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MIT alumnus uses OCW and MITx to enhance educational offerings in Turkey

Professor Taylan Akdoğan PhD '03 teaches his physics students programming with 6.00x
Taylan Akdoğan
Taylan Akdoğan
Photo courtesy of Taylan Akdoğan

Not far from Gezi Park, the site of popular protests in Istanbul this summer, stands a beautiful, 65-acre, wooded campus bordering the Bosphorus. Originally founded as Robert College in 1863 by an American philanthropist, the university has since been donated to the Republic of Turkey and renamed Boğaziçi Üniversitesi (“Bosphorus University”). It remains the oldest American school outside the United States and arguably the most prestigious university in Turkey — a striking symbol of the close cooperation between the two countries.

One of Boğaziçi University’s faculty, Associate Professor of Physics Taylan Akdoğan, is equally representative of the Turkish-American educational connection. He studied physics and electrical engineering as an undergraduate at Boğaziçi, then earned a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics at MIT. While in the U.S., he participated in a number of important experiments concerning the subatomic structure of matter at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center and MIT-Bates Linear Accelerator, before returning to his native Turkey in 2006. At Boğaziçi, he teaches a range of introductory and advanced topics in physics, while pursuing his own research in nuclear physics.

Since his return to Turkey, Akdoğan has maintained close ties with MIT and closely followed the development of its digital learning programs. For example, he uses materials from MIT OpenCourseWare’s 6.050J/2.110J Information and Entropy as the foundation for a popular freshman physics course that he teaches at Boğaziçi. He’s currently considering the creation of an elective course based on 8.21 Physics of Energy for both physics and non-physics majors. “OpenCourseWare is a tremendous resource for faculty,” Akdoğan explains, “because it allows you to understand not just the materials in a course, but to really observe the pedagogical approach that is used to teach physics, and selectively employ those materials for your own students.”

Based on his experience with OCW, Akdoğan was immediately intrigued by the launch of the first MITx course, 6.00x Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in the fall of 2012. He saw that it could address a need within his department. “Programming is a valuable skill for students of physics, but fitting it into the curriculum is difficult,” he says. “I have taught programming in the past, but like many universities, our faculty is challenged by ‘boutique’ courses with too few enrolled students. If MITx can help us offer high-quality instruction while taking up a smaller percentage of faculty time, we can offer more courses to our students and still allow our faculty time for important research.”

Akdoğan independently surveyed the first version of the course — “I wanted to get a feeling of the system, content, and the pace” — then decided to conduct a small experiment by teaching the Spring 2013 version to two of his best students on top of his regular teaching load.

He resolved to offer full credit to both students for completion of the course, honoring their MITx grade as their official Boğaziçi grade, based on the ground rules he established: Each student needed to watch all the video lectures, complete all problems sets and provide weekly updates on their progress. Akdoğan held open office hours each week to answer any and all questions, and exams were conducted in a proctored room at the date and time of their release on MITx.

By all standards, the experiment proved to be a great success. Both students gained a thorough knowledge of programming, earning an “A” from MITx, which became their official grade. In addition, Akdoğan delivered the course with substantially less effort. “Of course, what is most important is whether they learn or not,” Akdoğan affirms. “I have probed this with both students, and the answer is a solid ‘yes’ for each one. They spent a reasonable and healthy amount of time on the coursework, and the credit that we can offer pushes them to really learn the subject, which is the whole purpose.”

Akdoğan is careful to note that this MITx model only works for certain type of courses, “Essentially, the course becomes a guided form of independent study. It allows them to manage their own time with greater independence and still gain credit towards their degree. Still, it requires a motivated student and a fairly straightforward subject. I would not consider teaching advanced topics in physics with this model.”

His two students’ course reviews confirm Akdoğan’s point of view. “This course was very organized, with a challenge each week,” wrote one student. “In every challenge you discover something wonderful, because once you overcome the problem, you are very motivated and feel like a successful person. By the end of the semester, I felt like I could handle any programming problem. This was a very important experience for me, and if there will be additional courses in my university offered through MITx I would like to take them.”

The second student echoed the praise and detailed several advantages that MITx presented over a standard lecture course. “Taking this course as an online lesson supported with video lectures and online exercises has been a great experience for me,” he explained. “Using videos, for example, allows me to rewind lectures to better understand the taught ideas. I could also return to previous lectures, which improved the learning process. The discussion board allowed me to look up the answers to problems very quickly and see different ways to approach them.”

Based on the experiment’s success, Akdoğan may offer some variation of the course to a larger group of students this coming fall, with perhaps an additional requirement to submit an end-of-term project. His experiment has also captured the interest of other departments at Boğaziçi. Many of Akdoğan’s colleagues are closely following the MOOC movement and have expressed their enthusiasm for its potential to improve education for both students and faculty.

Although Akdoğan and his colleagues have been the driving force behind innovations based on MIT materials at Boğaziçi, he is quick to credit his alma mater for making these courses freely available to all.  “I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the OCW and MITx teams, and all the edX staff and its supporters, including my wonderful school, MIT, for this extraordinary service to the world.”

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