Teachers of Bosnia & Herzegovina: the driving force behind the digital transformation in education



Picture of Veronika Vashchenko
Veronika Vashchenko

Representative ad interim at UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), approximately 14,000 students in more than 500 schools lack access to the internet. This prevents access to crucial information and online learning, directly contravening Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The 2023 Western Balkans Digital Summit, held in October in BiH, was a platform where UNICEF, along with teachers and students, engaged with authorities, international partners and the private sector for stronger investments in digital transformation in education. Additionally, several months of negotiations – led by UNICEF with various stakeholders, including the BiH Minister of Transport and Telecommunications and internet service providers – have resulted in a commitment to bridging the school connectivity gap.

Teachers and their students must be at the centre of policymaking

Why digital transformation? The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a period of online education to continue learning. During 2020 and 2021, education authorities in BiH embraced the opportunity and attempted to deliver support to 400,000 primary and secondary school students. However, an average of 20 students shared one computer in the country, compared to their peers in OECD countries where 1.2 students shared one device.

It became clear that a transition to the online realm was vital. How could one transition from classroom-based to online learning if teachers and students had not been adequately exposed to technology-supported teaching and learning? Looking ahead, how can we successfully harness the power of technology, rapidly and at scale, in a post-pandemic world?

A mapping exercise of existing ICT resources in primary and secondary schools was a first step. This created a blueprint for financing and a plan to address supply needs, including computers, internet equipment and operating systems. Understanding the scale of need helped to ensure that learning support can reach the most vulnerable schools, students and communities.

In June 2022, UNICEF visited the Gornja Tuzla primary school to deliver new computers. These new supplies aimed to strengthen resilience in education. It was both moving and surprising to witness the reaction of the school’s staff, who were utterly shocked that their school “was even considered to receive assistance”. We were shocked too – as these were the first and only computers that students and teachers had ever received at the school. Gornja Tuzla is one of nearly 200 vulnerable schools that have been supported through UNICEF programmes.

A digital future through policy

We are taught in schools that “an object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it”. It is education systems – with teachers at the centre – who moved, adjusted and accelerated to the new digitalisation opportunityduring the pandemic. This was done while taking care of children’s learning and wellbeing, simultaneously communicating with parents, families and wider communities. It is a reminder of why teachers and their students must be at the centre of policymaking. An accelerated transformation must benefit all children. For this reason, UNICEF applies a participatory approach to its intervention design and implementation, which means that we ask, validate and evaluate our work together with teachers.

Technology helps us bridge the existing divide and provide equal learning opportunities to all

Beyond the digital: investing in teachers

The wellbeing and continuous professional development of teachers is equally crucial to equip them with the necessary skills to effectively recognise and respond to students’ emotional and behavioural needs, which UNICEF and UNESCO have assessed as the main stressors of teaching. A method of intervision – a horizontal, structured mechanism of peer learning and support – has been widely accepted and institutionally backed across primary and secondary schools in nearly all BiH administrative units as a means for tackling this challenge. Feedback from teachers is positive. “Finally, someone thinks about us, educators, and our mental health. In any case, [UNICEF] helped us a lot and gave us new knowledge on how we can support each other,” reports Amra Jaganjac, a pedagogist at the Mejdan primary school in Tuzla, BiH.

UNICEF also supports the professional development and strengthening of pedagogical-digital competencies of teachers across the country. In partnership with academia, UNICEF is working to connect pre-university education institutions and teachers, education authorities and academia. As a result of our partnership with the University of Sarajevo, DigiEdu, the first learning platform to offer self-paced accredited courses for strengthening teachers’ pedagogical-digital skills, was developed and launched in 2023. Through the platform, any teacher in BiH can access high-quality learning material. It is a concrete example of how technology helps us bridge the existing divide and provide equal learning opportunities to all, including the teachers from Gornja Tuzla.

Technological development is accelerating and influencing all aspects of our lives. Uninterrupted, quality education is the best way to harness the potential of digital and enable secure, equitable and accessible learning opportunities for all children.

Digital transformation in education extends beyond providing internet access and acquiring software, hardware and licenses. It necessitates the alteration of established norms and habits, as well as the creation of new requirements that must be addressed. Teachers are perhaps the most crucial link in this chain of change. Without proper training to equip them with essential skills, knowledge, motivation and ongoing support, it is unreasonable to expect that this link will remain stable, bridging the generational and digital divide.

Placing students at the heart of a high-quality and inclusive education process demands well-trained and motivated teachers. Without such teachers, the outcomes of education will fall short of the standards expected by 21st-century children.

This article is a contribution from a member or partner organisation of Friends of Europe. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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