Thursday, May 01, 2008

Interview with Ayse Kok (New Series - Life in the E-Learning Organization)

Welcome to an interview with Ayse Kok, an e-learning and management information systems specialist who has worked with programs across Europe, including Turkey and England. Her view of distance education in Turkey and in other parts of the world is quite insightful, and her work with Camp Rumi, an organization dedicated to helping provide digital learning for primary and secondary schools is very inspiring.

1. What is your name and what is your connection to e-learning?

My name is Ayse (actually read as Ayshe since there is a special Turkish letter missing on the keyboard). I received my MSc degree in E-learning, hence my connection to this field.

During my undergraduate studies in Management Information Systems (MIS) I also had the opportunity to have an elective course in e-learning since MIS is an interdisciplinary study. Now, I work as an e-learning consultant and researcher for various educational institutions in my home country Turkey. I am also the founder of the grassroots non-profit organisation “Camp Rumi Technology Literacy Group” ( that provides digital learning services for primary and secondary schools. By the way, e-learning may mean different things for different people. I use it here for technology enhanced learning.

Aysa Kok, E-Learning and MIS Specialist

2. How did you first become involved in online learning?

Right after my undergrad studies I began to work as junior consultant in one of the Big 4 (one of the international audit and consulting firms)’s business advisory services department. We had to complete mandatory employee online trainings. Although the mandatory trainings for entry-levels were not very attractive- since they were related mostly to internal procedures- I tried to make as much time as possible for other online trainings that were of interest for me. We were lucky in terms of the company’s online courses since they ranged from business specific trainings to the development of soft skills such as interpersonal communication. Due to the fast-paced environment, there was an opportunity for me to participate in numerous projects for which I had to gain knowledge about several business applications (such as SAP) in advance. So, I realized at that point that e-learning offers unprecedented opportunities to develop working skills and competencies to meet demands of high-velocity business changes. This was my first experience as an online learner.

In terms of my first work experience in the field of e-learning, right after my MSc degree I worked as a short term consultant for the United Nations Systems and Staff College (UNSSC) located in Turin, Italy. I was involved in a project where we had to prepare in alignment with specific standards such as SCORM, the design templates for online courses aimed at the UN and its several agencies’ personnel in general.

3. Where have you studied?

I completed my undergrad studies in Management Information Systems in Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. After a two years work experience, I decided to get specialized in an area that I was passionate about, namely e-learning. Actually, I have always been passionate about teaching and learning. I realized that I would rather utilize my educational background in technology in an area that I am passionate about. So, I completed my Masters degree in University of Oxford, UK. Now, I look forward to continuing my PhD in the same field and university.

4. What do you see as the most significant differences between elearning in the different countries in Europe?

In my opinion, there are huge disparities with regard to general computer integration issues such as too few computers, slow Internet connections, insufficient software in the native language, and a lack of peripheral equipment at schools. To exemplify, one of the major private schools that I am working for could still not embed the latest Web 2.0 services within its teaching process due to connectivity issues within the classrooms. Besides, principals’ lack of technical knowledge, their interpretations of regulations according to his/her own will, lack of appropriate software programs for different grade levels can also be cited as other significant issues. There is resistance to change from traditional pedagogical methods to more innovative, technology-based teaching and learning methods. But, I think this issue is the same across all countries over the world.

5. When and how can elearning accommodate cultural difference?

Despite the fact that e-learning provides the opportunity to interact with people from different cultures, it also brings the issue of the cultural diversity of online content. Since English is the dominant language on the Internet, that e-learners will invariably find themselves reading mostly American materials, positioning their culture as the norm.

Smaller nations may even be more vulnerable since their educational systems in different countries and their teaching and learning styles are very different. When introducing a new phenomenon one should give careful consideration to the context they originally emerged in or are currently being used. Once thought carefully, I believe that e-learning can offer the opportunity to reduce the unit cost of education to such an extent that equal access to learning opportunities for all members of the society can be provided throughout their lives.

