Changing the face of education

27 Apr 2004

If a visit from EU top brass is a barometer of a school’s success, then St Joseph’s Primary School in Dundalk has a lot to feel pleased about. Last week, EU Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen accompanied communications minister Dermot Ahern TD to the school to learn more about a pioneering ICT initiative that is widely regarded as one of the best examples in the State of technology applied to education. It is the second time the school has played host to an EU commissioner in the last five years.

On the face of it, St Joseph’s is not the likeliest candidate for such a project. Located in a housing estate near the town centre, it carries official ‘disadvantaged’ school status. Opened in 1979, its student numbers peaked at 850 during the height of the population boom in the late Eighties and have now fallen to 420. Non-nationals make up a small but growing proportion of its student population.

Despite the challenges it faces, the school has made tremendous strides in recent years. Thanks to increased funding from the Department of Education, the number of teaching staff at the school has grown from 28 to 34, even as student numbers have halved. Under the progressive regime of school principal Gerry Murphy, the school has made tremendous strides in a number of areas, not least ICT.

St Joseph’s is one of 17 Dundalk schools – and among 22 nationwide – to participate in a US$2m pilot scheme to improve ICT skills and communication. A partnership between IBM and the Department of Education and Science, each of which contributed US$1m to the programme, ‘Wired for Learning’ (WfL) was launched in 1998 and has since become a key strand within the Schools Integration Project (SIP), an initiative established by the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) to pilot innovative ICT-based projects in partnership with industry, community and third-level institutions.

In March 2000, Dundalk become the third WfL site in Ireland after Blakestown in Dublin and Cobh in Co Cork. In all three locations, the programme provides a secure web environment aimed at developing the use of ICT for the school community including teachers, students, parents and industry mentors. This web-based programme is made up of a suite of tools that support communication, team-working and learning.

For example, as part of one exercise called ‘E-tivities’, a group of children is set a task by their industry liaison – an IBM mentor based in Dublin. Tasks can be set in a range of subjects from history to science. Children are given two to three weeks to work together online and in class and come up with a finished document.

From the beginning, it was understood by those involved in the Dundalk project that it would not work if it simply involved bringing computers and other hardware to the schools. It was seen as important that a full-time co-ordinator was appointed to manage the project from launch. Fulfilling this role for Dundalk is John Rust, a qualified teacher who, seconded from the NCTE, describes his role as to liaise with the project partners, be creative in the use of technology and support the teachers on a day-to-day basis.

Rust feels that preparing children for the working world is ultimately what WfL is all about. “It’s a way of helping the children to build up the skill-sets they need for the rest of their lives.”

Gerry Murphy, principal at St Joseph’s, offers a similar perspective. “I think it helps us to teach children to educate themselves. Education is now life-long and I think technology helps that.”

Murphy feels one the groundbreaking aspects of the project is the way it has encouraged “human networking” and removed some traditional barriers that exist within teaching.

“Schools usually don’t talk to each other; they are in competition with each other,” he notes. “Also, teaching is very insular. Teachers are normally very isolated within their classroom; it’s their domain. Really and truly, technology has done a lot to break that down.”

Murphy’s claims are supported by a new report (‘Building a Networked Educational Community’) launched last week during Liikanen’s visit to Dundalk. The report was compiled by DCU researcher Dr Miriam Judge, who concluded that the project had demonstrated that “…schools can and will work together effectively for the greater good of the learning community… It has broken down some of the traditional barriers that have prevented schools, particularly primary and post-primary schools, communicating with each other in an educationally significant way.”

The report also found a number of other benefits such as skills development for teachers and students, the growth of external links with the community and the particularly positive impact of the project on disadvantaged schools.

Murphy believes the most important thing now is to learn the lessons from the project and apply them elsewhere. “The Irish tend to be very good innovators but we don’t sit down to analyse what we’ve done, see what the best practice is and apply it. I’m not saying that we have the best model here but it’s a very good model and it can be replicated.”

By Brian Skelly

Pictured demonstrating IBM’s Investment in education in Ireland and across Europe as part of the reinventing Education, Kidsmart Early Learning Programme in Ireland and the EU are, from left, Jason Connors, a pupil of St. Joseph’s National School, Dundalk; Michael Daly, Managing Director IBM Ireland; and Minister for Communications and Marine & Natural resources, Dermot Ahern, TD