Schools Online program ′gone too soon′ | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 22.01.2013
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Schools Online program 'gone too soon'

An initiative to put Internet enabled computers into German classrooms has ended after 16 years. The organizers say they have achieved their goals, but teachers say there's plenty left to be done.

Laptop computers and iPads are rare at German schools - especially at elementary schools like the Mainzer Strasse Catholic elementary school in Cologne. When teachers bring their own device to school, a crowd of curious children gathers around to get a closer look.

But each of the fourteen classrooms at the school has a computer in it.

The children can use it for research and go online.

Back in the 1990s, though, things were very different. Back then, few German schools had anything to do with computers or the Internet.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research set out to change that in 1996. It launched the initiative "Schools Online" together with the German telecoms firm, Deutsche Telekom. The aim was to make sure every German school - 35,000 at the time - had access to the Internet.

Why stop?

Maria Brosch (Photo: Schulen ans Netz e.V.)

Brosch was unable to find new backers for Schools Online

Barbara Sengelhoff, the principle at the Mainzer Strasse Catholic elementary, says her school also benefitted greatly from the initiative. The school set up a small media room and over the years more and more equipment was installed.

"We couldn't continue without it anymore," says Sengelhoff.

Sengelhoff cannot understand why the project was stopped at the end of 2012.

"The [technology and] media keep on developing," Sengelhoff says. "Schools like ours will need much more support in the future."

But there is no new support in sight.

Maria Brosch, the managing director of Schools Online, has already cleared out her office in Bonn. After 16 years, she left with mixed feelings.

"I am happy we were so successful," says Brosch. "But there was so much more to do."

Success in stages

Schools Online achieved its first big goal in 2001 - just five years after it started - and each German school had internet access.

But as it turned out, simply installing computers and the Internet in schools was not enough. The teachers and students need to know how the technology works and can be used. And so that became the project's next big mission in the 2000s.

Teacher and student working on computer

All German school have had Internet access since 2001

The teaching staff developed online learning platforms and teacher training projects. They started with schools and later incorporated kindergartens and professional training institutions, with special target groups like girls and migrants.

One of their showcases pieces was Lizzynet, an online magazine for girls and young women. Lizzynet was founded in 2000 and its editorial office was supported by Schools Online for seven years until it became financially independent.

Lizzynet's managing director, Ulrike Schmidt, regrets the demise of Schools Online.

"The initiative could have continued with a different focus," says Schmidt.

Mission unaccomplished

Horst Niesyto (Photo: Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg)

Niesyto: Germany needs a national strategy on IT education

Schools Online leaves a gaping hole.

Horst Niesyto, a professor of media education in Ludwigsburg, says the Schools Online mission has yet to be fully accomplished. He says there are other successful, community-based and regional media projects, but none are national.

"We have to think about new ways to achieve sustainable media competence," Niesyto says. "But our politicians are clearly not up to it."

Bitkom, an inter-trade organization for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, is likewise critical of the move to shutdown Schools Online.

The organization's Stephan Pfisterer says "the breakthrough here may not last as long as we would hope."

Looking for financial support

"We need more coordinated work between the national authorities, the federal states, communities, and private sector," says Maria Brosch, managing director of Schools Online.

Brosch says Deutsche Telekom backed out of the project three years ago and it has been impossible to find new, financial partners.

Now, in collaboration with private companies, the City of Cologne has agreed to maintain the IT equipment at the Mainzer Strasse Catholic elementary school.

The school's principle, Barbara Sengelhoff, is grateful for the help.

"But community money is scarce at the moment," Sengelhoff says, "and I am afraid that the support will end as soon as the first computers start to break down."

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