Inside the school of tomorrow

29 Aug 2008

On the island of Ireland there is a school where the pupil-to-computer ratio is 2:1.

Every classroom has a whiteboard, every teacher a laptop and a high-definition videoconferencing system can link students to museums, Oxford dons and language students in other countries.

Students are encouraged to write music, create movies, generate art, learn new languages and even design and manufacture their own products. This school is not totally unique; there are quite a few like it. This school, however, is not in the Republic.

IT’S a hot, sunny afternoon in a leafy residential suburb in Belfast. In a nearby hollow, a rugby match is underway and on the footpaths students in shirtsleeves meander their way home after sitting final-term exams.

As I enter a classroom at Grosvenor Grammar School, a 1,089-pupil post-primary school, language teacher, Amanda Salt, gestures to a digital whiteboard and chats in Spanish to the classroom. Students enthusiastically respond in Spanish to images on the whiteboard, while others not engaging in the conversation work at problems on their laptops. The problems are specific language games created by Salt to ensure that at all times her pupils are learning and are engaged.

As the class ends students file to a secure steel cabinet in the corner and in a tone reminiscent of how a teacher would remind you to have your essay finished by Monday, Salt reminds the students to make sure the laptops are charged up before they leave the room.

Grosvenor is a beneficiary of the Classroom 2000 (C2K) project, a US$100m 10-year plan to give all students from primary to university level uninhibited access to PCs and the internet.

Unlike its counterpart in the Republic – the doomed IT 2000 programme, which was developed at the same time but was allowed to peter out – the Northern Ireland C2K programme has flourished and now over 70,000 PCs are distributed across Northern Ireland’s schools. Printers, data projectors and, increasingly, whiteboards are commonplace.

Shrewd and effective management of its allotment under the project – as well as its own investment – has resulted in Grosvenor, a state school, accumulating 550 computers between teachers and students, adding up to roughly a 2:1 pupil-computer ratio. Every classroom has its own whiteboard and some 95pc of the school building is network-connected. The school has developed its own state-of-the-art science building and a media room is used to allow students to produce newspapers, websites and their own movies.

One student has used computer-aided design (CAD) to win a design competition that saw cardboard cots containing a vacuum pack with powdered milk and other essentials used to help the 2004 Asian tsunami victims, while another young boy at the school won a design award for designing and creating an MP3 player.

As I take all this in, arrayed around me are a dozen school teachers described by deputy principal, Robin McLoughlan, as “exemplars” for new technology use in the school’s curriculum. I reflect sadly on the situation in most schools in the Republic, where usually one teacher with the hint of technological aptitude is left responsible for a crumbling infrastructure of computers, mostly donated by parents and more than likely through a Tesco scheme.

“Grosvenor has around 15 or 16 IT champions, which is a bit above average for the North,” explains Paddy Maguire of the C2K programme. “But Grosvenor is past the stage where champions are needed. Technology has now become part of the furniture, and pupils and teachers can’t do without it.”

Salt, who had just demonstrated the virtues of whiteboard and laptop technology in the classroom, says the technology is ideal for language learning.

“In the past, if you had one child up at the blackboard, you would have had 25 other students just sitting around, barely engaging. Switching from blackboards to laptops to interactive whiteboard means they can all participate by manipulating what’s happening on the whiteboard and handling tasks I’ve set them on their laptops.”

Geography teacher, Deborah Byers, says whiteboard technology is invaluable in being able to do things like overlays of information which help show the development of landscapes or maps.

“Students themselves are a lot more empowered. In the classroom they would use Info Mapper GIS software but many of them are independently using technologies like Google Earth and Wikipedia.”

Music teacher, Rosemary Foster, says the move from paper to a computer notebook has not only enhanced students’ appreciation of music but has boosted their creativity. “Classically trained students would use Speedius music software to conduct an entire orchestra, while rock guitarists use Garage Band to develop music sequences.”

“Realism,” says Grosvenor’s in-house C2K expert, Sammy Taggart, “is what’s occurring in the classroom. Students are moving beyond the images they are seeing in computer games to actually using CAD/CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) to develop real products. They would use a technology called SolidWorks – an industry standard – to design a 3D object, model it and possibly get it manufactured.

“They’ve left the world of T-squares behind and they’re not working on some watered-down piece of software but something they may use in the working world. They respect that.”

Maths teacher and head of ICT at Grosvenor, David Wilson, says the advent of laptops and whiteboard technology in particular has made the job of teaching maths much easier. Having a team of exemplars or champions across a range of disciplines is crucial.

“I would use technologies like Excel and PowerPoint to teach maths and statistics and across Northern Ireland maths teachers are getting together to share graphs they would use to teach on whiteboards. They are getting together to share their knowledge and cascade that across the schools’ network in Northern Ireland.”

