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As Coronavirus forces in-classroom learning to go online across the world, a project on Syrian refugees in Turkey might already set an example

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While the growing COVID-19 pandemic closed all schools, universities, public and private education centers, the outbreak also could spur a new wave of education logic and system for millions. But this time more innovative, inclusive, sustainable and accessible for all. Crisis and human progress have often gone hand in hand throughout history in such challenging times. An education project with Syrians in Turkey sails through an uncharted digital territory and the result are most promising.

The growing coronavirus pandemic compelled decision makers and education officials across the world to shut down schools. All lectures and in-person classes were halted, millions of students were sent home. Conventional education was forced to be suspended. In the midst of social distancing and isolation, most of us seemed to get caught off guard. Education community around the world had to scramble to deliver online courses via Zoom, Skype, other video conferencing services and digital tools, and to be remotely engaging with students to keep the education ongoing. After an initial temporary excitement and success, we recognized that very few countries had the necessary digital infrastructure, system, software, methodology, trained human capital and experience for such a sudden shift from classrooms to online.

Distance or e-learning and teaching, naturally is different than just making video conferences and lectures. Online interactivity and engagement with students, assessment and evaluation require specific methodology, expertise and skills. Same for teaching with distance learning methods. Adaptation of the conventional educational content for online remains another problematic area. Management and governance of the entire system through digital tools take relevant software, certain digital platforms and capacity development. And infrastructure: Not all students and schools on our planet have internet access.

Yet, dire crisis and human progress have often gone hand in hand throughout history, especially in such challenging times. While the growing COVID-19 pandemic closed down schools, universities, public and private education centers, the outbreak also could spur a new wave of education logic and system. But this time more innovative, inclusive, accessible and sustainable for all. Especially for the most vulnerable, who need the education for empowerment, to beat inequalities and for their way out of poverty; simply a better life.

And the answer might come from a whole different and unprecedented area: Crisis response, resilience and refugees. Over 28,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey received Turkish language courses through a brand-new “Blended” learning model, mixing conventional and e-learning modalities since March 2019. The two-year project is funded by the European Union (EU) and is being implemented jointly by Turkey’s Ministry of Education and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

It is part of UNDP’s Syria Crisis Response and Resilience Programme in Turkey. In 2018, Lifelong Learning Department of the Ministry, UNDP and e-learning experts from Anadolu University Open Education Faculty joined forces to lift barriers of language for Syrians in Turkey. The aim of the project is to provide 52,000 Syrians between ages 18-57 with good quality Turkish language skills, to empower them for social, economic and cultural integration to the society and enable self-reliance among this vulnerable community.

Here comes the unconventional feature of the project: Adult Language Trainings, under Turkey Resilience Project in Response to the Syria Crisis (TRP), is based on what we call “The New Traditional Model”. The “Blended Learning” combines face to face learning with online learning. It is an innovative and holistic system where the teacher drives the instruction and improves it with digital tools. Most of the curriculum is delivered via a digital platform and teachers are available for face-to-face consultation and support. Students cycle through a schedule of independent online study and face-to-face classroom time. They choose to enhance their traditional learning with online coursework, and complete an entire course through an online platform with possible teacher check-ins.

Yes, this model also includes limited in-classroom teachings, but it is quite flexible and adaptive to changing circumstances. And it is evolving in time. The system works remotely on PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets. Students do not necessarily need to have continuous internet connection. Currently, language education at B2 level with over 1,800 Syrians is ongoing in Turkey, and trainings are fully online, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And this, will likely involve more students.

As for the necessary infrastructure: An online “Education Management System”, was also developed by project experts and delivered to the Ministry of National Education. Education Management System comprises “Learning Management System (LMS)”, “Content Management”, “User Information” and “User Support” systems, virtual classrooms, learner analytics, and evaluation systems. It is a digital platform where users, teachers and students are logging in with their identifier, engaging remotely. Courses become independent of time and space. It brings connectivity to teachers and students. LMS is an important element and it is the major interface for monitoring the Turkish language skills training programme.

What are the benefits of this learning model and system? First and foremost, it is flexible and interactive. It encourages continuous and individualized learning. According to scientific researches, the model has higher learning retention. “The flipped classroom”, inverts the typical cycle of content acquisition and application. Students are introduced to pre-uploaded content at home and practice working through it at school. They gain necessary knowledge before class, instructors guide students to actively and interactively clarify and apply that knowledge during class.

Efficient use of resources and cost effectiveness are also strengths of the model, since using training materials, classrooms, buildings are limited. And it can fully be online without tremendous amount of investment. It can alternate in-classroom teachings, meeting for lecture in physical spaces such as schools in times of natural disasters, complex emergency situations, humanitarian crisis. And of course, in health emergency situations such as this one we are currently in.

Overall, the feedback from the field is most promising. The system supports teachers for instructional readiness, dedication and belief. It strengthens student readiness and provides continuous support to learners. They know what is expected.

As we said, e-education requires specific teaching skills. Under the project, 318 teachers from all over Turkey were trained by specialists of this particular system. Now the country has also the baseline human capital for implementing such a system and ready for expanding beyond.

The project has already been favored by the Ministry of National Education and has been recognized as a pilot project and a best practices example for next generation education systems in lifelong learning.

Now decision makers, education leaders, students of all age and families around the world are struggling to tackle the unexpected challenge of providing distance learning to millions, as the primary mode of instruction for weeks, months, and possibly the rest of the school year. How can already struggling school systems deliver equitable results and overcome the added challenges inherent in distance learning?

Currently, we are experimenting new horizons in e-learning with this project for vulnerable communities. And we are searching the ground for going beyond. The innovative pilot project can be expanded to whole new different areas in the education sector. Partnerships with the private sector can be established. Donors from all over the world, internet providers, technology entrepreneurs, software developers, human resources and talent experts, universities, public and private education entities, civil society, charity and relief organizations and public bodies can join forces for more. Actors from various fields can build new partnerships for a promising eco-system in education. Language training, lifelong learning, vocational and technical skills development, disaster, emergency readiness trainings, certain curricula in formal and higher education. The system can cover other areas for more learning and education when schools are closed down, formal education is interrupted. And of course, beyond.

We can have break-through results for everyone, who need education. As we said, we are experimenting new horizons in an uncharted territory.

All conflicts hit the most vulnerable. Especially, those who had to flee their homes. But this time we are fighting against an invisible enemy that has paralyzed our infrastructure, systems and understanding. This is also likely to hit the most vulnerable. How can we respond? Could a project on refugee education set an example for nearly 1.4 billion children and more from all ages around the globe who are out of school and education? Could wisely developed e-learning systems can pave the way for more inclusive and accessible opportunities for all? We’ll hopefully see. As we said, dire crisis and human progress have often gone hand in hand throughout history, especially in such challenging times…