey has shown remarkable improvement since 2003 in terms of better student performance and reduced inequality with a concurrent and sustained increase in enrollments." Recently-released PISA results show that, when judged against a number of key metrics, the trend line is indeed positive. Will FATIH help to consolidate and extend recent gains, or will it be a misstep, criticised for inefficiently allocating resources to shiny new technologies instead of where investments are needed the most (a criticism directed at large scale educational technology initiatives in many other places in the world, such as the educational tablet project in Los Angeles Unified School District in the United States, which has seen its initial phases of rollout dogged by controversy  and, indeed "chaos")? Only time will tell, of course. Advocates for, and critics of, large-scale investments in, and roll-outs of, educational technologies would do well to pay close attention to what happens in Turkey over the next five years, both in terms of results, and the means by which these results are sought.

As detailed on its main web site (here's the English version), the FATIH project has five main components:

 [-] Providing Equipment and Software
 [-] Providing Educational e-content and Management of e-content
 [-] Effective Usage of the ICT in Teaching Programs
 [-] In-service Training of the Teachers
 [-] Conscious, Reliable, Manageable and Measurable ICT Usage

Unfortunately, there has to date been very little substantive reporting on, or sharing of lessons from, the emerging Turkish experience for audiences abroad. This is now, slowly, starting to change. A recent report from ERI, the Education Reform Initiative (Egitim Reformu Girisimi in Turkish) based at Sabanci University, and RTI International provides an invaluable introduction to what's been planned, what's been going on, and what may happen in the future, for international observers:

Turkey’s FATIH Project: A Plan to Conquer the Digital Divide, or a Technological Leap of Faith?
"Turkey is embarking on one of the world’s largest educational technology projects: putting tablet computers in the hands of every student from grade 5 to 12, and interactive whiteboards in every classroom. Though massive in its planned scope, the goals and approach of Turkey’s FATIH Project (The Movement to Enhance Opportunities and Improve Technology) are little understood. The objective of this brief is to analyze FATIH through the lens of ongoing and previous international, large-scale ICT in education experiences, and to use those experiences to suggest ways in which this important investment in educational technology can lead to the best possible learning outcomes for all students in Turkey."

One challenge that many large-scale initiatives of this sort face is the fact that, as massive as public sector investments in this regard may be, their ultimate success (or failure) may depend in large part on the ability of other groups outside the formal education sector, including civil society, community groups, and private sector actors, to anticipate both gaps in what is being rolled out (and thus help fill them) and to sense where there may be real opportunities to complement and extend what is being financed by government (and then, to do things that will complement and extend them!). Hopefully this report from ERI/RTI will help in this regard.

At the core of the report is a set of recommendations, drawn from both Turkish and international experience, which the the authors hope will resonate with policymakers and point the way to approaches, practices and activities that are worth strong consideration -- as well as away from the types of things that have been shown not to work in other places. For what it's worth, here are the ten major findings, recommendations and issues that I took away from the report:

  1. The mere presence of technology will not improve school-level outcomes
  2. The importance of out-of-school use of technology
  3. The limits of national/central coordination (important, but not sufficient for success)
  4. The value of local autonomy in many activities
  5. The potential role of ICT teachers in schools in supporting teachers and catalyzing new, innovative practices
  6. The danger that, if teachers are not continually supported (not only via 'one-off trainings') in practical, useful, contextually relevant ways, the "tablets risk becoming little more than digital desktops"
  7. The potential to do very useful small-scale research activities within the project, which can then inform the larger project
  8. Transparency around procurement can help catalyze support from groups outside government
  9. The important links between transparency and effectiveness in investments such as these
  10. The need to insulate the project from potential negative impacts of changes in government (should such changes occur)

In my attempts to shorten and paraphrase, I have no doubt done an injustice to the rich analysis of the authors on these (and many other) issues. Those who are still reading this blog post (and have not clicked over to other, more interesting things) are advised to read the report itself (or at least the short two-page summary).

