Chris Abbott reports on the dawning enthusiasm for IT in Scandinavia and problems in matching the supply of hardware and software to pupils' demands.
"We started to use computers at school when I was 13 years old. There were computers before I was 13, but the younger pupils weren't allowed to use them. In other schools in Sweden they start with computers much earlier than we did." Like his counterparts in most countries, 15-year-old Jonas Brun thinks his school should have more computers and that he should have more access to them. Living where he does, in Vallingby, near Stockholm, he is likely to see his wishes come true: Sweden is now investing large amounts of money in IT in education.
A recent government report, "Wings to Human Ability", set several targets for the country's education system, including: the interests of girls in IT must be particularly encouraged and developed; the training and education of young people must be reinforced by means of distance education employing IT; a national schools information network, linked to the Internet, is to be established; the further training of teachers in IT and in using it is essential. Teacher training programmes must give new teachers the potential to lead the way in the use of IT in education.
Since that report was published there has been a change of government, so it is not yet clear whether the new minister remains committed to all these areas at a time when Sweden is beginning to suffer its most severe cuts in public spending for many years.
The current pupil:computer ratio in Sweden is 38:1 for the Grundskolan, the schools that cater for 7 to 16-year-olds. Most of these computers are relatively new, however, and all are Windows-based PCs. At the Gymnasieskolan for 16 to 19-year-olds there is already one computer for every student. Like many countries, Sweden had developed its own unique PC, but there was always a lack of software for the machine. Schools make their own decisions about computer purchase, there is no leading education supplier and no government support for hardware purchase.
Developing materials in home languages is a problem outside the English-speaking world, and the first CD-Rom title in Swedish has only just been published.
Learning about computers has been part of the curriculum in many schools since 1983, but it is only during the Nineties that real interest in IT has developed at the primary stage. There is still no national requirement to use IT, although some local authorities have insisted on its use, and there is great variation between schools in different parts of this large and diverse country. Very little IT in-service training is available and traditional models of training may not be appropriate for a country where many teachers are geographically isolated.
There are also very few support centres to offer advice, except in the field of special needs where the Swedish Handicap Institute and the Institute of Special Education have developed considerable expertise. There are five special education centres which develop software for special needs, but only one centre for mainstream schools. Almost all children with special needs attend mainstream schools in Sweden and any equipment needed for individual children is provided by the State.
The Datatek Centres, developed in recent years, are a nationwide chain of drop-in centres for children with special needs. This project cost 10.3 million Swedish krone (about Pounds 1 million) over three years, together with funding from county councils. Activities are organised for parents and children, and special software has been developed. There are now more than 30 Datatek Centres in Sweden, and others have opened in Finland and Norway, with Denmark planning to follow this year.
Finland put computers into its schools rather earlier than Sweden and now suffers from having a majority of low-specification PC286s which are not capable of running many Windows programs needed by schools. Since 1993, almost all computers bought for Finnish schools have been Windows-based.
Matti Sinko runs the Finnish Computer Assisted Learning Centre for Schools in Helsinki. He is gloomy about what has been achieved in recent years: "Finland has suffered economically for the whole of this decade. That has slowed down any increasing and updating of IT equipment in schools. There seems to be a deal of enthusiasm and effort, but because of decentralisation there are no more projects that can claim national status."
One area where Finland has made most progress is in the development of FreeNet Finland, which Matti describes as "a kind of mini-Internet for primary and secondary education. It was launched about 15 months ago and now there are about 30,000 users. Every child or teacher can get his or her own user ID, even parents can have that. It does not give all the Internet services but it does provide a good deal." Perhaps the most interesting facet of all this is the government's reason for funding it. "The project was the gift of the government to Finnish schools to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the independence of Finland."
All the Nordic countries - Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark - give IT a high priority and have worked together for several years to develop software and share expertise. Much of this development has taken place since 1986 through the Nordic Council of Ministers and their Committee on Educational Software and Technology. The group has now developed further and has at its disposal a budget for 1995 of 3 million Danish krone (Pounds 345,000).
More recently, all the countries involved have met together to discuss curriculum development, since they are all involved in revising or developing new curricula. Software development in the Nordic languages has been supported by a yearly exercise where the countries meet and evaluate new titles. After looking at more than 50 proposals, each country agrees to develop four new titles and thus receives 16 further titles from the others.
Not everything has worked well through this innovative linkage; moves towards decentralisation have made it much more difficult for ideas to be effectively communicated within countries.
In the meantime, home use continues to expand. Jonas Brun may not have as many computers as he would wish at his Swedish school, but he does have one at home. "Eight of my close friends have a computer. We mostly play games on them but we even use them to write essays and programs." With the rapid increase of Internet access, it is a matter of time before Jonas expands that circle of friends to include young people across Scandinavia and beyond.
* Chris Abbott will be leading a study tour to Sweden in August 1995 to look at IT and special needs there;fax your contact details to him on 0171-872 3182 if you would liketo receive further details.