Microsoft invests €500,000 to tackle digital inequality in Irish schools

24 Jan 2022

Niamh Carvill and Patrick Nugent of St Patrick's High School in Armagh with principal Dr F Moore; Damian Harvey and Sara Long of the Education Authority; Costi Karayannis of Capita Education and Learning; and Anne Sheehan, MD of Microsoft Ireland. Image: Liam McArdle

Microsoft is making investments in education initiatives in the Republic and Northern Ireland as part of efforts to increase access to digital learning and tech skills.

Microsoft Ireland and Maynooth University are looking to address digital inequality in education and boost the number of girls engaging in STEM.

The tech company is investing €500,000 in two projects as part of an ongoing collaboration with the university.

The first, the Digital Wealth project, is a school outreach programme designed to address digital poverty and support 1,000 students, 300 teachers and 45 schools nationwide over three years.

Last September, the project received a grant of €450,000 from non-profit Rethink Ireland to improve equal access to education. With additional support from Microsoft, students who currently have restricted access to tech and digital skills will be given the opportunity to learn new things.

Around 300 teachers around Ireland will also get a chance to upskill and learn computer and coding skills to introduce in the classroom. Training will be given to student teachers at Maynooth’s School of Education to help them deliver STEM-based lessons when on placements.

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan from the psychology department at Maynooth University said the project is a “vitally important initiative that will play a critical role in helping to address the many forms of digital poverty that exist”.

“We’ve all seen over the course of the past two years how important technology has been to enabling education to continue, despite physical schools often being closed and frequent periods of self-isolation,” she added.

“As well as ensuring that students have the skills to fill the digital roles of the future, addressing the digital divide will also ensure that schools across Ireland have the flexibility and agility they need to adapt to future periods of possible disruption.”

‘I’m confident that by industry, higher education and school communities working together to address digital inequalities, we can build a more inclusive Ireland’

Microsoft’s investment will also support Maynooth University’s STEM Passport for Inclusion project, which aims to provide 1,000 girls from disadvantaged areas with support to help them enter STEM courses and careers. The project is also supported by Science Foundation Ireland, Prodigy Learning, Accenture and RDI Hub.

It will give students between fourth and sixth year the opportunity to complete an accredited Microsoft DreamSpace module through Maynooth University, equipping them with the knowledge and experience to follow a pathway to complete a STEM degree at third level.

Girls who take part will also have the opportunity to participate in a remote mentoring programme with women who work in the STEM industry, and gain access to an online platform detailing all STEM-related courses around Ireland. Women leaders from Microsoft Ireland are volunteering as part of the mentoring initiative.

James O’Connor, VP of Microsoft international operations, said his company is “committed to helping address the digital skills gaps and digital poverty inequalities that exist”, so young people can engage in STEM education and understand how technology shapes the world.

“I’m confident that by industry, higher education and school communities working together to address digital inequalities, which have become all too clear amidst the pandemic, we can build a more inclusive Ireland while strengthening Ireland’s digital leadership,” he added.

Tech for students

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, Microsoft Ireland has also joined forces with consulting and digital services business Capita and Northern Ireland’s Education Authority to supply teachers in more than 1,100 schools with 20,000 Surface devices in a scheme worth €24m.

The first laptop devices are currently being rolled out in a series of pilot programmes at three schools and Capita aims to deliver the majority of the laptops by the end of June.

Sara Long, chief executive of the Education Authority, said the devices would “enhance the in-class learning activities and engagement for pupils whilst also supporting the work of teachers in terms of productivity, peer-to-peer collaboration and access to high quality online teaching and learning tools”.

Anne Sheehan, general manager of Microsoft Ireland, added that the partnership aims to “empower educators to test and trial new ways of teaching and interacting with students,” while shaping “resilient and future-ready students who will have the digital skills to become the next generation of innovators and digital leaders”.

Microsoft is not the only business working to improve opportunities for future STEM innovators. EY is launching a free app to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. The company will launch its app this year in seven countries, including Ireland, following a successful pilot in New Delhi, Seattle and Atlanta.

The aim is to inspire 100,000 girls in Ireland, Canada, the UK, UAE, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand to get into STEM.

The EY STEM app was developed by EY teams in collaboration with SkillsVR, an organisation dedicated to developing potential talent through immersive learning. It features modules and activities focused on everything from the climate crisis to artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Activities were developed in collaboration with the UN, the World Economic Forum and others. All activities are aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, allowing users to earn ‘Global Goals’ digital badges as they progress through the app’s exercises.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.