Ireland needs to end the cycle of constant failure of IT projects for schools and come up with a baseline strategy and foundation for the future

We need a vision for the future of technology in our schools

16 May 2016

The constant stop-start-stop cycle of failure that defines technology in Irish education needs to be replaced by a long-term, sustainable vision for the future. And the Government’s new CIO could help set the standard, writes John Kennedy.

“We need to invest in the future of our children.” Those weren’t the words of a CEO, a hotshot tech entrepreneur or a concerned parent. They were the words of a bishop.

On Friday afternoon, I attended the confirmation of my niece, and Bishop Michael Smith was preparing the young people to take an oath of abstinence or the Pioneer oath, as it is known. He warned them not only about alcohol but also the evils of drugs and the pointless cost to lives it is causing, all in the name of greed.

But the bishop was also being optimistic and said he was encouraged by the amazing opportunities that awaited those young people as they embark on the road of life. He said it was a good thing for a country to invest in the future of its children.

Those well-meaning words stung because, only a few hours earlier, I had hammered out a story about how this country is not investing in their future from a technology perspective.

Senior academics and leaders that morning warned of the need for a fundamental reform of the Irish education system if the digital skills gap in Irish education is to be bridged. The study by the Trinity College-based Access 21 (TA21) programme and Google found serious deficiencies, not only in terms of computers available to the students, but also the quality of broadband and networks in the schools.

‘A fundamental rethink around hardware is also needed. It is no good to just buy blocks of computers, projectors and printers in big grandstand investments and just throw them at teachers and students’

Some schools participating in TA21 had no access to Wi-Fi or the internet and one 500-student school had just one computer for every 20 students.

“We really have to ask if the Government is just paying lip service when it talks about delivering broadband to every school in the country and ensuring that our young people are equipped with digital skills,” said Professor Brendan Tangney, leader of TA21.

Google’s Fionnuala Meehan made the argument that, at second level, computer science must be considered as a standalone subject if we are to make a difference.

Just as the bishop was speaking, a colleague of mine published a story asking: “Is the dearth of digital education in Irish schools doing future tech talent a disservice?”

It’s not an unreasonable question to ask, but I would further ask: are we doing these kids a disservice for whatever they wish to do later in life?

Standards need to be set

The constant cycle of failure of various IT schools initiatives needs to be replaced by a permanent policy that sets the standard.

The stakes are high. As I looked out on that sea of expectant young faces, young people who will very soon find themselves in secondary school and faster than their parents will believe will then be in college, I fear the world they are entering into will demand a lot.

While there is a tech skills shortage, every business is becoming digitised. But careers aren’t what they used to be either.

Some of these kids will work in tech, some will be farmers, teachers, engineers, doctors, physicists, vets, God only knows. In fact, one or two of them may be all of these things, because the days of a job for life are over. Careers within a lifetime will be manifold. The war for talent will increase but, as work becomes digitised and software agents replace people, so too will the war for the dignity of a job. They need every fighting chance.

Even the way children learn is changing – by rote is being replaced by collaboration, teamwork and critical thinking skills.

Ireland is by no means unique in this regard – for decades various nations have tried to digitise education with various levels of success; no nation has gotten it entirely right. The reality is the goalposts keep moving. Because technology keeps changing.

The UK has stolen a march on Ireland, for example, by instituting coding as part of the curriculum for kids as young as six.

Where is the visionary thinking?

Reform is needed but how we go about that reform needs to be radically different than anything we thought of in the past.

For 20 years, I have kept an eye on computers in education; remembering in a bittersweet way during my own education how in just a year you could go from learning how to code to one year later forlornly watching the same computers gather chalkboard dust in the corner as you scratch notes into a copybook.

In my time, I have observed different initiatives. In the 1990s, there was the Schools IT 2000 initiative. The initiative petered out but I remember coming across groups of enthusiastic teachers who had been invigorated and challenged, only to become broken and disillusioned, delegated as their schools’ de facto IT expert as they were the only ones who seemed to know something about computers.

At one point when the Celtic Tiger boom time economy was in full flow, it seemed that the Tesco Computers for Schools voucher initiative was the only way a school could get its hands on new equipment, with parents stepping up to the plate.

