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A Few Keys Short of a Keyboard

Years after a rocky start to its schools-computerization effort, Macedonia still struggles to bring its classrooms into the information age.

русская версия

 

by Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova 18 January 2011

SKOPJE | In a dilapidated wooden shack halfway between Skopje and Tetovo, 140 students try to learn as their schoolhouse literally falls down around them.

 

The building shakes when the wind blows, and each autumn the teachers shore up one side of it with wooden beams. A so-called “mountain school” satellite of the Pashko Vasa primary school nearby, its walls and floors have holes in them, and teachers say pieces of the ceiling have fallen. Built in 1977, the school lacks plumbing.

 

What it does not lack is a computer.

 

The problems are less dire at the Vera Ciriviri-Trena primary school in Skopje, where damp spreads up the cracked bathroom walls. The school has not been renovated since the 1970s and some parts of it are older than that. But this year it received a shipment of desktop computers, which remained in a warehouse until recently because there was no one to install them, and a subsequent shipment of laptops for teachers and first- through third-graders.

 

“The school was built in 1949, so if we plug in all the new laptop computers, it would burn the school down because of the old wiring,” principal Elka Daskalova said. For the time being, students use one laptop at a time. The computers lack software and Internet connections, Daskalova said, and, despite promises from Skopje to the contrary, the school has no IT administrator.

 

It has been four years since Macedonia launched the Computer for Every Child program to encourage the use of computers in classrooms. But conditions at the Vera Ciriviri-Trena and Pashko Vasa schools show that many problems that existed at the time, and which TOL documented in a 2007 story, persist.

 

What’s more, some teachers and administrators are finding that the presence of the computers brings headaches that extend far beyond finding a stable electrical connection.

 

“We don’t struggle with how to use the computers, but how to protect them from vandalism,” said a principal of a secondary school in Skopje who asked to remain anonymous. Schools or local communities are liable for the cost of repairs and insurance for the machines.

 

Many administrators echoed the principal’s concerns, and some schools pay to insure their computers. But others have been advised by insurance companies not to bother because the machines have no value after four years.

 

The Ministry of Information Society, which is charged with implementing the program, says it handles maintenance of the computers, but school administrators say they rarely see an IT person.

 

The Cvetan Dimov secondary school in Skopje had to pay about 800 euros for repairs after pupils damaged its computers, in addition to four that were stolen, and now it protects them by not letting students use them. “We have 56 classes and only 24 classrooms, so three or four classes use one classroom and there is a great likelihood of damage” to the machines, principal Mile Blazeski said.

 

At the beginning of the school year, education officials said the problem of computer vandalism had started to ease.

They put the cost of damage at about 30 million denars (500,000 euros) since the project started.

 

But Blazeski’s approach raises problems of its own: schools and teachers face fines if the computers are not used during at least 30 percent of teaching time. A school caught not using its computers can face a fine up to 3,000 euros and a teacher up to 1,000 euros in a country where many teachers earn 250 euros per month. So far, no one has been fined for non-compliance, and education officials say they will start with warnings before issuing fines.

 

Even if they want to use the computers, many administrators say they cannot. They say the machines have not been installed or they have not been given the right training or software.

 

The secondary school principal in Skopje said his teachers received only one training session, with open-source software. Although his school received its computers three years ago, he said only the math teacher uses one, after having found and installed a suitable program himself.

 

“We installed the Internet by ourselves. Nobody came to give us the software or to show us how to install the programs. The teachers do that with the help of the pupils. But it can take 20 minutes from their class to find the right teaching programs on the Internet, and that causes problems,” he said.

 

Halid Sejdi, principal of the 26 July primary school in a suburb of Skopje, kept his school’s desktop computers in a warehouse for two years because he said no one from the ministries of education or information society would come to install them – until he went to the media with his complaints.

 

Sejdi said his school has 1,792 computers for 2,058 students and sometimes three pupils share one computer. Further, the school has teaching software for only three subjects.

 

“So the question is how can we teach in such conditions?” Sejdi asks.  

 

At the end of the last school year, 2,240 students, teachers, and bureaucrats were surveyed about the Computer for Every Child program. The resulting report, by the Metamorphosis Foundation in Skopje and the Open Society Institute in Macedonia, concluded that "The computers are used only occasionally, depending on the teacher. The computerization is evident, but there is no climate for its effective use in the teaching process." 

 

Forty-six percent of the respondents expected the project to be a success. Thirty-five percent said the money should have been spent elsewhere.

 

Gorge Arsov, director of the state educational inspectorate, rejected claims by teachers and principals that the computers have not been installed or lack software.

 

He said his office is conducting inspections at schools to make sure the computers are installed. Afterward, he said, officials would check to see if they’re being used in the teaching process.

 

The director estimated that 60 or 70 percent of the computers are in use. A recent analysis by the inspectorate showed that 60 of the country’s 93 secondary schools use the computers, but it did not assess how they are used. An analysis of the program in primary schools is in the works.

 

“The Computer for Every Child  project is one of the biggest in the area of education. All these big projects can face problems while being implemented that make them less successful. I know that,” Education Minster Nikola Todorov said in an interview.

 

“The computers are in use but they can’t be used 100 percent of the time,” he said, adding that the ministry has set a goal to have the machines involved in 40 to 50 percent of the teaching process. He said most schools have Internet connections and that the ministry has held several training sessions for the teachers. Todorov also said the ministry has made available more than 500 electronic lessons in natural sciences and more are being prepared.

 

The Information Society Ministry did not respond to questions about the program. After refusing to answer media queries about costs, Minister Ivo Ivanovski said this year that the machines alone carried an estimated 50 million euro price tag.

 

Since the beginning of the project in 2007, the government has bought 163,710 desktop computers and 75,000 laptop computers for students and teachers, according to a source in the ministry who asked to remain anonymous.

 

In addition, the government has supplied 50,000 desks and 100,000 chairs for the computers for a student population of more than 300,000.

 

Petar Nikoloski, coordinator for information and communications technology in USAID’s Macedonian primary education project, said people expect too much too soon from the program. “People think that the computers will magically change the way students learn,” he said. Nikoloski’s office organized trainings for teachers and donated dozens of computer applications worth nearly $200,000.

 

“Every change is very slow. There are teachers who are interested and ones who aren’t,” he said.

Photo and story by Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova, a journalist in Skopje.

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