Schools get up to speed

14 Feb 2005

After years of debate and discussion, the Broadband for Schools initiative is finally going ahead. First mooted in the government’s ICT for Schools Strategy in 2001, it was considered a key building block. However, despite the good intentions of all concerned other projects were given priority.

In 2003, the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern TD, announced that telecoms operators would fund the project via a government levy. This followed the revelation in March of that year that telecoms consultancy Datanet was carrying out a study to establish the criteria for a national rollout.

The preliminary announcement of the €20m project was made just after Christmas with six operators winning the right to connect various schools. These were Digiweb (1,428 schools), fixed-line provider Smart Telecom (1,041 schools), wireless provider Irish Broadband (592 schools), Esat BT (585 schools), Last Mile (215 schools) and HS Data (87 schools). All connections are to be in place before the 2005/06 school-year starts.

Surprisingly, Eircom, the former national operator was not included on the list. Instead, it will receive an additional €2m to provide router equipment to schools to enable them to exploit the broadband connection.

While the details of the contracts are still being negotiated reaction to the news has been positive.

“Broadband absolutely essential,” says Jermoe Morrissey of the National Centre for Technology in Education. “We are supposed to be living in what they call the information society, which is all about access to unprecedented levels of information, knowledge and data. From an educational point of view we have to give our children the skills to be able to interrogate, interpret, use and manage that information. And that’s just the societal aspect. In terms of the knowledge economy, there are a whole lot of skills we need to bring into the workplace via our schools and they are to do with some of the things I just spoke about in terms of manipulation of information.”
According to Morrissey, the workplace is undergoing change with a greater degree of individuality required from workers. “We have to encourage our people to be creative and self-contributory in the working environment. That’s a skill that can be inculcated at school. Other skills such as the whole business of group work, working in teams can all be enabled in schools via ICT.

“We also need to use ICT to make subjects such as science, engineering and technology attractive” says Morrissey. “We really need the throughput right into university of people who are excited by these subjects and I would have thought ICT would be a wonderful enabler to provide all kinds of simulations and 3D-modelling exercises. There are so many experiments that can be done using ICT. So ICT has a huge role for making science and technology attractive and will contribute to maintaining a proper throughput at university level of these areas,” he says.

Morrissey also highlights the issue of teaching ICT or computer science as a distinct subject. “There is some debate about the usefulness of this. There are some countries where they have computer studies that do not correlate with an increased number of students going on to study science and technology in university. But one thing is for sure we have to build those skills and sometimes ICT skills are provided concomitantly with using technology for learning in the classroom.”

The announcement was also welcomed by John Hurley, director of the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative that has already installed broadband communications into schools in the Liberties area of Dublin.

“It’s vital that schools take advantage of the internet and related resources for both learning and teaching,” he says. “From an Ireland Inc perspective, connectivity in the schools is a reflection of how well connected we are as a nation. We are playing catch up. In terms of our work here in the Liberties, this has involved not just connecting schools but sorting out internal infrastructures and we are now in the process of helping them to work out what they want to do. Its’ one thing to connect schools. Teachers need training and support to show relevance of broadband to their work in the classroom and this will be a key challenge moving forward. We have to be able to connect with each individual teacher and he or she needs to reflect on his or her own practice, how it impacts the subject area and age group, and how relevant the internet is in that subject area.”

Although not funded from the Broadband for Schools initiative, the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative does provide a hint of what the nation’s pupils and teachers can expect. “Reaction to our work has been very positive,” says Hurley. “Our work is very much focused on programmes and active use. We have tried to keep away from issues of how many machines and so on. Instead there are two aspects we focus on: ICT skills and curriculum integration.”

According to Hurley, it is still too early to measure the impact of bringing broadband into these schools. However, there is some anecdotal evidence that the impact is strong. “Before the introduction of broadband, many of the schools did not access the internet because of the call charges. However, if the connectivity goes down, we know about it immediately and we are seeing a steady increase in traffic.

“It’s not happening overnight, but the schools are engaging with the technology slowly but surely. In the context of a national roll out, it won’t mean every teacher will start using it immediately. There is still a lot of work to be done in showing the relevance of the technology and in providing support to teachers.”

Hurley points out that when people talk about schools and computers, they think of typing and word processing “We are more interested in what you can do with digital cameras or video cameras,” he says “These are the kind of research opportunities that the internet opens up. We are working with Riverdeep and Intel to look at the content they are developing.”

By David Stewart