A project designed to provide Internet access to every primary and secondary school in Slovakia by the year 2009 has gotten off to a promising start, organisers say. Blessed with "a lot of heart and not a lot of money," Project Infovek has managed to connect 80 schools to the Internet this year alone.
Tibor Papp, co-founder of Project Infovek, said that these 80 schools will officially go on-line in November. If the project can continue to secure adequate funds, Papp added, the original 10-year timespan set for achieving Infovek's aims could be cut in half.
Papp called the project's launch "a great success," adding that Slovakia had taken a giant step towards arming its younger citizens - the workforce of the 21st century - with computer-age skills. Without such workforce skills, Papp explained, Slovakia could not hope to attract high-tech foreign investors or to make its own domestic industry more competetive on world markets.
"This project is very important," agreed Darina Babničová, principal of the primary school in the village of Hladovka. Babničova's school is one of the eight schools being assisted by Project Infovek which previously did not own a single computer."Today is already too late to start. These students won't be able to live without knowledge of information technologies in the third millennium," she said.
The project recieved its first funding on March 26 when the government allocated 20 million Slovak crowns ($500,000) to the project's 1999 budget under Law 63/99, said Beáta Brestenská, the head of Comenius University's Science Didactics Department and the director of Infovek's Education Division.
Brestenská added that many private firms have donated services and hardware to the project, including Hewlett Packard, Seimens and Compaq. Most of Infovek's money goes towards buying software and paying Internet connection fees, which average between 12,000 and 18,000 crowns ($300 and $450) per school per month, Brestenská said.
The infusion of funds was followed on August 16 by the opening of the project's permanent headquarters at the Ministry of Education in Bratislava. Four paid employees now work there, in addition to 20 to 25 volunteers.
Brestenská said that over the summer, as plans began to materialize, Infovek organisers began training Slovak teachers in how to incorporate the Internet into classroom teaching. Altough many teachers were initially fearful of using the Internet as a teaching tool, this reluctance was soon overcome as teachers saw the enthusiasm their students showed in using the Internet.
The result, Brestenská said, is a wave of innovation that has begun to change the face of education in Slovakia. "Project Infovek is creating a new kind of co-operation between students and teachers," she said. "Whereas before teachers were simply authorities, now they are partners. The teachers accept and interact with students more now."
Project Infovek's successful start has come despite some setbacks. Although Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, a big supporter of Infovek, lobbied hard in parliament for funds, the project had to overcome opposition by critics, such as former education minister Eva Slavkovská, who argued that the money spent on Infovek should instead go towards more pressing needs, such as books and teacher wages.
Furthermore, the project has recieved no financial breaks from the state-run telecom monopoly Slovenské Telekomunikácie, which they had hoped would provide Internet connections for a symbolic price. Although an ST official told The Slovak Spectator in March that it would help the project, Infovek organisers are now calling ST's tight-fistedness their "biggest dissapointment" so far.
When contacted on October 20 by The Slovak Spectator, ST's Product and Services Manager Pavol Bojňanský said that his firm still had every intention of providing Internet connections for the project, but said that no co-operation had yet been established because of poor communication between the two sides.
"This may look strange, but apparently they did not receive our letters [with ST's proposals] because they changed their address and telephone numbers," Bojňanský explained. "Peter Sýkora [Project Infovek's co-founder] is impossible to find."
Funding will be crucial if Infovek is to continue its early success. The project's organisers say they are anxiously awaiting the government's approval of next year's state budget, expected to be announced in early November, which will decide how much money will be allocated to the project in the year 2000.
Papp said he would like the government to set aside 40 million crowns, while Brestanská added that another 20 million crowns - for a total 2000 budget of 60 million crowns - would be sought through European Union grants and sponsorships from private firms.
With such finances at their disposal, Project Infovek would be able to connect another 300 to 400 schools next year, Brestenská said - a "good start," even though she said she would ike to see more public support of the initiative.
"We're not going to fly too high at first," Papp added. " I mean, when we started a nation-wide project with only 20 volunteers, people thought we were crazy. Although we had expected better participation from politicians and Slovak Telecom, the launching of the project has been a great success."