Content coming to the classroom

4 Dec 2006

New digital content initiatives are under way from the NCTE (National Centre for Technology in Education) to make sure the schools broadband project is exploited to its full potential. With over 90pc of Ireland’s 4,000 school connected, the next challenge is to deliver education materials over the schools broadband network.

In the next few weeks a tender is expected from the NCTE calling for multiple content suppliers to deliver digital versions of traditional reference materials such as dictionaries, atlases and encyclopedias, as well as multimedia software that uses video and sound to enhance the learning experience.

“We want to buy in quality of material from respected sources but we’re also looking for suppliers who can respond to the market changes so that at some point in the future we might be defining content slightly differently,” says Mike O’Byrne, national co-ordinator for Scoilnet. “We want to put out a tender and see what we can get back from the market.”

A number of different models of procurement are being considered to provide access to a variety of content over the term of the contract. “We would like it to be accessed through the Scoilnet website though we wouldn’t necessarily host it ourselves,” says O’Byrne.

Scoilnet was developed by the Department of Education and Science for both primary and secondary schools. The plan is to make it the central portal for online education. Already it has benefited from increased hits as more schools make use of a broadband connection.

“The recent statistics for visitors to Scoilnet have increased in line with the rollout and we have particularly noticed an increase in traffic to the Scoilnet resource finder,” says O’Byrne.

This is a tool that allows teachers and students to interrogate a database of approximately 6,000 reviewed web links and resources. “The database is enabled so all resources can be searched at the curriculum topic and subtopic level,” explains O’Byrne. “All the web links reviewed and categorised in the finder are provided by Irish teachers. In addition, teachers have provided crosswords and quizzes to add revision and self-check activities to the content they have sourced.” and are two other Irish learning sites that are also proving popular in the classroom and among teachers.

The NCTE is also participating in a new EU-funded project on sharing educational content. The pan-European initiative got under way earlier this month when representatives from member States launched MELT (Metadata Ecology Learning and Teaching), a search interface for repositories of educational data.

The project involves 12 Ministries of Education and relevant regional bodies as well as commercial and non-profit making developers of learning content. The objective is to bring together a critical mass of existing educational materials which will be ‘tagged’ and made freely available to European schools for teachers and pupils. The project is expected to be completed by January 2009.

“It’s picking up on things we’ve seen on social networking sites like Bebo where images are tagged and shared,” says O’Beirne. “One project is to create a repository of images from Florence art galleries, for example. Irish primary school teachers will be able to tag them one way; leaving cert teachers can tag them differently. Another teacher can search through them according to all those tags.”

Content repositories in MELT will become a key component in plans to launch a pan-European Learning Resource Exchange (LRE). “The LRE is designed to address the demand from schools, Ministries of Education and other bodies for a system that will allow teachers and pupils across Europe to more easily locate, use and reuse both ‘open content’ and learning resources from commercial suppliers,” says O’Byrne.

As the first content projects get under way, questions still remain over how well prepared schools are to receive digital media. Tom Lonergan, technology co-ordinator at the NCTE, says that most schools now have a broadband connection but accepts there may be hardware issues still to resolve. “There is an ageing computer population out there because there hasn’t been a significant investment for a number of years, apart from schools that have invested off their own back,” he says.

“Some will argue that anything that isn’t Windows XP can’t be used for broadband,” says Lonergan. “I can see the point they’re making and I’m certainly not promoting the use of older machines, but older versions of Windows will work as long as the computer has a network connection and the browser is up to date.”

He also believes that schools have been given enough advice and grants to enable them to build workable networks. “The NCTE wrote guidelines for schools about networking and advised them how to engage with IT companies when it came to getting quotes and we put up a database of ICT companies on our web site.”

He sums up: “From the feedback we’re getting, schools that have moved to broadband for the first time are generally very happy.”

By Ian Campbell