Physical or Virtual Networks? Connecting Swedish Schools to the Internet
Johan GROTH <email@example.com>
Between 1994 and 1998 the use of information technology, especially Internet, has rocketed in Swedish K12-schools. The Swedish Schoolnet, which is a national effort to encourage schools to take advantage of Internet as a pedagogical tool, has played an important part in this development. The project is run by the National Agency for Education on commission by the Ministry of Education and Science. The work is characterized by a "content driven" approach, i.e., the main role of the project is to increase the amount of, for schools, useful content on Internet and thereby, indirectly, stimulate the use of new tools and media. This is opposed to a "material" approach characterized by government subsidies for hardware, software and Internet access and/or direct government involvement as an Internet service provider for the educational sector. The work has been most successful. Today a majority of the Swedish schools regularly use Internet for communication and to find and/or publish information.
During the last couple of years, information technology (IT), and especially the Internet, has become a phenomenon of great concern to schools all over the world. Actually it appears safe to say that no technology ever has had such a profound impact on the educational system in such a short period of time. An explanation for this could be that to achieve its goals (which in most cases can be summarized as "to increase the knowledge of the pupils and improve their skills in various fields"), a K-12 school typically carries out activities that can be grouped into five categories: communication, presentation, information retrieval, use of tools, and training. The Internet provides a new and powerful infrastructure for working within the first three categories. If schools also should prepare pupils for working life, the Internet is also of use in the last two categories. Few things can in this way be used in all categories.
The challenges and opportunities presented by the new technology have not passed unnoted. The Swedish national curriculum , though not explicitly using the words Internet or IT, states that "school should prepare the pupils for life and work in society." An important quality is to be able to "orient oneself in a complex world in rapid change and characterized by a rich flow of information." The European Commission reached the conclusion that "what Europe needs is a substantial overhaul of education and training that can match the IT revolution" . A similar conclusion is reached by those at the "receiving" end of the school system: "IT therefore has an essential role to play in European education where it can improve individual performance, enhance equality of opportunity, and help combat social exclusion" .
Here an account will be given of how the Swedish government has approached the issue of introducing the Internet as a pedagogical tool in the K-12 schools. The work has been so successful that today a majority of the schools have access to and use the Internet.
The Swedish school system is goal-oriented and decentralized. Thus the government, through the School Act and the National Curriculum, sets the goals for the educational system. The schools, both private and public, are then free to organize the work in any way they want, as long as the goals are reached. Responsible for the day-to-day work in the schools are the headmasters. The funding of the schools is a matter for the local school boards. There is one school board in each municipality, of which there are 288 in Sweden. About 3 percent of the pupils go to private schools. These schools have their own school boards but receive their funding from the local authorities. There are approximately 6,000 schools in Sweden.
On a national level there is a division of responsibility between the Ministry of Education and Science and the National Agency for Education. The ministries in Sweden are small and have few operative functions. These functions lie with government agencies staffed with nonpolitical civil servants. An agency acts both on specific commission from the ministry and on its own initiatives within the framework set up by the ministry. The National Agency for Education is responsible for preschools, K-12 schools, and parts of the nonacademic higher education. The agency acts through active follow-up, evaluation, development, research, and supervisory programs.
During the last decade and a half, Sweden has carried out a number of activities aiming at taking advantage of the new technology, first computers only and now the Internet. In the mid-80s the government spent 60 million SEK on computer hardware. The municipalities could receive funding provided they put in at least an equal amount of money and bought one of the computers that had been approved by the government. After the campaign, most lower secondary schools had eight computers in a local network.
At the end of the 80s, the DOS-project was initiated (DOS stands for Datorn och Skolan -- the Computer and the School). The emphasis was now put on software rather than hardware. The three-year effort comprised 160 projects involving different groups of pupils, different subjects, and about 800 teachers. Around the same time a software development and exchange program was started on a Nordic level. Each country developed a number of pedagogical applications that were then translated into the other Nordic languages. This was an effort to increase the number of applications with a "Nordic touch."
