The Role of ESP in the introduction of educational technology to Czech schools
The contribution for the 25th ESP anniversary conference in Helsingør, Denmark, March 2011
The history of the Czech involvement in the European Schools Project couldn’t start in 1988 when ESP was born. Remember, that year we slowly finished 40 years of Communism and on the west border of our country the ‘Iron Curtain’ was still in place. The Velvet Revolution (1989) was needed before we could have the opportunity to join the developed world of democracy again.
The Internet arrived at the main computer centre of the Czech Technical University in Prague (Cesnet) from Linz in 1992. Few people can imagine how difficult the manipulation of that pre-web network was. Everything was based mainly on email and on the text oriented service, later called Gopher. I was employed as the manager of the newly established InfoCentrum of the Institute for information on education, where all data for the Ministry of education (MoE) was processed. The main aim of this small office (3 people) was to provide Czech teachers with information relating to the correct use of ICT (that time mainly for teachers of informatics).
In 1993 a dedicated line connected the InfoCentrum directly to Czech Technical University, we launched our first internet server and everything looked very optimistic. As typical internet novices we were incredibly excited by the opportunities opened to us by the network connection. We enriched our already established distribution of different kinds of software (mostly multi-licenses, demo versions or gifts) to schools, by the public domain and shareware programs obtained though the network. Everything was free and legal, so there was quite significant interest among teachers to get selected software and take it with them on diskettes (by “adidas- net*”) to still mostly unconnected schools.
Very soon we began to understand that the right usage of ICT in education means something more than only the programs, even if some of them had significant educational potential. From the very first days, we used the Internet as an important source of actual information. The best source of that time was the EDTECH list (still existing), where interesting news from the whole world was published.
During my enforced stay at home with a broken leg in October 1993 I established my first direct connection to internet via 32 kb/s dial-up modem, to the newly opened Cesnet terminal server. The possibility to stay online from my bed at home was really something unimaginable at that time. I still remember clearly how I felt the whole world under my fingertips for the first time. I carefully followed all EDTECH announcements, read linked materials and plucked up courage to involve myself more actively. Finally I sent the request asking for cooperation with Czech schools to the list. I got more than 50 answers. One of them with an offer for co-operation was sent by Mr. Henk Sligte from the University of Amsterdam in the name of ESP. Here is my first response to him:
Within a few weeks, we were completely involved in the life of ESP. One of the most important people there was Hubert Christiaen from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, he collected the details of available schools for co-operation in Europe and beyond. Here is the evidence of our first contact:
Unfortunately I have only saved my own texts to my personal archive, so I am not able to show you the original mails of my partners. I purposely didn’t change the original version to let you see the level of my English. This is the heritage of my education during Socialism in the Czech Republic. I still suffer from the terrible consequences today.
Fortunately, the management of our Institute had a very positive attitude to helping our schools participate in the activities of European co-operation. So, I was able to take part in the 8th ESP Conference, which was held in March 1994 in Amsterdam. I went by bus and at the conference became the Czech ESP coordinator. This means that we in Czech have been official members of ESP for 17 years.
I have to acknowledge that after the revolution in the early 90s, I favoured the right oriented party. However, in 1995 I was hard pressed to change my attitude. As a consequence of “Optimization” (changes provided by the MoE ) the InfoCentum was cancelled, the outcome being that the Institute for Information on education was to be dedicated only to the (MoE) Ministry and not for schools. This happened 16 years ago and I still do not fully believe that they could insist that schools should pay for this kind of service if they wanted it. This happened at the same time as the massive decentralization of the Czech educational system was started and this process still continues. Our country hasn’t any official conception of ICT in education and there is no institution responsible for development in this field. The Social-Democratic government made one effort to spend some money on technology for schools (2000-2004), but this trial ended by the well-known Corruption Affair.
In 1995 I changed work and went to the Faculty of Education at Charles University, Prague where the activities of the InfoCentrum were partly transferred and the co-ordination with ESP was able to continue. I am still here today.
