Govt’s next ICT investment must focus on e-learning environments

18 Jan 2010

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As kids swarmed over the latest learning technologies at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition last week, it is clear the next phase of the Government’s investment in schools’ ICT must focus on the e-learning environment of kids at school and at home.

The recent and vital first step of investing €150 million to equip teachers with laptops and software as well as digital projectors for classrooms has been widely acclaimed. But it must also be universally recognised that this is a late first step on a longer journey if Ireland wants to produce the smart kids of the future.

The benefits of high-speed broadband to the learning environment were ably demonstrated in recent weeks, firstly by Microsoft and Dell, who showed how students in St Fintina’s Post Primary School Longwood in Meath could participate in a class that was being delivered in Dunshaughlin Community College. The students in Longwood were able to see, hear and interact with the teacher via a video link and are able to follow all teaching material shared from the teacher’s tablet PC.

Benefit of Moodle

The recent bad weather again showed how necessity is the mother of all invention when students at Rosemont Secondary School in Blackrock kept up to speed with teachers when they couldn’t get to school. Teachers simply uploaded school work and assignments into the school’s online learning management system, Moodle, deployed by Enovation, to enable students catch up with classes at home. Some 70pc of students from the school logged into Moodle during the bad weather.

“The students have set goals and are willing to work hard to achieve them. They want to do well and are getting ahead by going online to keep up with their studies and direct their own learning,” said Margaret Kelly, principal at Rosemont. “We were delighted to see them taking the initiative. It also gave them a forum to interact with teachers and with each other. It encompasses the ethos of our school; students taking ownership of their learning.”

“An event like this shows one of the real benefits of having e-learning in a school. It is all about accessibility and having materials available whenever and wherever the teachers and students have access to a PC and internet connection.” Gary Mahon, sales director at Enovation Solutions, a Moodle partner in Ireland.

Home-school link

At the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition last week, William McAuliffe, head of business development at BT, took me on a tour of a future schools demonstration area that involved C2K in Northern Ireland, IBM, Cisco, Smartboards and Scoilnet to demonstrate what would be possible if every school in Ireland had 100Mbps broadband.

“We wanted to show that there’s a link between the classroom itself and the home environment. We wanted to show that there is no reason for any student who wants to work from home for health, distance or climate reasons not to be connected to the school or classroom environment.”

At the stand kids swarmed all over the Smartboards computer table that ensured they all worked together as a team before completing a task on the touchscreen table top; meanwhile, others moved objects around the screen of a massive whiteboard that could be controlled from a teachers’ laptop. In fact, whiteboards located at various points throughout the large RDS exhibition all attracted a lot of attention from teachers and students.

Smaller kids sat inside the IBM Explorer machine, a PC built especially for junior infants. Pat Coffey of the NCTE demonstrated how teachers and students can now collaborate and share knowledge on the Scoilnet web portal, which now includes access to Encylopaedia Britannica content. “The key now is getting teachers to interact and share more and more and pass the benefits of this kind of learning and tools like interactive maps on to the students,” Coffey told Siliconrepublic.com.

Investment in future

Garry Cullen of Wholeschool.tv, a veteran of the North’s pioneering ICT rollout, urged the Irish Government to make sure it invests in next-generation technology, not old technology, and this investment need not be expensive.

“Money is not the issue. It is looking at a proper overall strategy for schools. We’re living in an entirely different era than we were five years ago, even two years ago. Everything in terms of software is moving into the cloud, everything will be browser-based and there’s no need to be throwing money at lots and lots of boxes and lots and lots of software that depends on sitting inside computers and servers.

“Most of the money should go into continuous professional development for teachers and software which enables schools to manage themselves better,” Cullen said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe at last week’s BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition at the RDS, Dublin

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com