Schools need a velvet revolution

28 Oct 2004

The technology challenge facing Ireland’s school system was put into sharp focus at the Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) conference last week when a succession of speakers said that broadband was only the beginning.

TIF’s enthusiasm for the education sector has grown since it helped broker the funding of the Broadband to Every School initiative where Irish telcos will contribute €15m towards the €18m rollout cost. Having dedicated its annual conference to the topic, the IBEC body now found itself centre stage in a debate that extends far beyond its communications remit.

Appropriately, it was former Education Minister Noel Dempsey TD — now in charge of the communications portfolio — who opened proceedings. With the experience of wearing two departmental hats that have a big part to play in the unfolding plan, he was better positioned than most to observe that broadband was only a first step in the technological transformation. “Broadband and PCs have huge value as tools but only if we integrate them into the curriculum,” he warned.

Eircom’s commercial director, David McRedmond, was even more forthright: “Broadband is a start but it’s no more of a contribution than supplying electricity to school buildings.” More than once he alluded to the €25m Eircom had invested back in 2000 when it provided every school with dial-up internet access and a PC as part of an Information Age scheme. He made it clear that, in Eircom’s view, not enough had been done on the back of that initiative and he was looking for more from the broadband strategy.

“The role of the Department of Education is vital,” he said. “This time we need to produce a long-term plan for school connectivity.” He hoped that such measures might mean Eircom’s original €25m investment was “not entirely wasted”.

The only other speaker to seriously question the bigger education strategy was Riverdeep’s chief executive Barry O’Callaghan. The e-learning entrepreneur started his presentation by saying how he was delighted to be in his home town talking about software for schools. The irony was obvious — despite being the No 1 vendor for educational software in the US, his home turf was not as yet a sustainable market for his products.

Too diplomatic to come out and directly criticise the strategy of the Irish Government, he chose instead to analyse the evolution of the US market — at key points, however, he made some telling comparisons. “In the US, 80pc of [schools’] internet access is handled by districts as a managed service. My understanding is that it’s not where the Irish market is heading,” he said.

While the precise plans for content in the still-to-be-published ICT policy document for the period 2003-2007 are unknown, O’Callaghan expressed reservations about the talk of more localised materials. “There’s a big decision for the Irish marketplace about what sort of content it deploys,” he warned. “How are you going to afford Irish software that’s converted for the Irish marketplace? It’s impossible and it’s not an affordable proposition.”

He also hinted at a rethink in the way the Department of Education goes about procurement. “If you’ve got to go to too many vendors for too many products it becomes difficult to procure. We need to understand from big vendors such as Microsoft about the appropriate deployment of a full IT investment cycle,” he said, stressing the need to spend on service support to ensure that the technology is used effectively. “Really good upfront planning is crucial,” he added.

Putting the challenge into an international context was Philip J Bond, US under-secretary of Commerce and Technology. Discussing the twists and turns of technology deployment in American schools, he acknowledged that, to date, there was little real tangible evidence of an improvement in learning despite a schools broadband penetration of 80pc and PC-to-pupil ratios hitting one in four.

“It’s a problematic paradox,” he said. “There has been a significant rollout and uptake but we haven’t seen a significant increase in student performance. It’s not been that dramatic.”

He believed that there was much more work to be done on how pedagogy and technology could be integrated effectively. To address the challenge, he had established a think tank to explore new ways of teaching with ICT as a tool, drawing on diverse talents ranging from traditional educationalists to the technicians that design the high-tech, multimedia experiences you find at theme parks.

He summed up the challenge: “Reform isn’t a strong enough word. We need to rethink content and what teaching means; we even need to rethink the concept of the classroom. We need a revolution in learning and we need to ensure that technology makes it a velvet revolution. In the US we are now taking those first steps.”

With a new minister in place and an ICT policy document expected soon, it should start to become clear if Ireland is ready to embark on a similar journey.

Pictured at the TIF annual conference was Riverdeep’s CEO Barry O’Callaghan

By Ian Campbell