During the second half of the 90s, web services were slowly introduced everywhere. We established the portal called the Teachers Helper (Učitelský spomocník) dedicated to help Czech teachers in the Faculty of Education. The Czech ESP Web is located there too. This work was and still is partly supported by the research portion of my contract at the university, but I also work as a full time teacher there. The help to in-service teachers never was my primary task. In spite of this, the Teachers Helper was and still is, well known and it is used by hundreds of teachers every day.
From the beginning, we offered a specialized page with an overview of new projects, containing a selection of categorized projects that were potentially usable in our schools. You can see the oldest copy of this page archived by the WayBack Machine here:
Hubert Christiaen developed a similar general ESP service, saving and publishing project offers that were based on an Internet accessible database, which was widely used not only by the co-ordinators but also by the general in-service teachers. It was accessible at the address http://www.kc.kuleuven.ac.be/esp/ in the period 1997-2003 (the archive link may remind us of it).
Concurrently there was the ORG list available for the community of ESP co-ordinators only. This list was very popular and often assisted to find a specialized partner for some school. Following is the typical example:
I think we can frankly be proud of our work and the results we reached. ESP was always the community of the enthusiast showing the way to others. In a time when the majority of teachers considered computers to be at most a drill and practice machine, we started the real change of educational methods as ‘early innovators’. Our innovative approach from the 90s is widely accepted today.
Besides being a theorist, I also used to teach Informatics in grades 7-9 in the Basic School ‘Nedvědovo Náměstí’ in Prague. I worked on several projects there, in order to get the practical experience with activities that I had recommended to teachers’. We made specialized application in hypertext based authoring system, of those times (maybe some readers still remember – its name was Linkway). It was a map of Prague with directions to Nedvědovo Náměstí and to our class, where photos of all the pupils were located and under them their introductions were accessible. At the Amsterdam conference I presented it in the lobby and handed it over to all potential partners.
Later we tried to run the most favourite ESP project of all times The Image of the Other with the excellent teacher from west Norwegian Skudeneshavn, Espen Berg. The outcome was very successful and very typical of ESP. We became good friends, visited each other, and invited Norwegian pupils to Prague.
Another successful project was prepared between my Basic school Nedvědovo and Basic school Divina Slovakia, where my close colleague and ESP coordinator Mr. Ludovít Sopčak, worked as the headteacher. Our intention was to refresh our pupils to their partner’s language, because after only 5 years of the division of our countries, they quickly forgot them even if they are closely related. Our project was called ‘The Illustration of the National Poem ‘ (Ilustrace národní básně). Selected partners’ poems were read and as evidence of understanding, their partners drew a picture, reflecting the content of the poem.
Here is an example:
The Millennium Passage
The position of ESP slowly began to change when the official organization supporting educational technology called Europen Schoolnet (EUN) was launched in 1996, under the initiative of the Swedish MoE. Until that time, there was no other group organizing technological, orientated co-operation between European schools.
The position of the EUN was completely different to ESP. In spite of the voluntary status of ESP, the EUN office was the official body, constituted jointly by the MoEs of member states, with close connection to the European Commission. During the late 90s several people formerly involved in ESP become fulltime employees of EUN. Some of the projects and methodologies, suggested formerly by the ESP, were adopted by the EUN for their projects - particularly for eTwinning (in the case of ‘The Image’ even the official agreement was signed). Enough to say, that the EUN took over many of ESP ideas, and tried to use them in the mass conditions, of the fully independent educational systems of all EU countries.
As the Czech Republic still wasn’t a member of the EU, the influence of EUN was very low there in the late 90s. Needless to say, many direct cross border contacts amongst schools already existed, but these were usually different types of collaborations, orientated not to co-operative education, but to the organization of visits and teachers exchanges etc: So ESP represented almost the only way schools could get some didactical support for real trans-national educational activities (see the chapter 8.3 ESP in my book The role of Internet in Education written in 2003).
