Posts by fatih aktas

Adopting a Holistic and More Liberal Approach to Education

On 10th of February, Lehigh University hosted Diane Ravitch’s lecture “School Reform: Finding Common Ground” at the Zoellner Arts Center. As a graduate student in Comparative and International Education, I felt pretty lucky to have the chance to attend this lecture and listen to Dr. Ravitch’s speech about the U.S. public education. Her arguments were really thought-provoking and eye-opening.

First, I would like to start with Dr. Ravitch’s statement about poverty. Underlining the fact that poverty and inequality are very prevalent in the U.S. society, she argues that holding public schools – including their teachers and administrators – accountable for their relatively low test scores is neither fair nor realistic approach. She suggests that we need to get to the root of the problem. It is a common mistake to state that education is the answer to all of our problems and expect that education will sort all our problems. It is more like a fantasy projection as indeed many of the problems that we have in education today stem from existing social and economic structures. As Ravitch concluded, we need to tackle the broader problems of poverty and segregation first.

Secondly, I would like to touch on Ravitch’s arguments about test scores. As Ravitch suggests, if a test does not have a diagnostic value, it is nothing other than a score. There is an increasing obsession with test scores worldwide, which compels countries to perceive that rising test scores are a sign of success. However, placing more importance on test scores and pushing for more testing make students focus on testing only rather than learning. Indeed, such an approach to education may not leave much room for imagination and creativity. In addition to that, strong push for standardized testing creates a sense of competition among students, which hampers interaction, collaboration, and effective learning. When high test scores become the final goal in education, then the question comes to mind – ‘What is education for?’

At this point, I would like to refer to Finnish education system, which usually ranks the highest on the PISA test. Contrary to common approach to education, Finland has taken a very different path. As Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg highlights in one of his speeches:

“I want nobody here in the room to leave thinking that Finland has the best education system in the world, that’s an illusion that has been created by foreigners. Because in Finland we don’t think of education as a global competition. We actually don’t care if we are better than anyone else. Education for us is for individual enhancement and for the common good.”

I think the secret of Finnish success lies in the way education is perceived. Education is not a global competition and should not be perceived as commodity in the labor market. Rather, education should be a common good and prepare students for life. As Ravitch says, we should have more zeal to make our society better through education, which is much more important than high test scores.

Finally, I completely agree with Ravitch’s recommendations regarding well-rounded curriculum, arts education, and physical education. Narrowing the curriculum and putting more emphasis on math and science have negative consequences on students’ learning. Education consists of both intrinsic and instrumental values and it should enable students to grow not only professionally but also personally. Therefore, a holistic approach to education would be more beneficial. For as long as students are not exposed to suitable conditions, which can foster their imaginative function and spark creativity, it will be unrealistic to expect that school graduates will reach their full potential, be aware of what they would like to do in their lives, and be motivated in their careers.

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A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Youth Unemployment and Labor Market Expectations

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While writing a thesis on the current labor market expectations in the 21st  century’s knowledge-based economy, I had the chance to thoroughly examine recent and prospective developments in the labor market. This blog story will focus on the employers’ labor market expectations and explain underlying reasons behind increasing overall unemployment rate.

Labor market expectations have been in a state of flux. In today’s global market, having a broad range of skills in addition to having solid educational credentials is of vital importance. Therefore, a more powerful and sustainable economy depends on equipping employees, particularly young generations, with these skills. When looking at the statistical data and research done by both national and international institutions worldwide, it seems that unemployment rate globally is somewhat on the increase, particularly in developing countries. While unemployment rates and labor market expectations take place at an accelerating pace, research shows that younger generations are badly affected insofar as they fall behind to meet these expectations. So, let’s take a look at some of these data and research and get a better understanding of the causes of increasing unemployment rate.

