Powering up our education system

26 Nov 2007

“When I go into class, I have to power down.” Those were the words of a schoolchild at a digital education conference in San Francisco earlier this year.

These words demonstrate some of the challenges facing the education sector in getting to grips with ICT. How do schools get students using technology as fluently as they do in their personal life in a controlled, educational context?

It’s a question the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) is constantly working on. In the future, schoolchildren will not only bring their ICT skills into class but also their ICT equipment, believes Jerome Morrissey, director of the NCTE.

“I can see a day when kids will bring in their own intelligent devices for use in the classroom. We have to allow these tools to be used as they are more familiar than a biro to kids at this stage. The trick is; how do you manage the introduction of these gadgets in an organised way so that it doesn’t become a distraction but an aid to learning?”

It’s not all about hi-tech gadgets: the ubiquitous mobile phone will have a great role to play, predicts Morrissey. “The next round of software coming with the O2 mobile phone will allow you do all kinds of blogging and web development and will have massive storage space. The mobile phone is being treated effectively as a computer now.”

Careful consideration will have to be given to how these ICT elements are incorporated. Ireland is not alone in entering uncharted territory in this field. There is little precedence internationally that could point the way forward to smoothly making the transition to a digital classroom. Taking it one step at a time seems to be the only option.

Where authorities have embarked on major changes, the results have been mixed. In the US, the authorities in Maine spent millions providing each schoolchild with a laptop. According to Morrissey, there is some fallout from this initiative, with many parents complaining the laptops have become a distraction for their children rather than an aid to learning. It has introduced other problems, such as students surfing illicit and pornographic websites outside the school gates instead of going home.

So far, Irish attempts to turn the page into the digital age have been well received. Some 97.7pc of Irish schools are connected to the school broadband network and more wireless alternatives being offered throughout the country by a variety of providers means prospects for 100pc coverage soon are good. However, over 1,000 schools are connected via satellite, which is not ideal due to the high prices and high contention ratios.

Nevertheless, some schools that started out with 1Mbps broadband a few years now have speeds of 4Mbps or 5Mbps without any increase in cost. This growth in bandwidth will be crucial to the delivery of the next wave of educational content, which will increasingly incorporate video and audio material along with text and images.

Scoilnet is the main resource portal for teachers and students in Ireland. The site has been very successful. There are now just under 9,000 curricular weblink reviews on the site, providing curriculum-relevant material for each subject, and these are added to on an ongoing basis. The content is sourced and vetted by teachers who work short-terms contracts for the NCTE.

Traffic to the site has been growing steadily year on year. During the second week of the current school year 5,500 links were accessed through Scoilnet a total of 26,500 times.

The current development phase of Scoilnet is focused on converging a number of different elements: linking Scoilnet to the LDAP system to provide personalised content for users; incorporating new services, email, webcasts, blogs, media streaming and video conferencing; providing access to digital reference content through the Scoilnet search function; enabling single log-on to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE); and adding content management tools for the development of school and personal websites. The success of the site proves a golden rule of education: if the content is appropriate, relevant and organised properly, people will use it.

“The biggest problem for any teacher is being faced with a mountain of material. It is no use to tell teachers we’re going to make 100,000 geography websites available to you. But if you can say to them ‘here is six or eight pieces of content which will help meet a curriculum objective’ you’re helping the teacher do their job better and helping the student improve their learning,” says Morrissey.

Digital content can make a real difference in education. With the introduction of a new history syllabus last year, teachers had to get trained up. NCTE worked with the trainers to create a site, Look at History, which made contextualised RTE archive footage available to the teachers who were training. As a result, 85pc of those history teachers now use the Look at History site to prepare classes.

Social networking is another topic the NCTE must negotiate with schools and parents. “We would like to see a social networking component introduced,” says Morrissey. “We’re probably the greatest nation of social networkers in terms of numbers of people who have joined the likes of Bebo and Facebook. The problem is finding an organised methodology to introduce that. You’re up against well-established good practice. You don’t want to compromise the learning environment so you have to introduce these things incredibly carefully.

“It’s something that will come in slowly but the first attitude you have to have is that you want to bring these skills in. I would like to see schools start off having VLEs in terms of their web presence: you would have teachers building more content and sharing it through the school VLE system and then you’d have kids developing and sharing content. If you look at social networking outside the school environment, this is how kids are using it already.”

Morrissey recently chaired a strategy group into how the €252bn earmarked for ICT in schools under the National Development Plan is to be spent. The group is ready to submit its recommendations to the Minister for Education.

While he is unable to disclose the finer details until the minister evaluates the proposals, it’s certain that upgrading the aging computers that populate Irish schools will be one of the recommendations. After all, an NCTE report published at the end of last year found that one in five computers in post-primary schools doesn’t work and 19pc of working computers are over six years old.

Next year will also see telcos competing for the new schools’ broadband tender. We might not be at the stage yet where kids have to power up to go to school, but hopefully it won’t be long before they at least don’t notice the transition.

By Niall Byrne