NI engages with private sector for schools scheme

11 Dec 2003

Some €300m of the €600m allocation for Classroom 2000, Northern Ireland’s scheme to ICT-enable all of the province’s primary and secondary schools, has been committed to private sector partnership contracts involving a variety of technology providers, including HP, Cisco and Microsoft, has learned.

The director of Classroom 2000, Jimmy Stewart (pictured), told yesterday’s Driving the Digital Society conference on technology in education that the plan to network enable all primary and secondary level institutions in the North is proceeding at pace, and that so far IT services have been deployed to more than 200 schools and more than 50,000 PCs and laptops have been purchased. Included in this is the creation of a wide area network that will connect some 60,000 seats and cater for around 375,000 core users.

Stewart told the assembled audience that the initial allocation is to set in place the infrastructure and that the remaining €300m will be kept in place to cover the upkeep of the major infrastructure project as well as future-proofing new technology trends, “such as the move from laptops to tablet computers over the next three years”.

Broken down, the total €600m Classroom 2000 programme will see some €250m invested in school infrastructure, €250m invested in the creation of a wide area network, €60m invested in staff development and €40m invested in curriculum resources. “All of this will be deployed through private sector partnerships,” Stewart said.

“The focus of the project is not on kit, but on access to resources,” Stewart said. “We want to develop a distributed learning environment that would enable children and teachers to interact across the network and we have the contracts in place to make it happen. We have been buying specific access software and managed services to make this learning environment available in the classroom. At present we are working with teachers to encourage them to adopt this new way of improving the quality of learning.”

The project will see the creation of a major data centre managed by HP that will store the curriculum resources as well as manage the network. “So far we have deployed resources to 1,200 schools and have acquired 50,000 PCs and laptops for those schools that are being deployed in the classrooms instead of in clusters.” As well as involving tech giants HP, Cisco and Microsoft, local technology firms such as Sx3 have been approached to help with the maintenance aspect of the five-year project.

“The plan is to create a WAN that would connect all the schools in one big community called Learning NI, using broadband services to link the servers to our data centre in Belfast,” said Stewart.

“The community will enable teachers and students to publish information and content companies like the BBC and Granada are busy developing curriculum online content.”

In terms of the lessons learned so far in deploying the world-leading infrastructure project, Stewart said that the development of a coherent and standard system was vital as well as garnering stakeholder commitment at all times. “We have learned that it is vital to focus on service reliability as well as a stepped approach to achieving objectives,” Stewart said.

Also speaking at yesterday’s briefing was Jim Wynn, the schools strategy manager at Microsoft’s EMEA division, who admonished educational policy makers not to implement technology for technology’s sake. He said that the ultimate focus should be on using ICT to stimulate students’ learning abilities and appetite. “Technologically, classrooms haven’t changed all that much in the past 100 years insofar as there has been very little room for creativity amongst teachers and students and ICT is the way that that can be changed. But it has to be done carefully and in a measured way.”

Jerome Morrissey, director of the National Centre for Technology in Education also praised the possibilities that ICT promised educators and students but cautioned that there is a serious disconnect between policy makers and educators when it comes to appreciating the potential of ICT and the creation of a knowledge society. “What is required is more collaboration and partnership, better curriculum/content creation, free access to databases and knowledge banks for students, true education discounting and license-free software as well as continuous teacher professional development.”

By John Kennedy