Back of the class for IT in education

27 Apr 2006

The stark difference between the approach to IT investment in schools in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a serious cause for concern.

In Northern Ireland some US$100m is being invested as part of a Classroom 2000 initiative to enable education authorities to proceed with a 10-year plan to give all students from primary to university level access to their own PC, email address and broadband access.

The programme, run by the Western Education and Library Board, involves 900 primary and 250 post-primary schools throughout the province and serves some 350,0000 students and teachers. It comprises between 60,000 and 70,000 PCs distributed across Northern Ireland.

In the Republic, by comparison, last year Minister for Education Mary Hanafin TD announced a €20m investment in IT systems for schools to complement an €18m broadband investment by the Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

Proponents of technology in the Irish education system have been calling for some time now for a top-down investment in ICT. However, teachers and industry leaders say what is needed is a far-reaching policy of not only deploying hardware, software and broadband but actually putting computers at the heart of the school curriculum where they become a part of the learning process for students’ own development as well as teachers’ professional development.

Industry leaders and teachers agree that failure to act now could have significant ramifications for the Irish economy in the years to come as students emerging into the workforce will lack ICT skills.

Martin Murphy, general manager of HP Ireland, says there is a real danger of a north-south digital divide emerging. “It is ironic in the sense that we in the south have spent the past decade claiming one of the primary qualities of Ireland Inc is the qualified pool of graduates we have — the profit of 20 years of investment in the education system. If we apply the same logic nowadays, the Irish Government needs to invest now for the Ireland of the next 20 years.

“The best way to describe the Irish Government’s investment in ICT for education is ‘piecemeal’. I don’t believe that a sufficient blueprint has been put in place. This must be a primary item on the Government’s agenda.

“The investment 20 or 30 years ago in Ireland’s education system which brought about the boom of the Nineties and today was the best money ever spent. Every schoolchild in Ireland should have access to technology. The Government must right now set itself the target of making sure that every pupil in every school in Ireland is in contact with technology,” he said.

The general manager of Microsoft in Ireland Joe Macri believes that failure to address ICT shortfalls in the Irish education system now will impact the nation’s productivity in the long term. “A centralised policy is critical to righting this situation. Because some schools are in a particular area or just don’t have the funds some schools will be better at technology than others and we’ll create a digital divide. That’s grossly unfair and the result of that will be seen when ex-students enter the workforce.

“Everybody is clear about the role technology plays in productivity. The current Irish economy is built on the production of ICT: Microsoft, Dell, Intel and HP for example have all derived value out of Ireland and are exporting it. It is therefore frustrating to say: ‘Why is Ireland so great at exporting ICT but not at consuming it?'”

Macri doesn’t believe the Republic needs to copy the Northern Ireland investment model. “What we do need to do is have an education policy that links with economic policy. It is clear what is needed but the implementation will be hard. What I would say to Government is this: ‘If this was your family what would you invest in the most?’ There’s something there to reflect on.”

Two years ago IBEC-based lobby group the Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) said that its members would commit €15m toward ensuring that every primary and secondary school in Ireland would have access to broadband. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (DCMNR) agreed to provide €3m towards the project.

This investment is being matched by a further €20m investment by the Department of Education and Science in terms of internal communications infrastructure for the schools. Critics, however, have argued that more needs to be done to marry up these two strands in terms of curriculum, teacher training and technical support.

Tommy McCabe, director of TIF, when asked about the need for a long-term ICT policy for the Irish education system says he believes industry has done its part and its investment is contingent on Government doing its part too. “There was a Memorandum of Understanding signed between TIF and DCMNR. We are pleased that the first phase of this investment in broadband is proceeding. However, the success of phase one is contingent on phase two (which relates to technology in schools) being delivered by the Department of Education.

“There is no point in doing this unless the broadband is going to be utilised. This requires trained teachers having access to appropriate content, backup for the systems, maintenance and a built-in strategy for all schools to utilise broadband connectivity as part of the overall teaching curriculum.

“There certainly would be a deep concern in the industry that this initiative would be fully utilised. We expect, and have been given assurances by the Government, that the broadband connectivity would be utilised and the resources for schools put in place. Time will tell, of course,” McCabe concluded.

Schools still struggling with Windows 95

Robbie O’Leary is the principal of the Sacred Heart Senior National School in Killinarden, Tallaght, a school that despite being in a disadvantaged area of Dublin has been cited an example of an Irish school’s enlightened approach to deploying technology in education.

The school recently hosted the Digital Schools Award Initiative, attended by the Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin TD, aimed at recognising excellence in a school’s approach to the integration of ICT in teaching and learning. Despite this O’Leary is far from happy and hits out at the lack of a serious ICT strategy for the Irish education system since the IT2000 programme, the Government’s last major technology for schools initiative, was allowed to peter out.

“One in every three computers sold in Europe is built in Ireland and we are the second-largest exporter of software in the world. Yet we have the second-lowest usage of computers in education in the industrialised world according to the OECD.”

Despite his school being a celebrated example of ICT in education and being a long-time advocate of technology himself, O’Leary reveals: “I have lots of Windows 95 and 98 computers in my school and I can’t afford to update them. We have computers in every classroom but we also have a computer room with 11 PCs — seven of these are courtesy of Tesco. I know of schools where they’ve got more equipment from Tesco than from the Irish Government. That sums it up for me.”

