February 11, 2000 Wired News
Surfing for Peace in Croatia
by Lakshmi Chaudhry
If all of NATO's might can't keep the peace in the Balkans, maybe the Internet can. That's how one Bay Area professor is trying to bring peace to war-torn Croatia.
Founded by San Francisco State professor Gary Selnow, the Global Learning Center is using computers to teach cultural tolerance to schoolchildren in Eastern Slovonia.
The Croat-controlled region, which witnessed widespread ethnic violence in the 1990s, has been struggling to rebuild itself after the war.
Selnow hopes his project will bring warring communities together by teaching Serb and Croatian kids how to surf and send email.
"When people talk to people maybe they will realize that they're not all that different," Selnow said. "The aim is to cut the government out of the process."
The nonprofit initiative purchases and installs computer networks and trains local teachers to integrate the Internet into their classroom.
The year-old project has already put 60 computers in front of 1,000 schoolchildren in remote villages of Croatia. The next set of cyber-labs will be introduced in seven schools in Montenegro.
The project also plans to launch an "e-Pal program" that will connect American students with children in Kosovo, Montenegro, and Croatia.
"Teachers will give their students assignments like 'Write your e-Pals and tell them about your soccer game,'" he said.
Selnow also envisions creating an international contest with up to 50 teams made up of members from the participating countries. The project will set up a "technical problem" and the children will have six weeks to work together on a solution.
"We're putting these people in touch with each other, working for a common goal," Selnow said. "Even if we get only 10 solutions out of the 50, it will still be something that has never happened before in this region of the world." The aim is to use the desire to learn about technology to bridge the ethnic divide. And the project is targeting not just children but other members of these communities as well.
GLC plans to hold a "Parent's Day" in the schools so that adults can come in and "take a look at what their children are learning," Selnow said. "Usually when these people would get together in the past, they'd talk about their differences. We're hoping this time they'll be focusing on their kids."
The project also wants to use computers to promote democratic values in these regions.
Schools participating in the program have to make their facilities available after school hours to journalists and businessmen. The workshops offered will teach reporters how to do investigative journalism using the Internet, and introduce local businesses to e-commerce.
"You have them in the lab for a couple of hours. And as you show them how the technology works, you're also telling them about what it means to have an open society," Selnow said.
GLC has ambitious plans for expansion despite struggling to raise money since its inception.
The first set of computers was financed by donations totaling $11,000 from USAID and UNICEF. But since then, Selnow has relied mostly on individual donations from friends and supporters and on his own checkbook to pay the way.
"I've tried contacting various foundations, but even in this time of affluence, they're giving less and less," he said. "I've tried everything short of a bake sale."
But Selnow continues to be optimistic, both about the future of his project and the role of technology in building a better world.
"It's all a grand experiment," he said. "But I believe technology can be used for more than just playing games. It can bring people together."