Irish schools in massive IT makeover


26 Feb 2004

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The use of technology in schools is now a priority for the Department of Education. A national schools network for content delivery, a revamped curriculum with embedded information and communications technology (ICT) and a revised approach to the purchasing and deployment of software and hardware to the country’s 4,200 schools are all on the agenda as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the State’s education system.

The department is understood to be finalising the details of a new ICT policy plan that will run until 2007. It is expected to address concerns that Ireland has been losing its way and risking its reputation as an educator. The irony for a country with a self-image of itself as a high-tech leader, enjoying strong bonds with tech multinationals that have taken up residence here, is that it has fallen badly behind in the use of technology in the classroom.

Earlier this month the OECD identified Ireland as well below average in the computer-to-pupil ratio, with only one computer per 13 students, compared to one for every nine in 14 other OECD countries. A spokesman for the Department of Education claimed that the quoted figures for Ireland were out of date and that the numbers had now risen to one for every 9.4 pupils in secondary schools and one for 11.5 in primary. But computer penetration is only part of the problem.

The State still suffers by comparison with North Ireland where a pioneering managed services network of content delivery is being deployed to every school in the country as reported by siliconrepublic.com in March 2003. The prospect of a growing digital divide between two education systems on the same island is believed to have been a catalyst for change.

Mounting pressure has also come from industry and employment lobby groups, citing a shortfall in science students as a major obstacle to Ireland’s plans for reinventing itself as a knowledge economy with an educated workforce.

Last year it was Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Communications, who was the first to be seen to take up the challenge when he proposed a levy from telcos to fund the delivery of broadband into every school. After much discussion Ireland’s primary and secondary schools are now to receive broadband connectivity at the cost of around €17m made up of private sector money and €3m from the Department of Education.

The funding arrangement was put together by the Telecommunications and Internet Federation with the investment to be made over three years as each telco contributes a proportion based on its turnover. This will mean that Eircom would contribute the lion’s share of the funding, followed by Vodafone and O2.

Speaking last year, Ahern explained that the plan would be mutually beneficial: “I believe the telcos have a role to play here and my officials will be in contact with the sector on how best to deliver broadband to schools and libraries. The sector is aware of my plans and it has expressed misgivings, but I firmly believe that the telcos will benefit in the long term because it will stimulate the development of broadband applications.”

With the money in place, the building of the infrastructure is expected to be put out to tender in the coming months. An essential requirement is that every school is connected, which means that other technologies, such as wireless and leased lines, would be deployed to connect schools that are beyond the reach of ADSL broadband.

The last national communications initiative for schools was two years ago when Eirom ran a scheme to deliver internet access to every school in the country. The problem was that only 20pc to 30pc used it significantly according to the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE). This time around there is a concerted drive to create a managed service rather than rely on the enthusaism of indvivual teachers to activate the connections.

“Technical support will be addressed in the new strategy,” says a spokesman for the Department of Education. “The provision of broadband will in itself necessitate a backup service.”

While this deal was being brokered and the tender put together, selected primary and secondary schools have been connected to Ireland’s higher education network, HEAnet. An announcement is expected shortly to confirm it as the backbone provider for a national schools network.

HEAnet is effectively Ireland’s largest internet service provider, a national education and research network that delivers high-speed internet services to students and staff in universities, Institutes of Technology and other educational and research organisations.

“The Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority provide the funding for the backbone for higher education,” explains John Boland, chief executive at HEAnet, “so therefore it would seem logical to see if they could leverage some of that investment to provide some broadband for the schools as well.

“We have been exploring it with the Department of Education for some time,” he says, “and in more recent times we’ve been talking in some detail.”

He continues: “We’ve always been interested in this area. We see the synergy between schools and colleges and the fact that we provide education-dedicated networks. We have a backbone in place and connectivity to the general internet but also, more importantly, to all the educational research networks of the world.”

Boland points out that the synergy was also identified by the EU member states back in the 1998 Lisbon Agreement. He says there is a major drive in the EU to ensure that all the national research networks look at providing services to schools.

“If schools can leverage infrastructure and some of our expertise and technical support then that’s fine,” he says, though he made it clear that it wouldn’t be HEAnet’s responsibility to provide a fully managed service to the schools. “The NCTE would be the helpdesk at the frontline.”

The NCTE was set up in 1998, charged with the responsibility of deploying technology into the classroom. A series of projects were undertaken under policy guidelines that ran their course at the end of last year. The strategy was largely focused around serving the grassroots culture that permeates the Irish school system. Now there are ambitions for a stronger national infrastructure.

When the plans for a national network are realised, the next challenge will be content and the development of the ‘virtual classroom’. Run by the NCTE, the Scoilnet.ie website is an obvious starting point. Launched in 1998 its extensive learning materials are curriculum focused, aimed at teachers, pupils and parents.

