NCI opens e-learning research centre


17 May 2005

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The National College of Ireland (NCI) has unveiled a new €1m research facility that will spearhead research into the use of technology in education.

The Learn3K Research Centre, which was opened yesterday by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD, will form part of the NCI’s International Centre for Educational Learning Technologies (ICELT). This was opened last September 2004 on the NCI’s new campus in the IFSC.

The centre will be run by Professor Stephen Heppell, former head of Ultra Lab, Anglia Polytechnic University’s learning technology research centre. “We want to be the research centre for the third millennium,” he said, explaining the origins of the Learn3K name.

It is anticipated the new facility will have appointed 10 researchers by April next year and double that number eventually. One of the first appointments is that of Sam Deane, one of the best-known computer games programmers in the UK, who will focus on the area of self-authoring tools for creating content on mobile technology. The centre will also host a number of other researchers from industry research partners such as the BBC and Microsoft.

The centre has been established with initial funding of €1m from the NCI but it is expected that a variety of funding agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) will be asked to row in behind individual research projects.

Eoin O’Driscoll, chairman of the ICELT advisory board and former chairman of the Enterprise Strategy Group, said he expected the centre’s annual budget to be in the region of €5m.

The origins of the facility lie in the E-Learning Research Agenda Forum held in Dublin in October 2004. This SFI-supported conference brought a number of leading e-learning practitioners from around the world and industry representatives together to discuss how best Ireland could tailor its educational system to meet the skills demands of the knowledge-based economy. One of the recommendations was that a dedicated facility be set up to conduct research into the integration of technology with learning. Heppell, who was one of the academics who participated in the conference, was later invited back to head up the project.

Heppell explained the centre would explore the science of learning and develop alternative learning methods that maximise individual’s learning potential.

“Part about what this centre about is just how far people can get when learning is really engaging and effective — I don’t think anyone of us know,” he said in an interview with siliconrepublic.com.

He added: “The old model of having a big curriculum doesn’t fit very well in new world of technology — what you see with phones and texting and increasingly with picture messaging. Mapping this on to learning is going to be really interesting.”

Heppell added that partnership with industry would be a hallmark of Learn3K’s working methods. A number of partners including Apple, the BBC, Unesco and Microsoft had signed up to work with Learn3K. It would also, he said, be working closely with Ireland’s emerging cluster of e-learning firms such as Intuition, Third Force and WBT Systems. He stated that the close involvement of industry would ensure the research centre would operate in the real world. “This is why my motto for the centre is ‘Eyes on the horizon, feet on the ground,” he explained.

Learn3K Research Centre will work on three levels. It will undertake basic research into the science of learning and the development of intelligent tutoring systems, based on the latest broadband technologies. It will take some of these ideas and work with e-learning industry partners to apply them in the real world. Finally, the centre will also be centrally involved in large-scale implementation projects.

O’Driscoll said the work of the Learn3K Centre was seen as crucial because learning was now top of the national agenda. “We believe lifelong learning is critical is important because of the [looming] skills shortage.”

By Brian Skelly