Teachers call for revival of cohesive ICT strategy

A tireless campaigner for a cohesive ICT policy as well as a top-down investment in hardware and software is Seaghan Moriarty, a former primary teacher who also lectures at third level. He has worked as webmaster for primary teacher’s union INTO and was a recipient of the Irish Internet Association’s NetVisionary Award in 2004.

Moriarty believes that throwing €20m here, €18m there and a further €25m somewhere else is not the answer. “As much as 94pc of Irish schoolteachers do not use technology in their schoolwork,” he says.

Pointing to a situation whereby on average a teacher wishing to use a computer to prepare a lesson for students would use an old Windows 98 machine groaning under the weight of spyware (most of which is porn related), Moriarty says advocates of computing in schools are accessing a combination of freeware and open source software to complement their efforts. “Some of us are using a s freeware programme called Photo Story 3, but you need Windows XP for that. Some are using a freeware image editing programme from Google called Picasa. Open source software in the form of StarOffice 8 is also proving popular. But only a handful of teachers are aware of these resources.”

Moriarty says that if the Department of Education were to develop a far-reaching policy it would have to include a number of facets. “As well as the infrastructure you need to consider the present curriculum. A major review of curriculum was conducted in recent years and ICT was totally forgotten and wasn’t integrated. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which decides what Irish teachers teach, needs to be involved.

“The department doesn’t have a policy on the use of technology and this represents a pure lack of vision. €20m on infrastructure and €18m on broadband only goes so far.”

Recalling the IT2000 programme, Moriarty says that despite overwhelming support from teachers the programme was allowed to peter off and die. “There was disconnection on a lot of levels. It achieved a lot of momentum and support from teachers but the plan didn’t take into account integrating technology into the curriculum nor teachers’ professional development. Computers deployed around IT2000 began breaking down and there wasn’t enough technical support. You could see motivation amongst teachers for ICT dropping from 2001 onwards.”

Another problem affecting the development of a cohesive long-term vision for ICT in Irish primary and secondary schools is training support. Moriarty points to the National Council for Technology in Education (NCTE), which is responsible for training and supporting schools, and the situation whereby NCTE workers are employed on year-long contracts only.

“Technology facilities vary from school to school. Most have no budget for IT so it’s a combination of fundraising and utilising the Tesco Computers for Schools initiative or the efforts of parents’ organisations or contacts in the business community. This is unacceptable,” warns Moriarty. He estimates: “Ireland would need to put in €300m over the next few years, supported by a strong policy document for ICT in education.”

One school to benefit from having a strong industrial neighbour is Colaiste Chiarain in Croom, Limerick. PC manufacturer Dell, which employs more than 3,000 people in the Limerick area, invested €400,000 in the past five years in kitting out every student in the school with laptop computers. Since then the school has deployed a wireless network, supported its teachers’ personal investment in laptop computers and has employed the use of digital video technology to support lessons ranging from science to woodwork. Teachers use personal digital assistants (PDAs) to monitor attendance.

Dell spokesperson Annette Condon explains: “The principal of Colaiste Chiaran Noel Malone came to us with a vision and the goal was to design and implement a fully wireless school with each kid having their own laptop that they could bring home at night. Principal Malone sees technology as an enabler. It doesn’t replace pen and paper but creates a lot more options in researching material and making learning more interactive. Kids have said that it has broken down boundaries between home and school and parents have signed up for adult education classes. This can happen in other schools too if people have a partnership and a vision and are prepared to drive that forward.”

Principal Malone says: “While the project wouldn’t have happened without Dell it is now a self-sustaining project. Parents, teachers and the community made that investment, not the Government or an outside agency.”

He continues: “Every one of my 55 teachers has a laptop, each has made a personal investment in this as the school contributes €150 towards the cost and they pay the rest off on direct debit over the school year. The result of this is that you have a digitally equipped staff. This is something that could save the situation in Ireland, equipping teachers with laptops. It is the teachers themselves who can drive an ICT strategy forward if they are given the tools and support.

“There was a hugely positive reaction amongst teachers to the IT2000 plan. Teachers who had been teaching for decades embraced it. Unfortunately it wasn’t sustained and the opportunity was lost. A few years ago, when the Government and unions were negotiating a Partnership for Progress, one of the proposals was that teachers would get a tax-free deduction or a grant of €600 or so towards a laptop. This was a very visionary approach and really would have made the difference, but nothing happened,” says Malone.

Principal Robbie O’Leary in Killinarden agrees with Malone that the IT2000 initiative was allowed to fizzle out and a major opportunity was lost. “Money was put in, structures were put in place and the NCTE was launched. However, it quickly became clear to us that this initiative had its origins in political expediency rather than educational aims.”

O’Leary says the lack of strategy or policy will affect Ireland in the years to come. “Countries like Hungary, Mexico and India will in 10 years’ time have the competitive advantage we have now because a clued in and knowledgeable workforce in Ireland could be eliminated.”

O’Leary says that it would be wrong to lay blame for the current ICT shortfall at the door of the current Minister for Education Mary Hanafin. “This is a problem that goes back to even before Ministers Dempsey or Woods. However, I believe Minister Hanafin has an opportunity to address the problem and do everyone a big favour. A policy document would be an enormous help.

“Rats and roofs is a term that’s been used in her time to hit at the problems in the education system in relation to school facilities, special needs and disadvantaged schools. If you look just at special needs alone, ICT has a huge role to play as it helps to engage children in learning in a way that no other resource can.”

By John Kennedy