The situation in the fall of 1993 can be summarized in the following way [4, 5]. After spending approximately 500 million SEK of state and municipal funding during a period of ten years, there were approximately 38 pupils per computer in compulsory school and 10 pupils per computer in upper secondary school. Most computers were placed in special computer rooms and therefore not readily accessible for teachers and pupils. Few, if any, schools used the Internet. A number of teachers used computers for word processing, spreadsheets, etc., but there was limited knowledge on how to use the computer as a tool integrated in the pedagogical work.
Then, in November 1993, the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) and the three self-governing Nordic regions (Greenland, the Åland Islands, and the Faroe Isles) decided to create a Nordic school data network (ODIN) . This was a natural step in the development of cooperation between Nordic schools and educational agencies. The decision was made that ODIN should be based on the techniques and standards used on the Internet. In 1993 only a handful of schools in the Nordic countries (with the exception of Iceland, where a majority of schools were connected) had access to the Internet and there were few, or no, Internet service providers (ISPs) who directed their business toward other areas than academia or large companies. The decision was, as we know now, most forward-looking. The fact that eight regions and countries were able to reach political agreement on a common infrastructure is also noteworthy.
If one wants to specify a date when the Internet was introduced into the Swedish K-12 system, March 8, 1994, is a good choice. During a meeting of the Nordic council in Stockholm, the ministers of the Nordic countries used e-mail to communicate with a few schools in each of the countries. They could also view half a dozen Web pages describing the Nordic countries and their educational systems written by staff at the Swedish University Network (SUNET). After the meeting, the Swedish government had to address the fact that there were very few teachers, school leaders, and decision makers who knew what the Internet was and how it could be used in an educational context. However, there were experience and knowledge available to draw upon. First, there was SUNET, which for many years had been the Internet provider for the Swedish universities. Second, there were the telecommunication companies, among which Tele2, a private company, had been the first to provide a commercial IP service in Sweden. Third, there were a handful of teachers who had already worked with the Internet or other computer-based communication and information systems.
A typical example of such a pioneer is Benny Regnér, a teacher in social sciences at an upper secondary school outside Stockholm. He had been sending e-mail to USA via a BBS-system since 1985. In 1990 his school was included in the AT&T Learning Circle project, which improved communication. A couple of years later, Mr. Regnér was introduced to the Internet by an American colleague in Santa Clara, California. Here, for the first time, was a communications system that was simple, flexible, reliable, and truly global.
In early spring of 1994, Mr. Peter Karlberg and the author, both at that time at the Ministry of Education and Science, prepared a document describing how the schools should be introduced to the Internet. Two main questions were addressed: who should do the work and how should it be done? Two routes were possible. The first was a "material" approach characterized by government subsidies for hardware, software, and Internet access and/or direct government involvement as an ISP for the educational sector (e.g., via universities, national agencies, or state-owned telecommunication companies). This would be in line with earlier efforts to introduce IT in schools. The other, "immaterial," approach is characterized by no government involvement except when it comes to spreading information, enhancing awareness, stimulating cooperation, presenting good examples, and encouraging development and new ideas. The second approach can also be labeled "content driven" in that the main role of the government is to increase the amount of, for schools, useful content on the Internet, thereby indirectly stimulating the use of new tools and media. In the final commission to the National Agency for Education, the "content-driven" approach was chosen.
The Swedish School Computer Network (henceforth the Swedish Schoolnet)  was the name given to the Agency's work. The term network should here, in accordance with the "immaterial" approach, not be interpreted as a physical network connecting schools to the Internet. It should, instead, be understood as a base for systematic cooperation between teachers, students, administrators, teacher trainers, researchers, and educational institutions, primarily in, but also outside, Sweden. Of course the project's Web site is a focus point and an easily available visualization of how the Internet can be used.