The situation in the Czech Republic, was to some extent influenced by the agreement of its’ association with the EU, which came into effect during 1995. As a consequence our schools became eligible partners of the Socrates programme including Comenius in 1997. The first projects with Czech participation were accepted in 1998. Thanks to ESP, I was involved as a representative of Charles University, as a partner in several projects dealing in the field of helping teachers to co-operate and use technology (Transpro, Ecole, Promise, Terecop).
A Projects oriented approach was finally adopted at all levels of our educational system. No wonder that from the beginning, EU projects had a higher priority in schools than ESP projects, as they were always accompanied by some financial support. Until 2005, the implication and mutual profitability, thanks to direct and indirect connection of ESP with Comenius and EUN was absolutely evident, until the majority of the Comenius projects with the partners involved concurrently in ESP finished. I personally draw on experience obtained, thanks to ESP, when I started to take care of projects evaluations. Finally I was engaged as the Comenius projects evaluator not only on the national level but also for the Commission.
The Final Development
The Czech Republic joined the EU officially on the 1st May 2004 and we were involved not only in Socrates programme but in the activities of EUN too. In 2005 a new global project eTwinning was launched under the co-ordination of the EUN and continues to be very successful in the Czech Republic. Hundreds of Czech schools and thousands of Czech teachers’ try to find a partner abroad and establish some kind of real educational co-operation through this project. In 2007 eTwinning became part of Comenius and together were transformed from the Socrates programme to LLP (Lifelong Learning Programme). Consequently, I changed my main evaluation interests from Comenius to eTwinning and became the leader of its Czech evaluation team.
Even if all the former possibilities of support for educational projects remain the same, Czech schools will now have an even more favourable tool to obtain grant money. These are the European Structural funds supervised by the MoE especially the Operational programme Education for Competitiveness. Everything looks like there is more than 4 billions of CZK (160 mil. of €), which are going to be spent by Czech schools mostly on ICT equipment up to 2013.
One crucial problem remains the same over the years, the Czech educational system, still waits for the appropriate conception of the use of technology in schools. There is only a small group of people who look after this. My position in the Faculty of Education requires me to give theoretical reasons for such a conception. This is why I involve myself more and more to study the didactical background. I use our portal, the Teachers Helper, as a tool for delivering the most important information to the Czech public. Needless to say, we have already elaborated on all the main measures necessary, for the appropriate transformation of the school system connected with technology application. We call it as usual today the School for the 21st century. It contains the Curriculum reform, the Standards for students and for teachers, new Rules for teacher training and the Reform of the pre-service teachers preparation (accepting the TCPK model as the basis). Although the main body of work has already been done and this work is widely known, it is not yet, generally accepted, I am sure that this is only a question of time.
I am sure it is possible to indentify the heritage of ESP in the current use of educational technology in schools over the whole of Europe. It is recognizable in the activities of EUN, Comenius, eTwinning etc. In reality we can’t expect that these organizations would officially recognize ESP as their predecessor. Unfortunately, there is also little chance that the direct involvement of Czech schools or individual teachers with the ESP association, using their own budget could happen. The only realistic way to allow Czech teachers to participate in ESP programmes is to keep close collaboration with Comenius and its funds for teacher training or preparatory visits.
Regardless of the described reality, we need to keep the ESP association alive. There are two good reasons. Firstly, nobody else would be able to record and spread the information about the importance of ESP in the European history of educational technology development. This message must be delivered to the next generation. The second and more important reason is the fact that ESP still has a high potential of the best practice knowledge. The association links up the best experts in the given field and we all together are still able to inspire future development in ICT.
*Adidas-net – the term often used by the long-time ESP chairman Henk Sligte as a joke for description of the beginning of the data exchange between schools. In the passed times it was necessary to bring data on foot to the nearest university where the connection to the network was already available.