The concept of a classroom to span European nations sounds ambitious, but thanks to online project Schoolnet, 20 countries are sharing ideas and innovations. Chris Johnston reports
Whether it is due to their isolation from the rest of Europe or simply an innate love of all things new, Scandinavians love technology. They have the highest mobile phone penetration in the world and by far the most Internet users per capita in Europe - 29.5 per cent of Sweden's 8.8 million population. So it should be no surprise that one of the most significant European school Internet projects hails from Sweden.
The European Schoolnet (EUN) has its origins in Sweden's 1993 drive to link all its schools to the Net. In March 1997, European education ministers and the European Commission agreed to Sweden's proposal and Schoolnet was born in September 1998.
Ulf Lundin, president of the steering committee, outlines Schoolnet on a breezy Monday morning while Brussels is still asleep, it being a public holiday in Belgium.
He says the ministers wanted the initiative to create a virtual learning community where schools could meet and work on collaborative projects and use learning resources. However, they also aimed to establish relationships between teachers in different parts of Europe to encourage the use of information, communications and technology (ICT) in schools.
Unlike some EC projects, Lundin says Schoolnet takes a bottom-up approach to build on the strengths and experiences of school networks in the 20 participating countries. A small staff of 12 also sets it apart from other monolithic Euro institutions.
Nevertheless, Schoolnet has made significant progress in the short time since it began operating. The most visible aspect is the website, which links to the national school network sites such as Britain's National Grid for Learning and Switzerland's Educa. Its four main facilities are: a collaboration area for teachers to meet and access information on cross-border projects; a resources area holding learning materials; an innovation area to help teachers stay in touch with developments; and a teacher training area with workshops and self-training materials.
Although many documents on the site are in English, the news pages are available in a number of other languages and the bi-montly EUN teachers' newsletter is now translated into eight. With a remit to promote European awareness and citizenship, the issue of language for Schoolnet's materials is tricky. Most content is only available in English, although the core must be available in several languages. Lundin says a solution may be to offer slightly different material for each language, rather than trying to translate everything from English.
Another element of Schoolnet is the European Network of Innovative Schools, a group of more than 200 pioneering ICT in the classroom. The schools are selected by each country's education ministry and there are 28 in Britain. The ENIS website details the best practice made of ICT by the member schools and provides them with a forum to set up joint projects. ENIS participants also test new ICT products and services.
But a project of Schoolnet's scale is not without its problems, as Lundin admits. An interim evaluation report points out challenges such as creating a coherent vision to develop bottom-up projects with the many partners. However, it also notes that the initiative "has a huge potential and holds many promises that still have to be exploited". In October last year, more than 900,000 pages were downloaded from the website, compared with just 70,000 in its first month of operation in September 1998. Lundin says Sweden and Italy were the biggest users: "Services related to collaboration and partnership are of most interest - teachers in Europe are looking for partners for everything from penpals to projects."
In the future, Schoolnet wants to create a marketplace where teachers can sell learning materials or online courses to other schools. Lundin believes it would be a useful service, since no one site lists all online courses. "We see the possibility of helping commercial and non-commercial providers of this material to better expose themselves,: he says. "Otherwise you cannot develop a European market and there is a case for one."
European Schoolnet: www.eun.org European Network of Innovative Schools: www.enis.eun.org The UK co-ordinator is Roger Blamire at the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency. Roger_Blamire@becta.org.uk To subscribe to the Schoolnet teachers' newsletter, email: email@example.com