In line with the content-driven approach, four services were immediately set up on the Internet. These were (1) a database of Swedish schools with Web and/or e-mail addresses; (2) dedicated conferences (news and mailing lists); (3) a list of selected links; and (4) examples of projects and good practices of using the Internet in school. The next step was to gain more knowledge about how the Internet could be used in schools. This was done through an open process in which schools were encouraged to take part. The interest was overwhelming and in the end 40 pilot schools were selected. The schools represented all grades from 1 to 12, were situated from Kiruna in the north to Helsingborg in the south, and had varying degrees of knowledge about the Internet. Enthusiasm and a will to be part of the development work was what counted. Contact was also made with the, at that time, four major ISPs (Tele2, France Telecom/Global One, Telia, and Dialog). They were offered a role in the project, which would provide a good opportunity to learn more about the schools and what type of services they needed. In return, each company promised to provide about ten schools each with a free Internet connection for a period of 1.5 years (the first phase of the project). The schools were connected in various ways, from simple modem dial-up to 64 kB lines. Software and hardware companies like Sun Microsystems, ICL (now Fujitsu), and Microsoft also took part on similar conditions.
The pilot schools were to use the Internet in ten pedagogical projects, of which the first was to make a school home page on the Web. The other projects all involved other partners, e.g., an author of children's books, the Youth Environment Parliament, and the Swedish Military and Civil Defence. An interesting aspect of these projects was that the schools in a natural way collaborated with expertise outside the schoolhouse.
The collaboration with the author deserves a more detailed description. "The Writers Den"  engaged 600 pupils in grades 4-6 who, under the guidance of Lasse Ekholm, an author of children's books, wrote essays and a book together. Using the Internet, the pupils and their teachers interacted with Lasse Ekholm via the Web and e-mail, fetching exercises and drawing from his experience. The children then wrote their own essays, which were discussed over e-mail and presented on the Web. The main advantage of this way of working was that the schools could interact with an expert for a longer period of time and still keep costs down. Also, it is a problem in school to study one subject all day for several days, which is somewhat of a necessity if the expert has traveled to the school. With the Internet, an initial meeting to discuss the framework of the project can be followed by a longer period of "low impact" interaction, which gives the pupils more time to think, reflect, and work at their own tempo on the project.
To ensure a continuous and strong exchange of experience and knowledge, the Agency gathered the pilot schools and the industrial partners once per semester. The meetings contained presentations of new services and techniques as well as workshops where the schools and companies could discuss technological and pedagogical problems. This "coaching" of the pilot schools proved to be very effective.
Drawing on experiences from the work with the pilot schools, the project members prepared general information material about the Internet and the project that was distributed to all schools. The project members also spent many days traveling through Sweden, talking to teachers, school leaders, and decision makers. This part of the work, being "missionaries" and doing a lot of down-to-earth footwork, was very important in order to distribute knowledge and information on a national, and yet personal, level.
A last, but not least, important task was to create even more content. This was done in two ways: contact was made with various content providers and new content was created directly by the project group. The content providers were found among organizations, government bodies, museums, companies, etc. In some cases (like newspaper archives) the providers possessed plenty of content but were unaware of what the schools needed or wanted and/or of the development of the Internet. In many of these cases a meeting started a process that led to more content being made available on the Internet. In other cases the content provider was involved in a collaborative project in which schools were encouraged to take part. An example of this was the Historic Museum in Stockholm which, together with the pilot schools, made a Web-based multimedia teaching material.
In yet other cases completely new content was created. Two rather simple, but successful, examples are the two Internet-based courses developed by the Agency together with Mr. Mikael Eriksson, Linköping University, and Mr. Pär Lannerö, the Royal Institute of Technology. Mr. Eriksson created a Web-based course on how to write HTML. This course is used by many schools as an introduction on how to present information on the Internet. Even more popular was the Web course "Ett smultronställe för Internetblåbär" (smultronställe = place where wild strawberries grow, i.e., a pleasant place; blåbär = blueberry, i.e., a person with limited knowledge) . This course was developed as an introduction to the Internet for those with no previous experience or knowledge of the Internet. The course was an immediate success and is used extensively, and not only by teachers. Another popular service is the digital dictionary . The Agency owns the copyright to several dictionaries, and the English-Swedish one was entered into a database and given a Web interface. This simple application is a useful example of how old functions can be carried out in a new way.
