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Serbia: Digital School Project

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Serbia, Digital Activism, Economics & Business, Education, Governance, Technology, Youth

Efforts to implement the benefits of information and communication technologies in education in Serbia are not new. From the early 2000's onwards there have been several initiatives, mostly supported by international organizations and foundations: grant projects for education improvement, implementation of open source software for schools in Serbia, both in urban and rural areas.

Recently, the Serbian Ministry for Telecommunication and Information Society has launched a project for Serbia's primary schools – called Digital School [1] (SRP). It is part of a bigger project, Digital Serbia, whose goal is to foster and improve the functioning of the information society. In their initial announcement and call for application [2] (SRP), it is stated that the Ministry has allotted 650 million Serbian dinars (6 200 000 euros) for setting up digital labs and classrooms in primary schools by the end of the next school year.

The program will enable 1,100 primary schools in Serbia to be equipped with computer hardware, and each digital study lab will have enough space for up to 30 students. According to the Ministry's announcement, besides computer units for students, there will also be appropriate equipment for teachers, software, and computer connection in the classrooms where children take courses other than computer science.

The Ministry said they would help 40 most undeveloped municipalities to create adequate learning conditions, from electricity to internet installations. Teachers will be responsible for technical functioning of digital study classrooms, and, prior to the program's implementation, they would need to go through training to operate the computers. Belgrade [3] region, for example, is seven times more developed than the Serbian south, but schools in both developed, urban, and underdeveloped, rural, areas are expected to benefit from the project.

As daily newspaper BlicOnline wrote recently [4],

[…] Implementation of this program allows each participating school to provide students across Serbia with the same conditions for interactive education as their peers enjoy in the European Union. […]

Serbian citizens, many of whom are frustrated by tough living conditions, do not seem particularly interested in these plans for educational innovation, and it remains to be seen how many primary schools end up applying for the program. Some think that computer classes would be of more use in high schools. One student left this bitter comment [5] (SRP) to the article cited above:

…initially, we had multimedia classrooms that were useless, now they will go digital … and it will all be again left unused and empty … and the textbooks are getting thinner and thinner … I am taught computer science by someone who had learned about computers 20 years ago, and an average person who understands computers knows more than [this teacher]. We work on the old computers that date back to the times before Christ, and the new computers are stored in schools, and they don't allow students to work on them, they are there only for the showing off purposes … let them visit a few schools and see who, how and where teaches computer science.

In Serbia, 55.9% of the 7.3 million population are Internet users; the country has the highest Internet service penetration in the Balkans; 39.5% of the users have DSL connection, 29.3% still use modems to get online, and 23.4% use cable Internet (according to the latest data from the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia [6], SRP). However, speaking of overall adult literacy rates, according to UNDP's Human Development Report 2009 (.pdf file [7]), Serbia is behind other Balkan countries.

Below are some of the challenges that have to be overcome for the Digital School project to succeed:

- The authorities need to address the lack of basic amenities in many primary schools in Serbia (e.g., electricity, sanitary needs, and other utilities for normal everyday functioning).

- Besides providing training for teachers in using computers and software, the curriculum for primary school students also needs to be adjusted. Educators who teach information and media literacy have to come up with new syllabuses that would be well-suited for the new environment, in order to motivate children to be creative and open for collaboration; new educational modules adjusted for human-computer interaction need to be created; otherwise, the hardware will stay unused.

- Teachers need to teach critical thinking to enable students to start right on the Internet. Being digital natives, children first learn how to play computer games (64% of the Serbian population use the Internet to play games), but are often unable to question the credibility of information found online. Promoting and practicing information and digital literacy should be among the requirements for collaboration between schools, libraries and educational program developers.

- It has to be decided whether the country is willing to spend money on buying new software or to use open source programs.

- Broadband or wi-fi Internet connection needs to be installed wherever possible, especially in rural or remote regions.

However, this and similar projects in Serbia or in any other country in transition are relevant for the development of the information society, but it is also very important that the authorities and educational institutions collaborate on developing educational programs, in order to efficiently use the hardware.