Knowledge should have no boundaries

Belgrade, Serbia, October 2021 - “My sister and I don’t have a computer at home and that’s why we couldn’t follow online classes,” says thirteen-year-old Marko, a seventh-grade student at the Branislav Nusic Primary School in Belgrade.

Twelve-year-old Djordje Manojlovic found it hard to complete some of the assignments, even though he has a computer at home.  

“It was a bit harder to study online, because we had to do everything on our own. It’s easier for me when I go to school and work with my teachers,” says Djordje.

As many as 20 percent of the students in their school, some 160 of them, come from Roma and poor families who are unable to afford a computer. They often cannot even meet the technical requirements for distance learning in their settlements because many do not have electricity, which dramatically reduces their opportunities for learning and following digital classes.

Because not a single child should be denied education during the pandemic, the EU Delegation in Serbia, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development launched the project “Bridging the digital divide in Serbia for the most vulnerable children” as a response to the COVID-19 emergency.

To ensure that these children have access to quality distance learning and to improve the digital competencies of both students and teachers, 30 schools received 1,890 tablets and 60 laptops. All teaching assistants in all preschool institutions and schools in Serbia also received computers.

These computers enabled the establishment of digital libraries, where students can borrow tablets to help them learn.

In the Branislav Nusic Primary School, which received 63 tablets and 3 laptops, they are proud of all the activities they have been carrying out during the implementation of the project, and all thanks to this equipment.

“We provided support to students taking their final exam and choosing future schools and occupations. The ultimate effect is that all students, including children with lower grades, enrolled in their schools of choice. The second activity was the “Summer School” in late August, where we managed to bring together children from deprived backgrounds, whose parents also have a problem with basic literacy. Through the “Summer School” and their work on the tablets, they made up for the lost learning,” explains Marijana Stefanovic, the school principal.

Marko and Djordje, from the beginning of our story, are among the 85 students who regularly attended the “Summer School”, and who overcame difficulties in learning with the help of student-mentors and the use of tablets.

“I enrolled in the maths and physics classes. We used some websites with maths games. The teacher and teaching assistant helped me when I didn't know how to open an app. I learned a lot. Now I know how to open apps, play (videos on) YouTube, search using Google,” Marko says proudly.

“We revised lessons from fifth grade and did assignments on the tablet. I really liked it because it's more interesting and easier to remember,” says Djordje.

Angelina Markovic, an eighth-grade student, went to the “Summer School” to improve her knowledge in the Serbian language, but also to be a chemistry mentor to her peers who have lower grades.

“I am a straight-A student, but even for me it was difficult to learn from home. For example, this is how we learned about grammar concepts in the digital library, with the help of the tablet. We find them online, and then repeat them through play,” explains Angelina.

An important precondition for the success of this project is the motivation and involvement of the teaching staff. This school is a good example of this.

“In each class we used tablets. We were solving problems through maths games online, because they learn a lot through play and fun. I can see all students made progress,” says Jelena Belca, maths teacher.

Her colleague, Jasmina Kekovic, who teaches physics, also believes that there are multiple benefits of the project for everyone.

“We taught children who had never used tables before to work on them. There is a noticeable difference in their confidence too, and the leap in knowledge and class participation,” explains Jasmina.

And Toni Bislimi, a teaching assistant, knows just how difficult it was for Roma and poor children to learn from home. For months, he was bringing printed materials to the homes of students who did not have the technical requirements to follow online classes.

“That’s why my task, ever since we got the tablets, is to introduce them to the digital world. They mastered it quickly. Children are resourceful by nature and help each other,” says Toni.

Peer education and equal technical opportunities for learning are the most significant results of the project for Nevenka Joksovic, the librarian in the digital library and project coordinator.

“It was wonderful to watch older students help the younger ones to turn on the tablets, to find apps. We’ill also establish Homework Clubs, so teachers and students with better grades will continue to provide learning support to children who need it,” explains Nevenka.

It is also important for teachers to improve their competencies and learn how to involve as many children from vulnerable groups as possible in distance learning. That is why the project plans to train 900 teachers and professional associates and 250 teaching assistants. The teaching staff of the Branislav Nusic Primary School will be among them.

“This project brought everything that COVID-19 took away – children connecting, students attending different classes socializing, peer support, and technical equipment for the school. The gap between children is narrower now, everyone has everything now,“ Nevenka says contentedly.

The project Bridging Digital Divide in Serbia for the Most Vulnerable Children complete in 2023. The ultimate goal is to make the education system more resilient to emergencies such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to make sure it can respond to the demands of students who need additional education support.

Technical capacities and teaching competencies for distance teaching are also expected to be raised. Students should receive direct, adequate, individualized and psychosocial support for continued education and everyday life. This will help them gain greater confidence and competencies to work in the digital world, just like Marko and Djordje did, which will prevent the emergence and deepening of the digital divide.

Last updated: January 26, 2022, 13:34