Internet for Schools
Internet use in the Czech Republic is still extremely low - at least compared with Western Europe. A recent poll found that less than 10 percent of the Czech population had Internet access at home, around a quarter had used it at least once, but seven percent said they'd never heard of it. But as Rob Cameron reports now in Talking Point, all that could be about to change, thanks to an ambitious project which is getting to grips with the problems - by going back to the classroom.
These children at a computer class in a school in Prague 2 are among the lucky ones - the computers in these classrooms are connected to the Internet. They all have some experience of surfing the World Wide Web:
Schoolchild:"I use some websites about games and music - www.flashfun.cz - you can find lots of information, about everything..."
But many Czech schools - both primary and secondary - lack proper computer equipment, and few have access to the Internet. A situation which puts the Czech Republic at an instant disadvantage when compared with the rest of Europe.
Jaromir Horak, from the leading IT company AutoCont On Line, is the head of a project which hopes to change all that. He wants to open up the entire Czech school system to the Internet:
Jaromir Horak:"You know our schools, they don't have computers, Internet and so on. It's important to prepare the methodology and the whole project, to implement connection to the Internet, and to install servers and PCs, to use them in education, for teachers and for children."
Radio Prague: Can you perhaps just estimate for me what percent of children in primary and secondary schools do have access to the Internet at school?
JH:"I guess about 20 percent."
RP: How does that compare to say Germany or Austria?
JH:"It's incomparable. Germany started several years ago. They have 80-90 percent access."
The project is called "Internet do skol" - Internet for Schools. In February technicians will start delivering and installing the first of 230,000 computers to the country's 7,000 primary and secondary schools. If all goes well every single school in the country will have Internet access by December 2002. Two companies -AutoCont On Line and the telecoms giant Czech Telecom - plan to invest just under 100 million dollars in the project, which the Czech government will pay back by the end of 2005.
AutoCont and Czech Telecom say they are using their business expertise and contacts in the IT world to make the project a success. Big names such as Microsoft, Apple, Compaq and Cisco systems have all signed up, providing equipment, software and services at special rates. But these are of course multinational companies motivated solely by profit. So I asked Czech Telecom's Vladan Crha whether the Internet for Schools project hadn't fallen victim to commercial sponsorship.
Vladan Crha:"I woudn't say it's commercial sponsorship...it's a business project. I think that co-operation between such well-known partners will give additional value to the project itself. So I'm pleased that we can co-operate with partners such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, AutoCont. I think for all the partners it's an interesting opportunity to give some additional value services to schools and education in the Czech Republic."
Leaving aside the ethical arguments of involving multi-nationals in education, there is a strong business motive behind the project. The primary goal of Internet for Schools is to increase computer and Internet literacy among the Czech workforce - targeting the primary and secondary school pupils who will become civil servants and office workers in a few years' time. Internet for Schools is about making Czechs more employable - a priority as the country gears up to join the European Union. So I asked Vladan Crha whether the project was just about business, or whether greater Internet access would change Czech society as a whole.
VC:"I think it's both, not only better employees but also better citizens and better users of information technology. I think that that driving force was quite common in countries like Ireland and Great Britain. It's just a part of creating an information society, enabling Czech citizens - not only students but also their parents and teachers to use information technology in normal life."
Under the project school computers will be given access to the Internet, plus a national schools network and a special Internet portal for education. But children, of course, are curious. There are many things on the Internet - and I don't suppose I need to spell them out - that parents and teachers don't want their children to see, and certainly not in the classroom. So I asked Jaromir Horak whether there would be any attempts to restrict full access to the Internet, by using special firewall security for example.
JH:"This is an Internet problem, and the best firewall is the teacher. We can't filter the Internet, because children have access to the Internet at home, from their parents' offices etc - we can't do that."
Radio Prague: But it's not just pornography - if you say to children that from next month we'll have Internet and new computers, maybe half the boys will say "oh great, we can computer games with my friends in the next village." Could the system be abused?
JH: "In schools this is also a question for the teacher. This is his matter what will be the plan and schedules of the hour. And if they have free access to the Internet, they will do that, for sure. Because this is their nature."
Jaromir Horak there, saying it will be up to the teachers themselves to regulate Internet use in schools. His company - AutoCont, as well as Czech Telecom are clearly keen to get the project up and running as soon as possible. And it's a project which most people in the Czech IT world say is badly needed. Jitka Podzimkova is the head of the Radio Prague Internet Department.
Jitka Podzimkova:"I think today it's necessary to use computers and get information from the Internet. Any child that can't use the Internet will have a more complicated situation with her study and with her job in the future."
The Internet for Schools project is certainly ambitious. Getting the entire national school system online in less than twelve months would be a Herculean task for a rich country, let alone a post-transition economy like the Czech Republic. But as we found out in the classroom - many Czech children have taken it upon themselves to learn how to navigate their way round the world's websites - and some are already earning a living from it...
Schoolchild:"I also work in Internet. I get money from my mum because I write things for her travel agency. I've been working with the Internet all my life."
More information about the Internet for schools project (in czech only) : www.acol.cz.