CEO of Telekom Srbija Group, a provider of fixed-line, mobile, television and internet communication services to over 11 million subscribers
The digital society has arrived. The internet is now almost an essential utility, even more so now because it’s shaping the development of future strategies on health, education, transport and business. Our ability to effectively leverage the opportunities that the digital society promises will be determined by how we educate the leaders of tomorrow. That starts in the classroom.
The demands the pandemic put on our internet infrastructure didn’t surprise me. It’s brought home how key telecom providers are in supporting access to online education. While telecommunications have always been a way to foster interactions, in just a few months, telecom providers became a vital part of helping every community we serve to manage their change, bringing teachers into the home and helping parents become the best homeschoolers possible.
The telecom industry globally has an ethical responsibility to get more kids online.
My organization, Telekom Srbija, has developed specific education-focused actions and initiatives that aim to underpin the success of future generations. Based on this experience, here are some ideas as to how tech leaders can develop initiatives that enhance education with technological opportunities.
1. Equip Schools With Tech
Every year, via the We Create Knowledge program, we donate IT equipment to primary and high schools. A dilemma is to make sure that the equipment ends up in the schools that need it most. For our donations, each year we rely on the Serbian Ministry of Education to provide us with an initial list of the 40 schools where the deficit is most acute. The selection of the final 20 schools is a community effort. Parents, teachers, friends and neighbors get to vote on our mts Your World Facebook page. This unites local communities around a common cause and involves them in the process.
When setting out to equip schools, don’t make it a one-off. I recommend crafting a multi-annual program and give specific employees within your company ownership of the project for the longer term. That will enable them, over time, to invest in building the necessary relationships with education officials, teachers’ organizations, schools and NGOs that support underprivileged communities. The employees themselves will be personally knowledgable and invested so that your company’s contribution can always be relevant and as effective as possible. Your team will be able to educate you on what’s really needed and where.
2. Support Media Literacy Programs
Having properly digitally equipped classrooms at all schools today is essential, not only for everyday learning but also because digital and media literacy is fast becoming an essential part of the curriculum. In Serbia, since September 2020, all first-grade children are being put through a program called “Digital World.” In a world now overrun by propaganda and distorted facts online, our contribution is helping teachers to deliver lessons that sensitize children to fact-check online content, understand news media, make informed choices and resist peer pressure.
A fantastic organization doing similar work is the NGO Lie Detectors. It trains journalists in several countries in Europe to go into schools and spend time explaining to children in classrooms how journalists do their jobs, and how reputable news is created and properly sourced. The children learn how to spot fake news and each become little “lie detectors.” Leaders can get behind these sorts of media literacy initiatives by providing financial support and by encouraging journalists on their staff to take part.
And supporting fact-checking organizations that belong to the International Fact-Checking Network and abide by its Code of Principles helps ensure we all have somewhere to go to test the veracity of the “news” we are exposed to.
3. Develop Higher Education Programs
We have established partnerships with the four biggest universities in Serbia, known for the quality of their telecommunications faculties. Students are offered internships, working side by side with some of our best engineers. Our company grants scholarships to students at a vocational high school, who are taught by our employees. Having students shadowing the people who keep our network operational 24/7 enables both sides to get the most out of the experience. Students then graduate into a job with the company as a telecommunications network fitter — a course of study developed by the company.
Consider making an investment up-front in matching the right engineers or other company employees with the right students. If the mentoring relationship clicks, the professional mentor can have a massive positive impact on the trajectory of the individual young person for many years. Use HR people with backgrounds in psychology and other soft skills to get the right fit.
4. Set Up Scholarships And Sponsorships
We’ve increased the number of available scholarships to Serbian universities for Serbian students and for those from developing countries choosing to study information and communication technology. We also support a number of competitions to encourage students to develop their skills and interest in our sector. Every year we run a regional app challenge for secondary school students. This helps us identify talent early on which we may then want to invest in if and when these same young people eventually launch their own start-ups.
Scholarships are often just financial handouts. By making scholarships into programs, which guide students into studying new and cutting-edge aspects of tech and give them access to people in the real world pushing the boundaries, you will create enduring relationships, for learning, mentoring and careers. Dedicating people within your company to designing the scholarship programs and garnering the involvement of universities and industry for the longer term means that your initial financial investment will be high yield.
The pandemic has shown us all how intertwined technology and education have become. School children and university students all need to get online to access the best education. We also need to nurture future talent to develop the best minds to ensure we’re able to compete in a competitive marketplace. As telecom leaders, we can tap into the skills and talents of the world’s young workforce and act as a guiding force to help get the best ideas off the ground.