A key aspect of the overall delivery of ICT and learning in Northern Ireland is LearningNI, a virtual learning environment that all pupils and teachers in the region can log in to.

“Technology is doubling nearly every two to five years,” says Taggart. “The idea behind LearningNI is to get educators and learners to think about their learning and how they interact with resources. At the last count, there were 133 courses running and 73 forums. From a student’s point of view they can log in at any hour of the day to get access to courseware, while teachers can disseminate notes to other teachers and pupils.

“Language teachers are uploading MP3 podcasts to act as student aids and as part of their performance-related staff development scheme, every member of staff this year has met their objective of uploading courses to LearningNI,” Taggart says, describing the LearningNI environment as a “glorified memory stick” that all pupils and teachers can access.

Taggart adds that Grosvenor has also created a social networking site monitored by teachers.

“Normal school rules apply,” he says, pointing to a poignant note put up by a student tired of the Lord of the Flies mentality of popular sites like Bebo: “It’s good to go to a place where no one annoys you.”

Videoconferencing is a major aspect of C2K schools and Grosvenor uses a HP system that sits on a service managed by HP, Microsoft and Intel.

“We’ve all been blown away by the way schools that are miles apart from each other are making use of videoconferencing,” says McLoughlan.

“Staff use it for professional development so they no longer have to drive long distances for training after school hours. Students can go on virtual field trips. Because we’re in Northern Ireland, it’s not easy to get to places like the Imperial War Museum in London or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Students are able to partake in interactive sessions with other students and other teachers in other schools.”

“The system has a wide range of endpoints from laptops to whiteboards,” explains Peter Smeltzer of Grosvenor Grammar.

“Because it’s on the internet you can send lots of information across it and we can have up to 20 other locations on a single call. We can communicate with schools we have relationships with in Germany, Spain and Chile, some of whom only have webcams on desktop computers.”

A vital aspect of the C2K project is the delivery of management information system (MIS) technology to enable greater administrative and financial management of the schools, as well as reporting to the Northern Ireland Department of Education. McLoughlan explains a data warehouse is currently being built that would allow all schools across the North to feed in reports so the Minister for Education can mine all school data in real-time.

“There are 154 C2K computers in this school. We purchased an additional 100 computers from C2K with our own funds and we also purchased a further 150 non-C2K machines from our own funds. With every teacher equipped with a laptop we have somewhere in the region of 550 computers, the majority of which are under 18 months old,” says McLoughlan.

He says Grosvenor isn’t typical among other recipients of C2K funding. Because it is a state school with specialist status that is competing against other grammar schools for student intake, it has had to fight harder and make better use of its allocation.

“It’s essentially us being careful with money. Careful, effective and efficient spending has allowed us to do what we have. We had to be strategic and we had to demonstrate vision. Other schools haven’t spent as wisely.

“The most important piece in all of this is the students. They are out and about in their spare time looking at the latest incredible internet technologies and all too often they say ‘I did this four years ago’. The challenge for us is to keep pace with students. But we’re not under any illusions, we’ll never entirely keep pace with them.

“Going forward, talking with companies like Microsoft, HP and Google will be very important because they are the companies whose technologies students are constantly accessing. Our job will be teaching in an efficient and comfortable learning environment,” McLoughlan adds.

“Most teachers now have grown up with the system,” says Maguire. “A whole generation has grown up with C2K in primary and post-primary. In the case of post-primary, some like Grosvenor have gone on and enhanced provision and are exploiting C2K fully. All of them are taking advantage of what is provided. And pupils have an expectation of good technology being made available.”

The difference between C2K and the doomed IT2000 programme in the Republic is that C2K has been a top-down 10-year investment with the backing of major IT giants, including Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Microsoft, BT and Northgate.

The Republic, home to many of these seasoned and recognisable names, has failed again and again – despite experiencing its largest and perhaps its only economic boom in the Celtic Tiger – to develop an ICT strategy for its schools.

Instead, as teachers will attest, the average PC in a Republic of Ireland post-primary school sports a 10 year-old operating system called Windows 98. Most machines in these schools have been donated by parents through a scheme run by Tesco and usually a single teacher is lumped with the task of managing ICT in that school.

Last year, €252m was promised by former Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin TD, to bring Irish primary and secondary schools up to a state expected of a 21st-century, modern economy. This May, current Education Minister, Batt O’Keefe, told the Dáil that the Government is not willing to make a firm commitment that this €252m would in fact be spent.

It has been acknowledged that shrewd investment in the Sixties and Seventies in post-primary education brought about the Celtic Tiger.

With maths failure rates climbing, students eschewing obvious opportunities in science and technology and little or no investment taking place in schools’ ICT in 2008, what kind of a mess are we creating for the economy and workforce of 2020?

Meanwhile, for our friends in the North, our school of tomorrow is their school of today.

John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years