‘Youth Unemployment Visualization 2013’, which is prepared by ‘World Economic Forum’, provides detailed information about unemployment rate globally based on some descriptive statistics. According to this visualization, “Youth make up 40% of the world’s unemployed and a youth’s risk of being unemployed was three times higher than that of an adult in 2011”. While youth in developing countries are more likely to be unemployed, youth in developed countries have also been struggling to find jobs and have being forced into part-time jobs. The graph below, which is designed by ‘International Labor Organization’, also shows global youth unemployment rate.

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Figure. Global youth unemployment and unemployment rate, 1991–2012

So, what are the underlying causes behind this increasing unemployment rate? In his article entitled ‘Addressing the Youth Unemployment Crisis in the Middle East’, Jamie Mcauliffe mapped out the reasons behind increasing unemployment rate. Although the article particularly focuses on the Middle East, research results shed light on current global unemployment issue as well. According to Mcauliffe, one of the main reasons stem from “the dearth of work-relevant education and skills”. Many college graduates have a hard time upon their graduation since most of them cannot gain practical skills essential for getting a job in the market. This may result from the fact that college education mostly provides theoretical information rather than focusing on practical applications. Hence, gaining practical skills for college graduates may be difficult.

While the lack of practical skills has a detrimental effect on getting jobs, the lack of soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication also has a negative effect on getting employed. Thus, having both soft skills and practical skills is equally important in the labor market.

A growing consensus is emerging among policy makers who claim that “not only more but better education and training is needed in developing economies”. As International Labor Organization’s report “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012” highlights, it is necessary to address these challenges and take necessary steps in areas such as ‘Macroeconomic and Growth Policies; Active Labor Market Policies and Programmes; Labour Standards and Social Protection for Young People; Social Dialogue and Partnerships for Youth Employment; Supporting Strong Labour Market Information and Analysis Systems’. Active labor market policies such as strengthening close relations between employers and educational institutions, providing skills development programs for younger generations, and addressing skill mismatches can help alleviate unemployment rate to some extent. Besides, only generating jobs would not be enough for a better economy and coping with an increasing unemployment rate. There is also a need to ensure appropriate working conditions for employees and to create a continuous dialogue and partnerships between government and both employers and unions. By contextualizing global youth unemployment in light of these policies, we are more likely to come up with multiple viable solutions for ensuring better labor market prospects.

The Role of the Khan Academy in the Field of Education

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In recent years, the Khan Academy has attracted great attention because of the free education it provides to anyone regardless of its participants’ location. As a non-profit organization, the Khan Academy provides free education materials covering Math, Science, Finance, History, Art, and other subjects using online videos through YouTube. By providing supplementary education free of charge, the Khan Academy may be perceived as a mainstream alternative to private tutoring. At the same time, however, it has been criticized for the quality of education it provides. So, let’s thoroughly examine the Khan Academy to get a better understanding about its emerging role in the field of education.

As noted on the Khan Academy’s website, the story started with Sal Khan’s intention to tutor his cousins in math. Since it was difficult to set a different schedule for each of his cousins, Sal Khan used YouTube for sharing his course notes with the cousins. As time passed, Khan’s YouTube videos raised interest among many other people, indicating a broader demand for these types of instructional educational materials which eventually lead to the establishment of the Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy has been viewed as an increasingly important trend in the field of education, and Sal Khan started to appear on talk shows like TED Talks. The popularity which the Khan Academy gained in such a relatively short amount of time opened more doors for the Academy. For example, the Academy received  $2 million from Google and $1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to expand the number of course offerings and translate the core library into other languages.

There are many people who see the Khan Academy as an important new tool in the field of education, especially valuable for students who need additional educational support but do not have enough money to afford private tutoring. Based on a review of the Academy’s website and users’ comments, it seems that the Khan Academy does a great job of  making various kinds of videos available for the public, and teaching various subjects in a systematic way. With the addition of videos in different languages, it seems that the Khan Academy will continue its upward trend in terms of providing additional support and supplementary education to many others.

