Pandemic could be an opportunity for Turkish higher education
First has been the sudden shift from the traditional education model to the online one. Although a few Turkish universities were already using distance education, it was not widespread in Turkish higher education. The pandemic has forced Turkish universities to improve their technical infrastructure and teach students online so as not to interrupt their academic studies.
This new situation has also enabled many Turkish academics to learn how to use technology and communicate with their students.
From now on, it may also give rise to a shift in employment strategy at Turkish universities in the sense that institutions may try to employ more technology-friendly academic staff to cope with the demand for those who can teach not only in the classroom but also in an online system. Turkish universities may be more likely to hire academics who are good at preparing online course content, who are always available to answer students’ question and constantly provide them with new material.
From teacher- to student-centred education
Secondly, the move to online teaching at Turkish universities caused by the pandemic has shifted the system from a teacher-centred model of education to a student-centred one. Turkish universities have been trying to achieve this for years in line with the Bologna Process, but it is not an easy job to abandon ingrained habits of teaching.
In teacher-centred education, there is a one-way teaching model in which the teacher is supposed to know everything about the course s/he teaches and enters the class, delivers a lecture and sometimes dictates certain chapters to students in the form of a monologue in which students are usually passive, silent and do not participate in the teaching and learning processes.
In such a system, students usually memorise notes or the chapters given to them and then take their examinations.
In the online system, on the other hand, the teacher is just a facilitator; s/he not only teaches online but at the same time s/he gives the students assignments, asks them to do research, and encourages them to do their homework and write their papers. The teacher is always in close contact with students to help them: that is, s/he constantly guides students, checks their assignments and constantly gives them feedback and comments.
Although some students complain about this new situation, it indirectly and sometimes unknowingly results in them being creative and developing their critical-analytical thinking abilities.
I have noticed that my students have gradually learned how to do research, how to organise their research findings and ideas, and have slowly become able to formulate views about particular subjects, construct sentences and put them into written form.
I am sure that this process may be slow and difficult. It is a kind of physical and mental exercise, but it may change the habits of Turkish students. In the end, their soft skills such as mental growth, creativity, critical-analytical thinking, innovation, communication, emotional intelligence and problem-solving abilities may develop. These soft skills are something that employers are increasingly demanding from graduates in the 21st century.
Moreover, online teaching contributes further to the lifelong learning processes that Turkish universities have already undergone. As part of this process, three groups of people may benefit.
In the first group are people who have already earned undergraduate degrees and who are working now but want to continue their studies and improve their professional development. In the second group are disabled people who have no chance of getting a formal university education in normal circumstances but have a strong desire to learn.
And in the third group are older people who also want to continue their lifelong education for various reasons, including fulfilling lifelong ambitions, improving self-confidence and sense of motivation, and being more proactive.
A few Turkish universities have used the online system to help these groups of people, but it is not a common practice at all universities.
Widespread use of online teaching caused by the coronavirus pandemic will also force the Council of Higher Education, known as YÖK, to make further changes in its regulations and keep pace with these developments, which will not only help universities do their job but also assist the three groups of people to access higher education.
In this way Turkish universities could become more responsive not only to the demand for lifelong learning but also to the new paradigm of teaching.
Finally, the paradigm shift towards online education may also contribute to the internationalisation of the Turkish higher education system. This could be achieved in two ways.
In the first place, online education may help Turkish universities, like well-known universities across the world, to start international online degree programmes at bachelor and graduate level, enabling students from any part of the world to take courses without being subjected to time and space limitations. This could increase the global outlook, quality and recognition of Turkish universities.
Universities and academic staff will have to strive to keep pace with what other universities are doing in other parts of the world. That is, universities may improve further their technical infrastructure and academic capacity and offerings, while academic staff may boost their foreign language proficiency, mainly in English, in order to teach international students.
Online teaching may also help Turkish universities to open their doors to prominent international scholars without them having to be physically at the university. Universities could take advantage of the knowledge and experience of many renowned scholars, who could teach their students and benefit Turkish higher education, enabling Turkish universities to learn what is going on beyond our borders.
The research capacity of Turkish universities could increase as a result, with more joint research projects and more international academic staff exchanges resulting. Equally important is the possibility that Turkish students may increase their chances of finding jobs in the countries where international scholars are based.
The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced Turkish life in several negative ways, and education is one of them. But it could also be an opportunity for Turkish higher education if it forces universities to look more closely at developing a more blended way of operating.
Professor Dr Ali Gunes is based in the faculty of education at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University in Istanbul, Turkey.