Two more extensive examples are Musiknet  and IKON . Here the goal is to create two completely new pedagogical resources. Musiknet is a collaboration between the Agency, the Royal University College of Music, Tele2, Sun Microsystems, and Fujitsu. Musiknet is a foundation focusing on teacher training, distance education, new techniques for media transmission, etc. Three important activities within Musiknet are Klavinet, Ljud, and IMP. Klavinet offers piano lessons over the Internet using MIDI-files. Ljudo is a free database of sounds collected by professionals and pupils. In IMP, high school pupils not only make their own media productions but also build their own virtual media production companies in collaboration with experts in the field. IKON is a collaboration among the Agency, the Museum of Modern Arts in Stockholm, the University College of Arts, Crafts, and Design, the Royal University College of Fine Arts, and the ArtNode Foundation. Both projects create new content, initiate new projects, and collaborate with schools in different activities. They have their own funding, etc., but remain in close contact with the Agency.
The obstacles facing the project during the initial phase were of three different types. The first was real, and often technical, problems. Such problems have always been solved faster and simpler than could have been imagined. The second was related to the experience and knowledge among the users. How does one present a new pedagogical tool to someone who doesn't understand the words you are using? The third type had to do with lack of vision. Many people said, "Access is too expensive and bandwidth is too small." Such pessimism always turned out to be unnecessary. Hardware and software become more user-friendly and cheaper. The bandwidth increases steadily. The answers to all objections were content, content, and content. The most effective way of creating interest within a group is to show that there are gains to be made for that group.
In parallel with the work carried out by the Agency, many others (schools, organizations, companies, etc.) started to use the Internet and produced material of interest for schools. Thus, many processes were in action at the same time, inspiring each other. The development of useful tools and services on the Internet for schools has been, and is still, a decentralized process with, in most cases, a very clear bottom-up approach.
Today the Swedish Schoolnet is an integrated part of the Agency's work within the field of school development. The Schoolnet project consists of many activities on and off the Internet. It plays a part not only in the introduction of the Internet into schools but also as a forum for developing other aspects of the future school system. Its resources are readily available to anyone with Internet access and an interest in the Internet as a pedagogical tool. The project's Web site is well known and popular, not only within the school system. Suffice it to say that the site has about 40,000 "readings" per day, which approximately equals the number of readings on the Web sites of major Swedish newspapers.
During 1998 the site will become even more interactive. A first step is the Newsroom, where articles about advances in technology, projects, pedagogical developments, questions pertaining to administrative and organizational matters, etc., are posted on a daily basis. Each article is connected to a Web conference where further discussions may take place.
The project members continue to give lectures and courses and serve as initial project coordinators. The project also continuously spreads information about IT and the Internet in schools through an electronic newsletter and the magazine "Klassrum direkt" ("Classroom online"),  which is available both in digital form and on paper.
The four original services are still available, as are those that have been developed during the past years. One of the original services, the list of school Web addresses , is still popular, as are the digital dictionaries where more languages will be continuously added. Another popular service is "The Link Cupboard" , a Web-based school library, i.e., a collection of carefully selected and annotated links.
Model projects continue to play an important role in the Swedish Schoolnet. Two recent additions are Sputnik , a virtual magazine for teenagers written by pupils at ten Swedish schools and two schools in the United States, in collaboration with the Swedish daily Aftonbladet and Stockholm University, and Planeten , a forum for children between six and ten where extensive use is being made of CU See Me.
Two other projects that are somewhat more loosely connected to the Agency's work within the field of IT are MIT and the Rågsved project. MIT, which also involves the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Fredrika Bremer School, aims at increasing interest in higher studies among children from a municipality where relatively few persons have a university degree. To break the feeling that studying at a university is strange or odd, the pupils are offered a course in environmental sciences at KTH. The students all have portable computers and attend classes both at KTH and Fredrika Bremer. They use the Internet for information retrieval, for dedicated discussion groups, etc. The Rågsved project proposes to connect Rågsved school with the homes of the pupils, many of whom are immigrants. An important role is played by teachers who work with the children in their native tongue and who now will have a new way of communicating with the families. Perhaps it will also be possible to break the isolation into which many immigrants may fall, not least due to the language problem. The project involves, among others, Rågsved school, the public housing cooperations in the area, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, Stjärn TV (a cable TV company), Microsoft, Sun, Compaq, and local enterprises.
