The five minute CIO: Ger O’Sullivan

12 Apr 2013

Ger O'Sullivan, head of ICT policy with the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals

Ger O’Sullivan, head of ICT policy with Ireland’s National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, outlines why the new junior cycle can be an opportunity to foster technology in new ways for students.

What is the NAPD’s role?

The role of the NAPD as a professional organisation for principals and deputy principals is a representative and advisory role for its members, who are principals and deputy principals. It has a consultative role with the Department of Education and the likes of representative bodies, like the NCCA, for curriculum development, and we also liaise with industry, for example, like software companies.

Specifically, where does technology fit into the association’s remit?

I chair the ICT committee and it’s an exciting committee to chair because technology is revolutionising schools. Take one-to-one computing. In my own school, as an example [Coláiste Chiaráin in Limerick], we’ve had it for the last 12 years. Every single student gets their own laptop, the technology is really maturing and technologies like tablets, mobile and wireless devices are becoming real and tangible for schools. In the last two years, publishers are coming along with e-books.

Take for example our own school, 100pc of the teaching staff have their own notebook or tablet computer and they use these daily for content creation collaboration and in their day-to-day teaching. This technology has been funded by teachers themselves with the support of the school. 

Each of our classrooms is equipped with a computer, data projector, etc which was funded by the DES ICT initiatives.

The fact that wireless is stable and industry standard – it goes back to the ‘anytime, anywhere’ concept. The students we’re dealing with now are absolute digital natives. Technology and mobile computing is what they do.

How are initiatives like one-to-one computing funded?

Ultimately, they have to be funded in a way that’s sustainable or organic so ultimately it is funded by the parents. Through a mechanism like e-book rentals, there are costs that would have been going on books that can now be placed on technology. We find in our own school that increasingly more and more students are bringing in their own devices, be they tablets or notebooks.

But isn’t there still a real risk of a digital divide – that students in poorer areas could lose out?

Therein lies the challenge and opportunity for principals. Specific areas will have specific challenges.

The price point for technology has come down these years. You know of some schools where they will assist parents in paying for technology over a period of time.

Also, if schools buy in bulk they have an ability to leverage bulk discounts. The price point for a notebook a few years ago was €1,000. Now, €400 will get you an excellent tablet. We’re currently trialling a Nexus tablet which costs €300 and by any standards, that’s affordable.

Then when you look at costs like books, when those costs can be put through the device with e-books, it makes it more tangible.

We don’t have a model like in the States, where there’s technology placed in the hands of every student, so schools need to be creative.

How close are you to achieving this goal of a computing device for every student?

I think nationally a lot of schools are close to this, and a lot of schools are in the process of considering this. The new junior cycle is a huge opportunity for schools to embrace this technology and to teach and learn in a different way.

The challenges schools have had was programming and software application development needed to be mainstream, and that wasn’t possible before. Now, schools are being given the flexibility to write short courses. We run courses in innovation, entrepreneurship, digital media creation, and software engineering for gaming and programming.

Now in schools they do a reduced junior cycle which allows more scope for more subjects. You can teach programming on the curriculum.

From a schooling perspective, are there any lessons from the likes of Nick D’Aloisio, or is a 17-year-old student who sells his company to Yahoo! just an outlier?

He could be an outlier. And you have the Collisons who come from Limerick and their company Stripe was valued at US$1bn recently – are they just outliers? Schools are the incubation centres for all of these entrepreneurs. We have first-year students writing Android apps, we have fourth-year students the length and breadth of the country writing code.

In many ways, the digital natives we’re dealing with now are going to be far more informed and will have more experience of coding and programming. There are jobs and opportunities that weren’t even there five years ago.

Technology is powering this revolution. The new junior cycle will give fantastic flexibility for schools to innovate. And it sets a challenge for schools to cater for the students you’re talking about.

How is the 100Mbps broadband for schools initiative progressing? There’s been criticism in some quarters that maybe schools don’t need as much capacity as that?

Having 100Mbps broadband for schools is a fantastic project. I believe all schools need it, it really is phenomenal. If you were in industry, you would have to have it. Schools right now are considering things like e-books. We ourselves [at Coláiste Chiaráin] have used e-books exclusively for the past two years.

The next iteration of content will be about schools creating and curating their own content. Without connectivity, all of those mobile computing devices would be insular and it would be difficult to develop.

If you are in a school of 800 or 900 students, for all of the activities, down to collaborating and communicating, that level of broadband is needed.

Teaching and learning is going to be fundamentally different going forward. Classrooms aren’t going to be as structured. Classrooms can be round-room conference-style, with students engaging in more explorative learning. If we’re talking about fostering the entrepreneurs, creators and thinkers, we have to teach and engage differently with students, and being connected powers all of that.

Schools are now considering the cloud for storage, then you have Google, which is powerful and it’s free, and you need always-on connectivity for that. The 100Mbps broadband is a huge step in that direction.

Will cloud computing have a real effect on teaching and schooling?

It will change the game. As to where the cloud is at, if you look at mobile and tablet computing, that has matured … The best example is Google Apps and all schools across the country should be using that.

Now, 40pc of a student’s assessment can be based on a portfolio and this can now be based in the cloud and the student can carry a learning diary. There’s a huge opportunity from a learning point of view. Also, people could log into a digital resource for assessments.

What does your own perspective from working in the private sector give you in your current role?

One of the biggest things, schools need to take business solutions and empower them for teaching and learning.

I think there are huge opportunities for schools to liaise with industry. More and more, if you look at the new programming courses, they’re being developed with and through industry. We’re introducing Chinese this year, as are many schools.

Personally speaking, one of my most formative experiences was working in the world of industry. For schools in many ways are businesses: they’re in the business of teaching, learning and education.

For example, schools are enterprises and they need enterprise-level solutions. A school of 1,000 people connected – 900 students plus teachers and support staff of around 100 – is as big as any blue-chip multinational that would have a presence in the country.

I’m 12 years in my current school and I’ve been working through all of the iterations of Wi-Fi and the cloud and why so many schools are jumping now, the white papers are there, the models are there. It’s kind of a perfect storm really.

The technology for students is all pervasive. We grew into it, they grew up with it.

What are the NAPD’s short-term and longer-term targets for technology?

The new junior cycle is in its infancy, starting with pilot schools at the moment. There is an opportunity here nationally. From 2014, it is going to be mainstream. The short-term target is to get as many educators as enthused as possible.

In a slightly longer term, if we transform our Junior Certificate, we can transform our senior cycle: anything that helps us, as schools, to nurture the talent and help them find their careers and their passion and move them to third level and beyond to see these changes all the way through the whole curriculum.

I think the figures bear this out, when you look at science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM] – there are 3,000-4,000 jobs nationally being unfilled. As an organisation we would be raising concerns to our members. And these are not just concerns, they’re opportunities.

I would contend that the quality of students taking the courses makes them probably far more discerning as opposed to five years ago. Students are probably arriving to courses now with far more knowledge and far more hands-on experience and they’re making more informed choices.

One of things we’re doing in next few weeks is planning on launching a blog as a showcase for ICT excellence. I’ve a particular interest in what industry thinks, in opening up the minds of managers of the likes of Google and EMC, and what education can do to interface with them.

Ger O’Sullivan gave a presentation on the junior cycle as part of this year’s NAPD annual conference. His presentation runs from 21:20 to 38:45 and the entire video gives a sense of the opportunity presented by the new junior cycle. The NAPD has also launched an educational news app on iTunes and the Google Play store. 

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic