The Fatih Project: educating the future
Prime Minister Erdoğan has said he will promote Turkey’s development on the pillars of health services, justice, security, and -- first and foremost -- education. A key part of this plan is to be the Fatih Project, which would see every student in Turkey provided with a free-of-charge tablet computer. This project is one of a kind; if successful it will help close the digital gap between developed countries and Turkey In the lead-up to the general election of June 12, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke at a rally in Gümüşhane. His comments related to a key issue for Turkey’s youthful and expanding population: education. Brandishing a tablet computer, he addressed the crowd: “Now we have the Fatih Project. We mean to introduce smart boards in our schools and classrooms. God willing, we will equip all our schools with smart boards within four years. In addition, we are also relieving you of books. What do we mean by this? We are moving to electronic books.”
This speech represented the first unveiling of plans to provide every student in Turkey with a free-ofcharge tablet computer. Even bureaucrats at the Ministry of Education were surprised by the announcement -- the project was new to them too, and they had no plans in place whatsoever.
The prime minister’s e-book project has its origins in the Fatih Project initiated about a year ago in İstanbul’s district of the same name. While the name references the district and Ottoman Emperor Mehmet the Conqueror (or “Fatih” in Turkish) after whom it was named, it is also the acronym for “Fırsatları Artırma, Teknolojiyi İyileştirme Hareketi” (Movement for the Development of Opportunities and Improvement of Technology).
While some regard projects like Fatih and the use of tablet computers as a revolution in education, others argue they will end up turning Turkey into a “technological landfill.” Only time will tell. The key point in the discussions sparked by Erdoğan’s revelations relates to the sheer magnitude of the project. As the Ministry of Education says: “This is not just an education project, this is a national project.” The scheme will be rolled out nationwide in all schools, in contrast to the small-scale projects carried out elsewhere in the world like the US, UK, Portugal, Japan and South Korea. The project involves providing free tablet computers to about 16 million students; the installation of panel-type interactive LCD board systems -- also known as “smart boards” -in every classroom in every school; the provision of intranet and Internet services in all classrooms; the installation of digital visualizers compatible with microscopes; and the provision of network-connected multi-functional printers and many other items of equipment.
What’s more, the multi-billion dollar hardware is the simplest part of the issue; in addition, there is the software and content aspect. This too comes with a hefty price tag. There are scarcely any companies in Turkey capable of compiling electronic content for dis-
play on smart boards. Ministry officials are in touch with these companies, but there are also legal complications in the form of the requirement for all materials and content used in schools to be approved by the ministry’s Education and Discipline Board. Unity of curriculum in education, which is not a very popular practice elsewhere in the world and which involves education policy being determined exclusively by the state, makes it impossible for schools to act independently. There are no electronic content specialists on the Education and Discipline Board, and this is where the smart board issue reaches a dead end. The same is true of e-books. Producing e-book content and maintaining it, in other words updating it, seems to be the most significant problem.
Moreover, it is uncertain how teachers will deal with conveying all this content and equipment to students. A ministry survey conducted among 300 teachers in 15 different provinces revealed that 85 percent of teachers wanted to make use of projectors, computers and the Internet in their classrooms. However, this is not reflected in practice. To begin with, future teachers do not receive relevant training. Neither the syllabus nor the technological support provided for future teachers at training colleges is compatible with smart boards or tablet computers. Experience indicates that the majority of teachers become set in their ways once they start working. It is unlikely this project will be a success without teachers taking on board the fact that they will be using smart boards and tablet computers during lessons. While the ministry suggests teachers will be trained in this field via professional development programs, it is difficult to eliminate the question marks surrounding how successful this practice is likely to be.
While it is true the potential obstacles to and shortcomings of the project are numerous, if it is accomplished it will represent an education revolution for Turkey. Through the use of smart boards, teachers will be able to provide students with 10 times more lesson content during classes; catching and maintaining their attention through animations, video clips, interactive questions and exercises -- making education more enjoyable and appealing.
This project is one of a kind: If successful it will help close the digital gap between developed countries and Turkey. Smart boards and e-books are not yet a real substitute for regular books in schools; they represent complementary technology for education. With the help of this technology, students will be able to read Turkish and world classics stored in their tablet computers, connect to the Internet to carry out literature searches no matter where they are, do their homework making use of text books stored in their tablet computers and send it to their teachers, revisit saved lessons and so on. The system aims to facilitate learning for students, wherever and whenever they want to study.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has suggested he will help raise Turkey on four pillars: education, health services, justice and security, with education first among them. The prime minister has effectively set a target for the bureaucrats of the ministry with these technology-heavy projects. The technocrats have begun work: The first step will be taken in February 2012. It is difficult to predict how long it will take to equip all the schools in Turkey with smart boards and computers or to overcome obstacles, but this is a case of the expression, “Migration is organized on the road,” meaning: “Let’s get started -- the rest will follow and shortcomings will be eliminated in time.”
Addressing an AK Party rally in Zonguldak, Prime Minister Erdoğan holds up a tablet computer. (May 7, 2011)