Building an advanced syllabus with broadband

8 Apr 2004

Every Tuesday for the last few weeks, fifth-class students at Mater Dei Primary School have been working in teams to build models of their school using Lego. The well-crafted models have a number of eye-catching features such as the grotto in the schoolyard complete with plasticine figurines inside. Their sixth-class colleagues have ventured outside the school gates: they have taken local landmarks such as the Guinness headquarters in St James’ Gate or cranes on a Liberties building site as the inspiration for their creations.

Although it may not seem like it, this all-girl national school is one of a number in the Liberties area of Dublin taking part in an ambitious educational experiment that is using a variety of means to help engage schoolchildren in technology.

The experiment is the brainchild of the Liberties Learning Initiative, the south-inner-city based education and training organisation and part of the Digital Hub.

The Initiative receives funding from the Department of Education & Science through the National Centre for Technology in Education, which funds professional development courses for teachers and supplies a seconded teacher to the organisation. The Initiative also has a number of corporate sponsors. Diageo Ireland, whose headquarters are in St James’ Gate, has been a leading supporter of the project since it began 18 months ago, to the extent that the programme is now officially known as the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative. The drinks company, which traditionally draws much of its workforce from the Liberties, provided funding of €1.3m during the first phase of the initiative and is now believed to be committing a further €1.3m for the 2004 – 2005 period.

The thrust of the Initiative is digital literacy – providing the local community with the opportunities to acquire the skills needed to live in a digital age and to work in the digital media industry, which will be located on their doorstep. It comprises four elements: school, community, enterprise learning and showcasing.

Given its overlap with community, it is not surprising that education has been the focal point of much of the organisation’s work so far. The projects are devised in such as way that they touch on many different subjects within the curriculum, including English, art and history, as well as technical subjects like mathematics.

An important feature of these educational initiatives is that technology, rather than being stuck in a computer room, is brought right into the classroom. With ‘Empowering Minds’, the official name for the Lego project, digital cameras are used to take photos of particular buildings or objects that are then recreated in the classroom while pupils have to install special motors that drive automatic gates and cars within the models.

Another project, Digital Storytelling, aims to build on the Liberties’ tradition of storytelling, using digital audiovisual skills and production processes. In all, over 210 students are participating in the project using technologies such as digital cameras, mini-disc recorders and laptops. The project will result in their stories being published on CD, DVD, the web and in print, as well as featuring in a video documentary on the whole process.

Both projects have delighted and surprised all those who have been involved: pupils, teachers and educationalists. Teachers at Mater Dei report keen interest from children.

“The girls absolutely love it, they thoroughly enjoy it,” says Sinead Fowler, fifth class teacher and IT co-ordinator at the school. “I have one child who’s extremely shy. She’s really shone at the Lego work and has become the problem solver of the group.”

Her colleague, sixth class teacher Olive Sheehan, is equally impressed. “We couldn’t have guessed how popular it would be. Especially because they are girls, I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t be very interested in the model-building but they have taken to it extremely well. Their enthusiasm is amazing.”

But it is not only the child that benefits: so too can teachers. There are professional development opportunities for teachers, many of whom would admit to having had little previous exposure to technology. The Digital Storytelling project has involved intensive teacher training over the past number of months in digital media skills. Some 25 teachers are participating in the programme.

“It’s a great opportunity for a teacher to be able to use different types of technology. Even if I had not been IT co-ordinator I would have volunteered to get involved,” says Fowler.

The schools programme entered a significant new phase recently with the arrival of broadband. All 16 primary and secondary schools within the Digital Hub catchment area were recently kitted out with broadband, thanks to a €250,000 project funded by Smart Telecom.

Up until now, the schools have had ISDN at best. “Trying to run 10 to 15 machines off that has proven problematic,” notes John Hurley, head of learning initiatives at the Digital Hub. “As an educator, always-on internet is the way we have to go, otherwise it’s going to be restricted in terms of how it’s used.”

The system uses 34Mbps point-to-multipoint wireless technology to deliver broadband internet from a transmitter on top of the Guinness Storehouse (the tallest local building) to receivers on the roof of each school. The service delivers broadband at impressive speeds of 4.5Mbps, about ten times faster than standand 512Mbps DSL. In addition, in the first deployment of its kind in Ireland, Smart has installed Powerline Conversion Technology which uses the schools’ own electrical wiring as the conduit for broadband. Schools are also equipped with special devices that are used to connect laptops to the mains.

According to Hurley, the provision of broadband has allowed it to widen the scope of its schools programmes. “We have fibre here in the Hub but that wouldn’t reach all of the 16 schools. Using wireless broadband, it has given us the opportunity to widen the impact of the project.”

But it will only ever be an enabler, he stresses. “From an educational point of view we’re trying to get broadband out of the computer room into the classroom. It’s there that it will be much more effective.”

By Brian Skelly

Pictured with John Hurley, head of the Liberties Learning Initiative are Mater Dei Primary School students Amy Knowles, Ailish Jolley and Kym Fitzsimons, with teacher Olive Sheehan (back)