And then, in 2009, there was the Smart Schools = Smart Economy strategy to invest €150m in injecting long overdue technology in classrooms across the country. Every teacher was to get a laptop, software and a projector over three years.

The plan raised hopes but somehow got lost in the chaos of post-bailout Ireland when for some baffling reason we agreed to pay 42pc of Europe’s banking debt, effectively saddling every citizen, including children not even born, with, on average, €9,000 of debt each.

One of the few technology for education projects to have met with anything approaching success has been the Broadband for Schools initiative with the HEA to roll out 100Mbps broadband to 780 schools, which was achieved by the end of December 2014. This connected more than 25,000 teachers and 375,000 students to high-speed connectivity.

But a strategy without a plan is only an aspiration. That investment will surely go to waste unless a broader, long-term vision is enacted to put the broadband networks to good use.

The devil is in the detail

As the Google/TA21 study shows, what is required is a policy reform around STEM, the introduction of computer science as its own subject and a whole new way of thinking around how schools are resourced with technology.

It is about standards and governance. And this is where the Government’s new CIO comes in.

I observed the new Government CIO Barry Lowry on stage at last week’s Tech Excellence Awards in Dublin and, like most people in the room, felt encouraged by his enthusiasm, witty humour and professionalism. A career civil servant from Northern Ireland, he seems more than equal to any challenge that the “computer says no” style of bureaucracy in the Republic will present him.

One thing Lowry made clear is he plans to build on the work of the previous CIO Michael McGrath, which centred on a central cloud infrastructure.

Cloud will be the engine room for all tools and technology deployed to the arms of the State. And our education system should get the benefit of this in terms of resources as they are needed.

For this to work, either the Government CIO or the CIO of the Department of Education will need to set standards. These standards must start with connectivity, ensuring a consistent quality of connection and, thus, a level playing field for every school. These standards then need to extend to infrastructure in the schools, such as wireless networks, servers and storage. And then those standards need to address hardware and network interfaces (aka computers) used by the students and teachers.

As well as changes to the curriculum, teachers need to be brought on the digital journey through continuous professional development (CPD), similar to what TA21 is trying to achieve through the upskilling of teachers.

A fundamental rethink around hardware is also needed. It is no good to just buy blocks of computers, projectors and printers in big grandstand investments and just throw them at teachers and students. Anyone who knows technology knows that technology can very quickly go stale unless hardware is constantly refreshed.

Teachers should be equipped with new hardware every few years in line with the progress of their CPD training.

Perhaps, instead of kitting out computer labs with equipment that is in danger of passing its use-by date after five years, once the right network infrastructure is in place how about a policy of ensuring every student is individually equipped with an adequate computer that can accompany them for the five or six years of their secondary education?

Again, this is where the CIO could step in. This isn’t about salespeople winning big commissions through equipping schools with fleets of Surface tablets or iPads school-by-school, it is about defining in a technology-neutral way what is an adequate computer for a school career.

In the business world, CIOs are becoming focused on the overall product strategy of a company through a digital lens, something that is different from the old ‘keep the lights on’ culture. This is possible because much of the work takes place in the cloud and workers are given the means to access the cloud individually.

Any future equipment plan needs to take into account economic realities too. Not every parent can afford the same hardware for their kids: baseline expectations need to be set and managed in terms of what a useful computer should cost and what it should be in terms of processor, screen, USB ports, storage, connectivity and graphics. It doesn’t matter if it is a Windows 10 machine or a Mac running OS X or an iPad or Android tablet, so long as it is a level playing field and no child gets left behind in terms of performance or affordability.

The goalposts will constantly change and this is where realistic governance of IT in education will be key.

Policies around repair, security and safety of these machines and networks would also be needed and, again, that’s something the CIO could help define.

The days of just buying computers as part of a grandstand investment and good PR for the politicians and tech firms need to end.

Once a baseline has been established in terms of consistent connectivity, CPD for teachers and access to hardware for teachers and students alike, the stop-start cycle should end.

As the bishop said, we need to invest in the future of our children. As decades of failed computers for schools initiatives have shown, if we fail to prepare, we may as well prepare to fail.

It is a different era. And kids will need every fighting chance.

Computers in schools image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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