The fast lane


2 Oct 2011

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While the Government rolled out 100Mbps broadband to 78 schools across the country, many more lag behind. LAURA O’BRIEN finds out why high-speed broadband is as essential as electricity for education today.

While 99pc of Irish schools have internet connectivity, be it through wireless, lease line, DSL or satellite, high-speed broadband is only a reality for some.

After the pilot rollout of 100Mbps broadband to 78 second-level Irish schools, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabitte took the opportunity to emphasise the need to bring this to all schools.

“ICT skills are in strong demand in Ireland and internationally and the availability of highly skilled graduates in this area is a priority, so that Ireland can reap the full reward of our digital economy – in terms of jobs and the continued growth of the vibrant ICT sector in Ireland,” he said Rabbitte.

“Our aim is to ensure that the current and future generation of second-level pupils have the skills and competencies to fully embrace the challenges and opportunities of the digital age."

Currently, the time frame for the next phase of this programme has yet to be announced, with the financing of the initiative under consideration in budgetary discussions. If Ireland wishes to build smart schools to make students skilled with technology, the infrastructure needs to be there.

Substandard connectivity is not enough.

“Infrastructure is critical. It’s not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a necessity,” says Fiona O’Carroll, executive VP at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).

“As I think about education and the next wave of students coming through that are going to hugely influence the longer term outcomes for the economy, I think the investment in infrastructure is absolutely critical from an education point of view.

"When you go into a school, you expect to have electricity and heating – that’s the way we need to think about broadband."

Countries such as Finland have already made broadband access a legal right, promising to ensure that everyone has 100Mbps connectivity by 2015. The perception that broadband is a luxury needs to stop if Ireland wants to stand out on a global scale.

"We just need to completely change the way we think about it and the reason for that is if our vision is that we’re going to become a global player in a digital world, then it is increasingly important that our education strategies reflect that," says O’Carroll.

FACTS AND FIGURES

■ The €13m Broadband to Schools Scheme was launched in 2010 by the then-Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan, delivering 100Mbps broadband to 78 second-level Irish schools
■ Eighty per cent of Irish second-level students learn about ICT outside the classroom, according to research from the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition

The benefits of fast broadband for education are countless. Teachers can use this faster connection to access vast resources, including multimedia learning content which could be accessed in seconds on faster broadband speeds compared to hours on slower connections.

"The Government is doing what it can do and it has very definite policies in regards to broadband in schools," says Oliver Carey, country manager at Toshiba Ireland. "But I don’t think people really appreciate the difference that high-speed broadband can make when used correctly, for example, for videoconferencing and for bringing down digital books.

"I think we are slipping behind a bit. There are pockets of excellence, and a lot of that excellence is a combination of Government policy and the schools. I see it in my own locality where some schools have high-speed broadband but others are still on dial up or they can’t access broadband and have to go for a satellite solution."

Greater accessibility to high-speed broadband in schools will reduce the digital divide, letting all students experience what the internet can offer as opposed to the lucky few. It will help every student become better equipped for the future working world as technology evolves and communications change.

"It’s a bit unsatisfactory that we have this digital divide between some rural areas, urban areas and others. It shouldn’t really be the luck of the draw of where you go to school, whether you have high speed broadband or otherwise," says Carey.

"It should be as essential as heating and light because it definitely restricts what teachers can do if they can’t access that information quickly."

Most students’ experience of the internet is limited to how they use it in their leisure time at home where they may have faster connections.

Rather than cut those digital ties when the student leaves their house and enters the classroom, why not tailor these skills to help them study and work better within school?

"When they enter the classroom, they should still have that same experience because we’ve a big disconnect right now between a student’s experiences outside the classroom versus inside the classroom," says O’Carroll. "We need to align that but for better learning outcomes, so that we can engage with students in a totally different way and we can also individualise their instruction which will have a transforming effect."

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