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While the hardware procurements have perhaps thus far garnered the most attention, I am especially interested in how Turkey organizes things on the content side. With every student equipped with a tablet, connected schools and interactive projection devices in every classroom, there will be massive needs for useful, relevant, high-quality digital teaching and learning materials. As discussed in another post on the EduTech blog (in an admittedly different context), "As we move to a greater proliferation of devices, combined with the fact that we will be accessing more content from multiple places, a greater value will be placed on the content, and how that content is used, rather than on any one particular device. Viewed from this perspective, the future of education is in the content, not the 'container'. It's about more than just content, of course -- it's also about the connections and the communities (students collaborating with each other, teachers supporting other teachers) that technologies can help enable, catalyze and support as well." The most eagerly anticipated presentation at the recent global symposium on ICT use in education in Seoul was about efforts underway to stimulate and catalyze the development of digital learning resources in Turkey for use by students, teachers, parents and other people involved in the education process. Current plans include single sign-in access for teachers to nearly 60 educational portals and content repositories. There are over 314,000 registered users on a national educational platform (and content is being made through other channels like YouTube as well). To what extent, and how, will educational publishers adapt to, and take advantage of, the planned ubiquity of ICT devices in Turkish classrooms and in the hands of Turkish students and teachers? Answers to this question will presumably be of broad relevance not only within Turkey itself, but also for ministries of education and educational publishers in many other countries. It may be of special interest for countries where the language of instruction is, for the most part, unique to that country.

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Coming up with metrics by which to measure the success of projects like what is happening with the FATIH project in Turkey is often complicated by the fact that they can seek to meet multiple, interrelated goals. The fact that a large-scale new initiative in a country's education sector can have multiple objectives is of course nothing new. When such projects seek (as was the case in Portugal, and in many other countries as well) not only to help improve teaching and learning, while at the same time to supporting the development of national private sector capacity so that local firms can grow and eventually compete internationally (and survive competition from international firms seeking to enter their domestic markets), attempts to measure 'success' can be even more complex. Long term developmental objectives related to the education of a country's youth to become healthy, happy and productive members of a society can sometimes stand in opposition to shorter term desires to strengthen the capacity of local industry. Such goals need not be mutually exclusive -- but it may be useful along the way to acknowledge where tension between them occurs. The ERI/RTI reports quotes an (anonymous) Turkish education official saying, “We are not determining which technology best fits specified education goals, it’s the other way around; we are trying to make education fit the given technology.” Whatever the goals of large scale educational technology initiatives are around the world, this sort of sentiment often presages immense future disappointment. For educational policymakers around the world -- especially those in middle and low income countries -- looking to see what the near-term future of educational computing across an entire country's education system might look like, how it might be achieved, at what cost, and to what end, the Turkish experience over the next half decade may be one of the most enlightening. After reading the ERI/RTI report, I went back and read similar policy notes prepared as part of a quite large World Bank education project a decade ago that helped finance much of the initial large scale investment in the use of educational technologies in Turkey. While the year, and the gadgets, were different, many of the messages and recommendations and issues were the same. Hopefully the lessons from that earlier project, the international lessons gathered in the ERI/RTI report, and the emerging lessons from the first phases of the FATIH project itself, will be useful to Turkish policymakers and practitioners alike as they implement this ambitious program in the coming years. There will no doubt be much learned along the way.
  
 
You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog
:

 • Big educational laptop and tablet projects: Ten countries to learn from
 • Next steps for Uruguay's Plan Ceibal (as well as other posts about the Uruguayan experience)
 • Evaluating One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in Peru (and an earlier related post)
 • The Maine thing about 1-to-1 computing
 • What happens when all textbooks are (only) digital? Ask the Koreans!
 • Around the World with Portugal's eEscola Project and Magellan Initiative
 • The Aakash, India's $35 (?) Tablet for Education
 • Laptops for education: $10, $35, $100 and points in between (but not above!)
 • Ten comments on 1-to-1 computing in education

 
Note
: The striking image used at the top of this blog post of lightning on the outskirts of Ankara ("there's something electric on the horizon in Turkey") comes from Ayasli Habib via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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