Broadband will give schools more problems than content

1 Oct 2004

The Department of Communications has organised for broadband to be delivered to every Irish school but it will be a ‘pipe’ without a policy until the Department of Education steps up a gear

By this time next year all of Ireland’s schools will be provided with broadband access but precisely what they will be doing with it is far from clear. Tenders are in for the €18m project to bring broadband to every school and the successful bids are expected to be announced before Christmas, but there is growing concern in and around the education sector that fast broadband ‘pipes’ will present more challenges than solutions to a beleaguered school system.
Part of the problem is what happens after the ‘pipe’ arrives at 4,200 schools. In June this year the Department of Education and Science wrote to schools, inviting principals to make ready for broadband by applying for a grant towards building a local area network (LAN). A LAN is needed to distribute the high-speed access to the computers inside the school buildings.
While the main backbone for the proposed national schools network will be a managed service run by HEAnet (Ireland’s higher education network) and the ‘last mile’ connections will be taken care of by the successful bidders for the tender, the front end of the national infrastructure will be left to school teachers to organise for themselves.
Guy Johnston, consultant at European Communications Management, has seen the letter and worries about users “trudging through a field to get to the motorway”. He says: “If not implemented in a professional way the networks won’t stand the test of time and could be the location of many problems that will prevent users from getting on the digital highway.
“The guidelines are very loose,” he continues. “Many ‘IT suppliers’ [who are recommended in the letter to build the networks] do not have expertise in cabling. Schools should be talking to specialist cabling contractors.”
He identifies another shortfall in the documents sent out by the department. “There is one installation standard the network should comply to — ISO/IEC 11801. There is no mention of it. You can have all the components right but if you don’t have the correct installation standard you may not be able to run your data at the speeds you will want in the future.”
He goes on to say the specific equipment components outlined in accompanying guidelines leave the schools open to confusion. His fear is that a poorly constructed internal network will undermine the benefits of the broadband connectivity.
In its defence, John Fanning from the ICT Policy Unit in the Department of Education and Science argues that many schools are already well down the road and have established relationships with local suppliers. “They have already networked their facilities. In the applications that are coming in it’s clear that a lot of work has already been done. They might have expertise available locally, someone at the local community or someone on the parents’ committee. There are quite innovative solutions being adopted by schools in this area,” he says.
The experience of the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative, however — a public private partnership that has funded IT pilots across 16 Dublin schools — paints a very different picture. It would suggest that the schools may not be quite as proficient as they first appear.
“We’ve had schools that ring us up saying they have a network of computers and they don’t. They don’t even have the network card that they need to make one. One school had two separate networks and didn’t actually realise it,” says Michael Hallisy, director of learning. “It is going to be an issue going forward — teachers are not technicians.”
Fellow director John Hurley explains that school IT co-ordinators, the teachers charged with IT duties, are frequently out of their depth. “Some schools have good IT people in them, but in the main it’s a patchwork quilt in terms of how able they are from a technology perspective. Teachers are not prepared or equipped to manage these types of services. When we began bringing broadband into the classrooms we offered technical support two days a week thinking that would be enough. The demand is such that our technician is now working full-time,” he explains.
Gerard Kilkenny, a maths teacher at Palmerstown Community School who also acts as IT co-ordinator, is also concerned about the weight of expectation on teachers: “There should be a structured approach in terms of information to schools in relation to best practice. There’s a fair bit of material in the letter that the department sent out that’s quite complex for somebody from a non-technical point of view to understand,” he says. “Will they all know about wireless routers and wall cabinets? Can they make informed decisions on whether to go wireless rather than wired?”
Kilkenny also recognises the need for ongoing technical support: “Teachers don’t really have time to do it; some don’t have the skills so they’re going to end up contacting a vendor. It would be more cost-effective to set up clusters of support staff around the country.”
The Department argues that the 20 regional ICT advisors appointed by the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) fulfil this role, but Kilkenny says these former teachers do not possess the level of expertise: “I don’t think their brief is specifically to dovetail into the technology issues,” he says. “They offer support in terms of providing courses and access to those courses.”
Both Kilkenny and the Diageo team also have anecdotal evidence of schools falling victim to inept or unscrupulous vendors. “It’s a real problem,” says Kilkenny. “The Government should supply a layer of technical support.”
In the Department of Education, Fanning refutes the suggestion that a centralised approach to what happens inside the schools would be more cost-effective. “A national contract wouldn’t necessarily represent the best value solution. I wouldn’t accept that we’re losing out on economies of scale. We have to look at the budget we have available to us this year — it wouldn’t be sufficient to cover a national contract.”
The new grant of €6m tops up a previous fund that was offered at the end of last year, bringing the total investment in school networks to €12m. Johnston believes this kind of funding could have been much better spent on a national rollout, leveraging the advantages of bulk buying, which would also make it possible to build standardised installations.
