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April 22, 2020

How we’re investing €450K in quality online education

Almost half of Turkey’s 83 million people are under the age of 30. Before COVID-19 struck, many were studying in the country’s 180 universities, working or running their own businesses. Since Turkey is now one of the countries most affected by coronavirus, SPARK is working hard and fast to boost the services available for vulnerable youth to continue building their careers. 

Last month, even before a lockdown was initiated, Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) embarked on an ambitious project to bring online distance learning to students across the country. At the same time, we were working to identify the unique needs and circumstances of the over 1,000 Syrian refugees and vulnerable Turkish youth that SPARK currently supports in Turkey, who face significant challenges to accessing education at the best of times. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown, we asked what support students in Turkey really wanted, what access they had to the internet and devices and where SPARK could bridge gaps. Results of an extensive survey found that almost 80 percent of youth had no experience with online learning, yet 44 percent asked for more academic support during COVID-19. Compared to other Middle Eastern countries, students in Turkey have overwhelmingly better access to regular internet connection (81 percent) and internet-enabled devices (74 percent of students have a smartphone). So the circumstances in Turkey are ripe for boosting online learning.

Zafer, a student at the Hatay Mustafa Kemal University in southeastern Turkey, explains how his studies are affected by COVID-19 © 2020, SPARK

However, we see two major barriers to delivering quality online education. Firstly, most professors and university lecturers are not familiar with online learning tools and SPARK’s higher education partners do not always have the necessary infrastructure to deliver online courses. 

Therefore, SPARK is rolling out (virtual) training for university professors on how to make the most of online and blended learning tools and training materials. Importantly, the training focuses on boosting student engagement and active participation in home-working circumstances. The first of these sessions recently brought together 57 university professors from the University of Gaziantep and Harran University. Some university professors, including Syrian academics, are not fluent in Turkish so separate training programmes were developed for Turkish and non-Turkish speakers.

First session on distance learning © 2020, SPARK

As well as building skills, we’re now investing €400K in improving the digital facilities of our education partners. In coordination with the European Union, a major contributor to higher education in Turkey, we took swift action to purchase hard and software, including computers, servers and distance learning platforms, for our five university partners. In addition, we’ll soon be donating laptops and tablets worth around €50K to the most vulnerable students – those from low income families, those with disabilities – so they have the best chance to succeed during COVID-19.

Whether by choice or by force, COVID-19 is pushing almost every industry to adapt, digitise and find new ways of working. The education sector is no different and the solutions we’re working towards now, could have a far-reaching, complimentary impact on the way refugees can access education in the future.