“Scoilnet.ie would have to have a greater role,” confirms a spokesman for the Department of Education. “There’s no point putting broadband into schools if there isn’t content. The development of digital content will be a key priority and a central part of any future strategy. There will be links to other existing sites too, such as Skoool.ie, as well the creation of new content in the schools themselves.”

The Skoool.ie site offers an online resource that complements rather than mirrors the secondary school curriculum. A public private sector initiative with Intel as the technology partner, it claims that 60pc of secondary students used the site in the spring term last year. Intel currently provides a library of modules for narrowband connectivity, recognising the limitations of the current schools infrastructure, but it has always seen it as a high-end e-learning tool in need of broadband to maximise its potential. It remains to be seen what role it might play in a national schools network.

Crucial to any deployment of new course materials is the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), a body that is funded by the department and one that has contributed to the new ICT policy plan. Mary O’Leary is an NCCA education officer and one of a core team that have been exploring the integration of technology into the school curriculum since 1999.

“ICT is now a priority for the NCCA,” says O’Leary. The most tangible evidence of this is a soon to be launched framework document, entitled ICT in the Primary School Curriculum. “The curriculum should always be the first focus and then you look at the added value that ICT can bring. We’re linking ICT to the learning principles of primary learning,” explains O’Leary.

The core message in the new primary school recommendations is that technology must be treated as part of the curriculum rather than delivered to pupils as a stand-alone subject. “Research shows that learning is much better if the ICT is integrated,” says O’Leary, “but that’s not to say there won’t be a need for the discrete provision to support the integration to begin with.”

This contrasts with education system in North Ireland where they opted for computers as a discrete subject in their own right, teaching pupils basic skills. In its framework for primary schools the NCCA offers detailed examples of how content software can be part of the learning experience. Exemplars are given on the use of power point in the classroom, for example, and word processing as a tool for teaching the benefits of redrafting written work. Other sections detail the use of desktop publishing and painting packages.

“I genuinely believe that ICT enhances learning,” says O’Leary enthusiastically. “It’s inspirational and motivational. In this information society kids don’t need the facts, they need the skills and processes to get at the facts. ICT is the enabler. If it’s not going to be used in the curriculum, there’s no point in having it. We aren’t making ICT a discrete subject we want every student to get it.”

The guidelines for the primary curriculum will be followed by a similar document for secondary level in around a year’s time. It will be a multimedia pack that details the kind of ICT experience that the NCCA would like the schools to deliver. Particular focus will be on four specific Leaving Certificate courses: building construction, engineering, design and communications graphics, and a new dedicated technology course.

As an example of subject specific plan, computer-aided design would be an integral part of these courses though O’Leary was quick to stress that even more tech-neutral subjects such as geography could benefit from the use technologies such as geographical information systems.

“It may not be part of the syllabus but it will be part of the guidelines,” says O’Leary. “We’re ICT proofing every subject. Should it be part of the syllabus, should it be part of the assessment or should it just be part of teaching and learning experience?”

The new commitment to ICT in schools will have hardware and software vendors rubbing their hands together at the prospect of big contracts coming up for grabs. In Northern Ireland, the managed service network is supported by a policy of central purchasing. To date, the State has favoured a more localised system of buying.

“The approach we’ve taken up to now has been to provide funding direct to schools and then they acquire what best meets their needs,” said the department spokesman. “That approach has been successful in engaging the local schools and communities. Going forward we’re looking at different models and central purchasing is certainly one of them. It’s an option that’s being considered.”

O’Leary has mixed views on the subject: “Central purchasing has its advantages and probably has more merits than downsides but what I’d be somewhat afraid of are monopolies. There is a concern about the industry dictating education.”

She continues: “I would like a certain level of centralisation and a certain level of autonomy. Where is innovation going to be if schools are going to be dictated to constantly about what they can and can’t use?”

As its stands the NCCA will evaluate different software packages and make recommendation but O’Leary stressed that such recommendations will vary across subjects. In digital photography, for example, where there are numerous editing and design packages, the NCCA would be slow to recommend specific software whereas in other subjects it might make more sense.

As for the hardware, NCCA wants dedicated computer labs and ‘mobile’ classrooms. Between March and May two schools in the Cork and Kerry region will be trialling different types of network as part of an assessment process that will filter into the NCCA’s secondary school recommendations.

“We’d like to see every part of the school networked. It needs to be seamless and accessible but we are all aware of the resource implications,” says O’Leary. “We don’t have the bottom line say but we can make recommendations to the department. Significant resources have to be put in place.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation. Unless it’s in the curriculum, in the classrooms, the department will say ‘why should we put the funding in?’ It’s an ongoing negotiation,” she concludes. “We’re all committed. We all recognise that ICT has a value and that there’s an economic imperative for Ireland.”

By Ian Campbell