What the funding doesn’t cover is the cost of upgrading the PCs that the network will link together. “Schools will have spent money on computer rooms where the PCs are now four or five years old. They can’t afford to replace all the PCs and put PCs into every classroom. Where’s the money going to come from?” asks Kilkenny.
“We are conscious of that,” says Fanning. “We’re working on our new strategy for funding and this is a matter that has to be considered. We are aware there are a sizeable number of computers that are getting near their sell-by date and we do need to provide replacements.”
Additional funding will be decided later in the year in the context of the Government’s new budget and estimates, which in turn will lead to the publication of the long-awaited ICT policy document for 2003-2007. It remains unclear if there will be any plans to introduce centrally managed purchasing for schools that are accustomed to buying autonomously.
Centrally managed purchasing is the route that has been adopted in the North where approximately €300m of the €600m allocation for Classroom 2000 project has been committed to private sector partnership contracts involving a variety of technology providers such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Cisco and Microsoft. Significantly, €300m has been held back to cover the upkeep of the infrastructure as well as future-proofing new technology trends, such as moving to wireless.
Speaking last year at a briefing, director of Classroom 2000 Jimmy Stewart said the development of a coherent and standard system was crucial: “We have learned it is vital to focus on service reliability as well as a stepped approach to achieving objectives. We want to develop a distributed learning environment that would enable children and teachers to interact across the network and we have the contracts in place to make it happen. We have been buying specific access software and managed services to make this learning environment available in the classroom.”
The Northern Ireland professionally managed approach is a long way from “someone on the parents committee” helping out the school. The closest the Republic comes to a national technical support service is a tender going out from the NCTE to establish a helpdesk for the schools to use. But as one insider put it: “In order to explain a problem you have to have an understanding of what the problem is. You also have to be able to try to implement the solution as you’re being talked through it. Are teachers going to be able to do it on top of their teaching post?”
The irony is there have been numerous IT pilot projects that have successfully demonstrated that a managed service can work. Noel Malone, principal at Colaiste Chiarán in Croom, Co Limerick, has been a beneficiary of the Intelligent Classroom project with Dell. His experience tells him that outside help is essential. “We deal with Dell and all technical support is handled centrally so the student doesn’t have to worry about it. The next business day it’s sorted; you’re not sitting on the phone for an hour,” he says. “If the Government spoke to IBM, or HP, or Dell, they would get a great deal. It could completely change the whole country. There has been a cut-off in direct support from the department and that is a pity.”
Compounding the service delivery problem is the question of content. Apart from a number of websites that have varying degrees of affiliation to the schools curriculum, there isn’t any. The NCTE’s site is being lined up as the key portal but plans are still sketchy. NCTE director Jerome Morrissey concedes there is a lot of work to do in this area: “We are in catch up and behind European states in terms of digital content.”
“We’re looking to complement the provision of broadband with good quality content,” says Fanning. “In the long term we’ll promote more Irish materials. Most of the software providers such as Riverdeep have been involved in the bigger overseas market but we obviously want to promote Irish tailored materials as well. We do intend to provide some content from an early date but it might not be from day one. We’re looking at how Scoilnet might link to existing educational websites.”
The problem, according to Michael Hallissy of the Liberties Learning Initiative, comes from the way the system is run. “Content providers such as Riverdeep aren’t even interested in the Irish market because there are 4,200 schools they would have to sell to. Each of the schools is a separate entity and makes its own decision when it comes to purchasing technology,” he says.
His colleague John Hurley picks up the point: “Basically, there’s no market in IT in education in Irish schools at the moment. There is a market at third level, where they get good service and there are high standards — the IT companies take an interest and look after it. At present there is no incentive for any of the big companies to look seriously at Irish schools. Companies can’t develop business plans for a schools IT market nor is there a mechanism for central purchasing agreements.”
The general feeling is that something other than broadband needs to happen quickly if Ireland is to take its reputation as a great educator into the new century.

Technology in schools: where has the money gone?
• The new ICT strategy document is expected to earmark €120m-€150m for the provision of equipment — hardware, software and associated technology — into schools to cover the period 2003-2007.
• In March this year the Government announced an €18m public private partnership programme to bring broadband to every primary and secondary school in the country by the end of 2005.
• A total of €109m was allocated in the preceding 2001-2003 strategy — €78.7m for capital investment, the remainder for teacher training — but this figure was revised downwards following a funding cut in the December 2002 Budget.
• The Schools IT 2000 programme, the first major national initiative aimed at upgrading ICT systems in Irish primary and secondary schools, ran between 1997 and 2000 and was given a budget of €50m.
• The cumulative investment has resulted in significantly more computers in schools. Since 2002, the pupil to computer ratio has improved from 18:1 to 11:1 in secondary schools and from 12:1 to 9:1 at primary level, according to the National Centre for Technology in Education. The Republic still compares unfavourably, however, with other OECD countries in terms of its deployment of computers in the classroom.

By Ian Campbell