Nevertheless, many critics raise questions about the quality of education that the Khan Academy provides. Some argue that the evidence about the educational benefits of Khan Academy lessons is purely anecdotal and that it is necessary to examine empirically whether the Khan Academy actually “helps” students. In a very popular video, Michigan professors David Coffey and John Golden harshly criticize some of the math videos broadcasted by Sal Khan, arguing that they promote “a shallow understanding of math.” Likewise, Dan Meyer (a doctoral candidate at Stanford University) and blogger Justin Reich organized an online contest offering a $750 award for the best online critique of Khan Academy videos. Interestingly enough, all these critics applaud the mission of the Khan Academy to some extent, emphasizing the importance of providing free online education. However, their main concern is whether the Khan Academy will break new ground in providing quality education.

In conclusion, even though there is a growing trend in seeing the Khan Academy as an important tool for reaching out to more students and helping close the educational gap, the question of the quality of education remains urgent. If the Academy seriously considers its critiques and takes the necessary steps to address its problems, it is likely that it will better serve its goals.

The Boom of International Branch Campuses: Western Universities and the Export of Knowledge

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In recent years, the number of international branch campuses has increased enormously, particularly in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, which is an independent institution conducting research and examining policy frameworks and emerging trends in higher education, there were 162 international branch campuses (IBCs) across the world in 2009. The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the most prominent IBCs providers. In fact, U.S. universities constituted 48% of all IBCs in 2009. While IBCs are a relatively new trend in higher education, it is not clear whether exporting international campuses abroad will help host countries  strengthen their higher education systems and keep up with current global trends. Perhaps, the main drive for the establishment of IBCs is not public service, but rather increased revenue and reputation of home institutions.

To better understand the boom of IBCs, it is necessary to take a look at the context of host countries where these international branch campuses operate. Currently, the most popular destinations include the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore, and Qatar. For example, Qatar’s Education City hosts such well-known U.S. universities as Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates, which has the highest number of international branch campuses in the world, hosts such highly reputable universities as New York University and Sorbonne University.

From the perspective of host countries, particularly oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, the main goal is to make “prestigious” (Western)  education accessible globally. The expectation is that international branch campuses will prepare youth in the Middle East (and other regions) for the global labor market, thus decreasing host countries’ dependency on natural resources. In addition, it is believed that these IBCs would increase innovation, research, and development activities in host countries, thus contributing to the emerging knowledge-based economy in the Middle East.

Theoretically, all this sounds good. Yet, many questions arise when carefully examine the implementation of IBCs abroad.

First, IBCs offer very limited undergraduate programs in host countries compared to their home institutions. One of the reasons is a lack of academic freedom in host countries, which may compromise the liberal arts curriculum and discourage many professors from teaching in IBCs. In fact, American universities that have established branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia have faced an ongoing criticism for collaborating with authoritarian governments.

Second, business, management, and engineering programs seem to prevail over liberal arts programs offered by many IBCs. IBCs thus primarily function as producers of business leaders rather than supporters of innovative research initiatives in host countries. Even though some IBCs prioritize research activities in host countries by strengthening their relations with policy-makers, their number is not very high. Without introducing rigorous research programs, IBCs are unlikely to produce innovative solutions for the knowledge-based economy or help local governments.

Third, many IBCs were established in hopes of potential new revenues, yet many have been shut down for financial reasons. For example, Michigan State University expected to enroll 100-150 students per year, but there were just 10-20 students in MSU Dubai’s programs. Therefore, some international branch campuses already start to pull away from host countries. For example, Michigan State closed all of its undergraduate programs in Dubai in 2010. Not surprisingly, many families prefer to send their children to Western universities rather than enrolling their children in IBCs. The legitimacy of degrees offered by IBCs thus remains in question.

Clearly, IBCs struggle with many problems in host countries. Some of these problems arise due to the specificity of the local context of host countries, while others stem from the contradiction between universities’ financial interest in the region and the public demand for the academic programs. As a relatively new phenomenon in the higher education marketplace, IBCs will need to carefully address these academic, financial, and ethical issues as they establish their place in the education world.