Aleksandar Kavčić Ph.D. Scientist And Professor At Carnegie Mellon University

Creating Change For Everyone’s Benefit

Instead of putting large amounts of money into the digitalisation, computerisation and robotisation of students and professors, (where) everybody has to go through the same criteria…let them be free, let them be creative, let them innovate, and the results will follow. Free textbooks fit into this win-win philosophy

Books, books, books that’s where our main effort is going to be – says CorD’s interlocutor Aleksandar Kavčić, a Ph.D. scientist and professor at America’s Carnegie Mellon University, where a Foundation under his name recently set up with the goal of enabling access to free textbooks for every child in Serbia.

His clash with the heavyweights of the Serbian textbook market reminds us of the legal battle his college faced when suing Marvell Technology Group Ltd. in one of the largest patent disputes related to the magnetic disk reader, which actually came as a result of Kavčić’s own doctoral thesis. That legal battle, which lasted seven years, is today worth recalling because it seems that professor Kavčić is set to face another tough tussle.

How long have you been preparing for the struggle to secure free textbooks? Will your struggle with the publishing clans be rougher and more protracted than the one with Marvel?

Well, I don’t know how long the struggle will last, but I’m sure that when victory comes it will last forever, because this is a basic human right. According to Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everybody has the right to a free education at the elementary level, and the parent has the primary right to choose.

The parent has the right to choose the education for their child. In Serbia we have a system where education is supposedly free, but textbooks aren’t. And the parent doesn’t have the right to choose the textbooks for their child, yet they need to pay. It’s a system that guarantees a monopoly for those who print textbooks, because the parents don’t choose. The publishers market the textbooks to the teachers, then the teachers choose the textbooks with whatever criteria they have and then they push those textbooks on the parents. And the parent needs to pay whatever the price is. That’s why textbooks are so expensive in Serbia. Every other country in Europe and North America, with the exception of a few states in Europe, has free textbooks in their public education system. We in Serbia need to realise that we also have the right to free textbooks.

There needs to be a critical mass of parents who realise that we are the only country in Europe where free textbooks aren’t accessible to children that attend public schools

You stated at one juncture that the publishing cartel is intimidating school principals and teachers. What constitutes the substance of those threats? What practical consequences does that have on the spreading of your action?

That’s correct. There is a cartel of publishers who publish textbooks in Serbia, and they act together. The true definition of a cartel is that they have a monopoly, their prices are very high, yet they don’t gain their market share through rationalisation or production, or through being prudent and lowering their market expenses. No, prices are very high, and they divide the market share and the idea is just to push books onto the parents. Now there is a campaign of fear being spread by this cartel and pushed onto the teachers in Serbia’s public education system. There is the scaring of teachers that if they adopt these textbooks provided by the Alek Kavcic Foundation that they will actually be breaking the law, that they will be financially liable for misdemeanours etc. That’s simply not true, but that’s the campaign of fear that’s being led, and part of that struggle is to change their minds, to change the understanding that this has nothing to do with breaking the law. You cannot break the law by reading books if they are free, it’s simply impossible.

How strong is your “front” with pupils, parents and teachers? Do you actively seek allies or do you expect them to fight independently for the option of free textbooks?

Here is the thing, if you are trying to do a social change, if social change is your objective, an individual cannot win alone. That’s impossible. So, if this struggle is viewed as the struggle of an individual against a corrupt system, the individual is not going to win. Never ever, it will not happen. Victory comes only if there is a collective effort, so our job – as the foundation – is to give the tools to the public, and those tools are free textbooks. It is up to the public to accept these tools and create victory for themselves by using those tools. There needs to be a critical mass of parents who realise that we are the only country in Europe where free textbooks are not accessible to children that attend public schools.

How have the general public, the media and Serbian society so far received your “American entrepreneurial spirit”, if we can call it that?

I don’t think of myself as a businessman. I’m not a businessman; I have not done any business in my entire life. I have been a professor and I have always been an educator. Or if I haven’t been an educator, I’ve been a student. However, there is entrepreneurship here. It’s not entrepreneurship in the sense of creating profit, but it is entrepreneurship in the sense of social entrepreneurship, creating change for the benefit of everybody. That is also entrepreneurship, and yes maybe I have learned that by living in the States. There are now attacks on me personally. There is a multinational company involved. Whenever a multinational company is involved and their profit is at stake, what they do is to try to figure out what the weakest link is. And they usually think that the weakest link is an individual. Except that every once in a while they face an individual who is very strong willed and who says ‘this will not pass’.

Get rid of this notion that with a strong fist we’re going to subordinate professors and teachers, which our Ministry does. Let them be free, let them express their creativity

Will textbooks for the 5th and 6th grades be published on the website of the free library by the end of March? Are you preparing new editions for the next school year?

There will be, as you said. First and second grade books just appeared on the site. There will be textbooks for 5th and 6th grades. They are coming very very soon, this month. We will put all that we have on the site before 15th March. After 15th March there is no point in putting out new books, because the period between then and 15th April is when books are being chosen by schools. Of course, after that, after April, for next year’s period, we are preparing new books. This is an effort that won’t last one year. We’ll do it next year and the year after that and the year after that and however many years we need to do it. We’ll need to update the books because plans and programmes change.

How are your relations with the authors of textbooks? Are they happy that their copyrights are respected or do they feel like they’re part of your endeavour?

I assume that they are happy that we have bought physical copies and printed copies and we also received the right to place those books on the internet for promotional purposes. So, the public publisher also needs to have a campaign to promote their own books, and we have provided the platform for that.

The idea you’re representing that insists teachers should be at the centre of school reforms is nothing new, and is something that’s advocated by some of Serbia’s most prominent experts in the domain of education.

The idea that the teacher, the educator, is the centrepiece of the educational system is not mine, absolutely not mine. Every successful educational system has the teacher as the centrepiece. The teacher needs to be the one driving the issues, not the Ministry of Education. If the Ministry of Education subordinates the teachers and expects obedience from the teachers all the time, then the teachers start being robots who do not know how to behave. Robots don’t express their creativity. If you don’t have creative teachers that’s where the avalanche starts, and you don’t have creative students either. Students don’t show initiative, they just cram for their exams, thinking that all they need to do is memorise. That’s not how an inventive educational system works. Let teachers be free, let them express their creativity. Let them teach the children in their own way. Let’s reward those who do it properly.

Unfortunately, our Ministry of Education is putting a lot of money into the digitalisation, computerisation and robotisation of students and professors, where everybody has to go through the same criteria…Let them be free, let them be creative, let them innovate, and the results will follow. In the 1970s our basketball coaches were creative. Look where Serbia is as a basketball country, very small, seven million people, but with the best coaches. We can have the best educators in the same way. That’s the formula.

Apart from ensuring the provision of free textbooks, what are among the other aims of the Alek Kavčić Foundation, or is this a complicated enough mission on its own?

Well this is going to be a big issue, this is going to be a struggle. We are going to have things thrown at us from those that make a lot of money on textbooks in Serbia. But we will have other activities, one of which is donating computers. Obviously donating computers cannot be something that the foundation can do for the entire country, but we’ll go selectively, where we think they’re most needed. In rural schools in rural areas, that’s where they’re most needed. Tablet computers – we will do that, but books, books, books – that’s where are main effort is going to be.

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