Another recent addition to the Swedish Schoolnet is The Multimedia Bureau, which is the result of another government commission. The goal here is to create a center for development of IT-based teaching material. The center will organize courses and seminars, create reference material, etc. Material created by individual teachers and pupils and presented on the Internet will be an important output.
Last, but not least, the Swedish Schoolnet coordinates the Swedish activities during European Netd@ys (to be held in October each year starting in 1997).
In conclusion, the Swedish Schoolnet continues to develop, keeping its target groups (primarily pupils, teachers, and school leaders in Sweden's K-12 schools, but also parents, policy makers, and others interested in educational matters) informed about the development of the Internet and its use in a school context.
The work with the Swedish Schoolnet has also taken on a European dimension in that Sweden has proposed the construction of a European Schoolnet . The project is an initiative "to contribute to the implementation of the Action Plan 'Learning in the Information Society' presented by the [European] Commission in 1996. The European Schoolnet consortium includes all Member States of the European Union and Iceland, Norway and Switzerland of the EFTA countries. Countries of Central and Eastern Europe will be invited to join the project" . The overall aim of the project is "to establish a European school information network as a multimedia and communications platform as well as a framework for (1) collaboration between schools in Europe; (2) high-quality information services with a pedagogical content and representing a European added value; (3) cooperation at a European level among national education authorities, universities, and industry to develop ICT in schools as regards content, pedagogical approaches, and technology; and (4) professional development of teachers, in particular as regards the use of ICT in teaching and learning."
This project is in many ways modeled on the Swedish Schoolnet and ODIN. During its initial phase (ending around summer 1998), the project is headed, staffed, and mostly financed by Sweden. After this initial phase a more permanent organization reflecting the project's European dimension will be set up. The work follows the content-driven approach. The services offered by the EUN include interactive courses, a virtual teachers' college with forums and libraries, a pen-pal corner, a collection of European projects, and a virtual school where teachers may find subject-related resources.
The Swedish Schoolnet has now been running for about four years. A crude (since it doesn't say anything about how the Internet is actually used) measure of success is that today about 1,500 schools have their own Web services, i.e., are not only information users but also information producers on the Internet. Preliminary statistics (full report in late spring of 1998) from the National Agency for Education show that nearly all secondary schools as well as a majority of the primary schools are connected to the Internet. Since only a handful of schools were connected in 1995, it is a promising development. Also, it is clear that the use of the Internet as a pedagogical tool has soared in the last few years and that it has affected the K-12 schools in many ways. For one thing, it is clear from many visits and discussions that the computer and computer-mediated communication and information exchange have, at last, become a natural pedagogical tool. Such a development would not have happened in a time of cutbacks in public spending had not pupils, teachers, and school leaders embraced and seen the advantages of this new tool. The Internet has obviously brought advantages that appeal to new groups of teachers such as language and social science teachers.
It is interesting to note that the Internet has also served as a catalyst for other changes in the school system. Sometimes in parallel with and sometimes in the wake of the introduction of the Internet, great changes have taken place in such areas as teachers' salaries, content of work for teachers, pedagogical practices, how schools are built, etc. Organizational and administrative routines in schools, municipal school boards, and national educational bodies are also affected. In many cases these changes might very well have taken place without computers (e.g., working in projects, with problem-based learning, with individual study plans, etc.). Why these changes gained momentum at the same time as the Internet was introduced and which change came first is hard to say. Sometimes it seems that other reforms are carried through "disguised" as "IT in schools." This might imply that these other reforms may now be implemented with less discussion and preparation than would have been the case at other times. On the other hand, it might imply that long-wanted changes that for one reason or another have been hard to execute may now be carried out. In any case, the pace has often been surprising, even for those involved.
