Nis, Serbia, March 2022 – “To be honest, I didn’t know how to use a computer or tablet, but my teachers and my fellow students helped me, because I didn’t have a computer at home,” explains fourteen-year-old Rema. He is in the eighth grade at the Radoje Domanovic Primary School in Nis, in southern Serbia. The Learning Club was established in the school last year, and he has been regularly attending support maths classes there.
Laura, Rema’s fellow student, is also a regular at the Learning Club and is studying for her final exams. Laura finds group study easier.
“I don’t have a computer at home. We have tablets in the library that we can borrow and take home to study what we need. We return them [to the library] when we’re done. It means a lot to me that I can find some information online that makes it easier for me to learn a lesson,” explains Laura.
And it was hard for everyone at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Classrooms closed, many teachers did not have digital competencies necessary for online classes, and children from marginalized groups did not have the technical equipment for distance learning. The situation in the Radoje Domanovic Primary School was no different, with 860 students, 14% of which are Roma.
That is why this school, along with 29 others, established Learning Clubs and Digital Technology Libraries as part of the Bridging the Digital Dividein Serbia for the Most Vulnerable Children project. The project was jointly launched by the Delegation of the European Union to Serbia, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development to ensure that every child receives adequate learning support, as well as psychosocial support, during the pandemic.
The school received 3 laptops for coordinators and 63 tablets that students can borrow and use for studying. This lessens the digital divide and ensures that all students have equal access to quality and inclusive education, which is the priority and goal of the project.
Around 30 teachers who are involved in the work of the Learning Club know why the project is important and successful – because everyone benefits from it.
“We are currently focused on preparatory classes for final exams. It’s easier for us to keep track of their progress in these groups, it’s easier to analyse their homework. Peer support is helpful for teachers as well. When we’re united like this, we’re achieving better results, which is already showing in their final grades,” Miljana Medenica, mathematics teacher and Learning Club coordinator, is convinced.
Milijana Krasojevic, computer science teacher and Digital Technology Library coordinator, helps the students acquire digital competencies, IT skills and learn the basics of digital literacy and online safety.
“Children can simply access the internet whenever they want, and they can use the tablets … at home. This possibility to work online contributed to them not only building their digital competencies and knowledge, but also having much more confidence,” Milijana observes.
Rema, Laura and around 30 other children who are regulars in the Learning Club are, in addition to the help provided by teachers, are also getting help from twelve-year-old Isidora. She is a straight-A student. That’s why she applied to volunteer at the Learning Club.
“I wanted to be a peer educator, because I like helping my friends, and because it’s very important to explain to children, my peers, everything they haven’t fully mastered in regular classes and that’s not clear to them. I usually help them with biology, computer science, math. I think that children from the Learning Club like having their peers and friends around, because the help coming from a friend is always the best,” Isidora says with a sincere smile.
Dusica Trickovic, the school principle, believes that the project brought students, teachers and parents more than just technology, tablets and laptops. Everyone has increased their digital competencies, classes are interactive, and children from vulnerable groups have better attendance in classes.
“After one year of implementation of this project, … [it’s clear] that our children are empowered to work from home too, to use various digital tools and not to miss school, as was the case before. Thanks to the Learning Club, our eight-graders are very motivated to come to preparatory classes [for their final exams] and for graduating from primary school,” Dusica says proudly.
Mahmula, Rema’s mom, is proud of his progress and success at school. She admits that she can now learn a lot from him.
“There are situations when I don’t know how to explain something to him, when even I don’t understand it. But now he has the Learning Club, the assistant, the teachers, so they are helping him a lot. I’m honestly surprised because until now he didn't know how to use computers, tablets. He’s really good at it now,” Mahmula says proudly.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in insecurity, fear, and isolation for children from vulnerable groups. That’s why psychosocial support is crucial for children who have faced educational barriers. It has proven to be essential for inclusion, and for them staying and thriving in the education system.
“For all the children who feel insecure, who have family problems, the school, the Learning Club and this library are like an oasis. Students are empowered enough to seek help from a team of pedagogues, psychologists, the school principal, and everyone in the psychosocial support team,” explains the principal.
The school also organizes numerous workshops – where children play music and sing, dance, and engage in creative activism. The workshops help the students express emotions, get motivated for classes, learning, and working.
The Radoje Domanovic Primary School is a true example of why projects like this are both a necessity and an inspiration. It clearly shows in the good grades and ambitions of those who were at risk of dropping out from the education system.
“I’d like to enrol in a secondary medical school and become a nurse. Having good grades will help me to enrol in the school of my choice,” says Rema enthusiastically.
“When I grow up, I want to be a judge. That’s my dream. I’d like to enrol in the Secondary School of Law and Administration,” Laura is confident.
Rema and Laura, and their friends too, are encouraged to dream big and step on a path that will lead them to achieving it all.