6. How is elearning approached in Turkey today? What are the main influences in Turkey with respect to elearning?

Since 1980s, there have been attempts to integrate the ICTs (Information Communication Technologies) within the primary and secondary education system. A more recent project is the Basic education programme carried out by a joint venture with the World Bank. On the other hand, Youtube or Wordpress were blocked until recently. So, we can’t speak of any Internet freedom within this country.

Turkey faces great educational challenges with great number of people to educate, a very large educational system, poor economic situation, inadequate technologies and mass number of students and teachers. For instance, not long ago- until 2005-, the pedagogy, curriculum, and textbooks within Turkey’s educational system were emphasizing the memorization of subject matter facts and principles. Similarly, student examinations were also based on memorization. Besides, there are high-stakes tests that determine the educational (and consequently, the economic) future of the young people in Turkey. So, the use of ICTs in schools was reinforcing the curricular and pedagogical emphasis on rote learning. Those readers interested more in this topic may read my article “Computerising Turkey’s Schools” published in one of the Oxford Symposium books. Link is .

ICT is still merely attached to the existing teaching and learning activities without any change in the traditional curriculum or learning objectives. There is so much truth to the phase “doing old things in new ways” in our context. The learning paradigm associated with the transmission of knowledge remains the same whether the concept is taught from a text book, software or via the Internet. The paradigm shift associated with one-to-one instruction and student-centered learning are not in place yet and it seems that the students are still learning for the grade’s sake.
Apart from this material and usage access, Turkey faces a “mental access”- a term firstly used by van Dijk. It basically refers to a lack of interest, computer anxiety, and unattractiveness of the new technology.

I must admit that even in Sri Lanka- a less developed country- where I did my voluntary work as an ICT teacher last summer- both teachers and children were at least able to prepare a presentation or a newsletter about themselves in English via use of related applications. Although ICT should not be seen as a panacea for every educational issue, I believe that these less developed countries will leapfrog certain stages of development via their use of technology. Of course, one should not make a generalization based on a few cases, yet there is long way to go in e-learning in Turkey.

From the local e-learning companies’ perspective, I could not give a “rosy” picture either. I don’t want to blame any specific institution, yet the key players within the field are thinking in terms of cost reduction and there is no place for an underpinning pedagogy. They are basically providing some Powerpoint slides with animations. It is my opinion that while a few key players are trying to do their best, their offerings are not worth the huge sums of money they demand from consumers.

Moreover, within the context of workplace learning, few organisations have the capability and the insight to leverage the power of e-learning and gain competitive advantage. The upper management usually don’t believe in e-learning as a key solution for rapid and effective change. Being an EU candidate Turkey did unfortunately not realize yet that unless critical skills such as learning to learn and knowledge construction are conveyed to citizens we will be far behind within the next decade. We just can’t afford to miss the knowledge revolution!

In a nutshell, the economical conditions, technological infrastructure and the traditional mindset of teaching and learning are the major influences with respect to e-learning in Turkey.

7. Do you see any dangers or pitfalls in using virtual worlds across cultures? Where can virtual worlds be most effective?

I personally don’t see any dangers in using virtual worlds across cultures as long as the “netizens” –citizens of these virtual worlds- are equipped with the necessary critical thinking and information literacy skills. Instead of reading about other cultures and seeing pictures and movies about other countries’ cultures, virtual worlds can be used to talk and interact with people from these countries. Avatar placement within the world also enables one to get informed about the mannerisms conveyed within other cultures. Most virtual worlds are graphics based, and allow other users to observe other cultures. So, I believe that technology can be a good means for the transmisson of culture.

In general, I’d like also to mention that the promise of ICTs to enhance the basic education is a tremendously challenging area of development work today, in both poor and wealthy nations and I wish that we as professionals would find a universal truth when it comes to applying ICTs in education.

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