What was the role and benefit of the Swedish Schoolnet and its content-driven approach in this development? First, it should be pointed out that the content-driven approach was not chosen by chance. The method of giving examples instead of orders or directions is well in line with the decentralized and goal-oriented organization of the Swedish school system. Also, the experiences of the earlier national efforts to introduce computer technology pointed to the limitations of a more material approach. The massive efforts of the 1980s had cost a lot, and the long-term effects had proved to be small or even negligible.
With a material approach there is an obvious risk that the new hardware and software are not complemented by changes in pedagogical practices, administrative routines, and organizational structures [see, for example, 20]. In spite of this, in many countries the national initiatives have a more material approach (e.g., the ministry buys or subsidizes computers or Internet access). With such a system the danger is that the differences between the schools are not taken into account, leading to less useful solutions at a local level. It appears that the material approach is often combined with a top-down method, while the content-driven approach relies much more on a bottom-up process. The benefit of the latter is that through the creation of content intended for schools on the Internet, the spreading of information, and the showing of examples, interest is created among pupils, teachers, school leaders, and decision makers. This interest--in combination with the specific conditions, priorities, and wishes of a certain school--can then, in a local process, result in decisions about how to connect, what services to use, etc. For each school a different solution adapted to the specific local needs will be found.
The role of the Swedish Schoolnet can be summarized as follows:
Whether or not the Swedish way of introducing the Internet in schools is the best or the most effective way is hard to say. What we can say is that in a short span of years, many Swedish schools have connected to the Internet, in many cases with high bandwidth. Many interesting pedagogical projects have been carried out, and many schools and teachers have with great creativity used IT to create better education. Even though many factors explain the development in Swedish schools, it is our belief that a national content-driven initiative is the best way of connecting schools to the Internet and inspiring them to begin taking advantage of the Internet as a pedagogical tool. Also, we find to be important the fact that the use of the Internet in Swedish schools in most cases has originated in the needs, interests, and knowledge of individual teachers or groups of teachers. This "organic growth" is in many ways parallel to the structure of the Internet itself.
On the other hand, it may be argued that we have not fundamentally changed anything and that the observed changes would have come anyway, perhaps later, but they would have come. This might be true, but we believe that the fact that a government agency started to use the Internet had an instrumental influence on when and how the Internet was introduced into the schools. The Internet is today a widely available tool used for many different tasks by all groups (pupils, teachers, administrators, etc.) in the schools. It could have become a tool reserved for certain groups (e.g., high school teachers) and/or certain tasks (e.g., transferring data between the schools and the local authorities) but it did not. This is the primary importance of the Swedish Schoolnet.
Today, in 1998, most practical or "material" questions connected to the use of the Internet in schools have been solved. The "immaterial" questions--i.e., those of a social, cultural, ethical, and pedagogical nature--are just now becoming visible. We believe that we will see even more profound changes in the educational system. With all the world's information in your home computer, with the possibility to attend courses with the world's best teachers from your living room, why should anyone go to school (i.e., to the physical house) at all? In a situation where every pupil can interact with the world's foremost experts in every field of knowledge, what is the role of teachers?
Other challenges include how teachers are to keep up with the rapid development of technology and the introduction of new ways of communicating and processing information. How are the schools to solve the task of running large networks with many computers (the problems are both technological and economic)? How are society and the schools to cope with the questions that arise when information of literally all kinds is available to children? New thinking is required with regard to teacher education, how schools are built and used (is it reasonable to let the schools stand empty and unused except between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. for 40 weeks per year?), etc. The school as we know it today may very well disappear within a decade or two.
Last, it is quite clear that the Internet has many profound and deeper effects. How will distance learning (i.e., learning outside a common social context), global communication (where you may know more about someone on the other side of the world than about your neighbor), and the increase of "virtual experiences" at the expense of "physical experiences" affect the human mind? It is impossible to say as we stand at the doors of a brave, new, and hopefully better world.