We are close to the end of the first decade of the 21st century and critical failings in our education system in the form of inadequate ICT equipment, training and connectivity are still painfully obvious.
Talk of the smart economy needs to be matched by visionary investment and strategies around ensuring that Irish school leavers are equipped with the computing, maths and science skills and teamwork capability and critical thinking needed for success in the modern world.
This does not mean Irish children should simply attend computer classes. It means they should learn all of their subjects through the prism of ICT.
As the leaders of Ireland’s major technology industry companies say, smart kids tooled up with the latest technologies are the surest route to economic success in the next 20 years.
While the news that the partners in Government have agreed a target of 100Mbps of broadband connectivity for every school in Ireland by 2012 must be welcomed, more needs to be done.
Today 90pc of whiteboards in Irish schools are paid for by parents. The danger is a digital divide may emerge between the digital haves and the digital have-nots. If that occurs we are failing our young citizens of tomorrow.
And what of the €252m earmarked for ICT investment in primary and post-primary schools two years ago?
More than answers, a genuine plan and a call to action is needed to ensure teachers can broaden their career horizons and usher in new generations of school leavers with the smarts, the thinking and the tools for the 21st-century workplace.
There can be no greater gift any nation on Earth can bestow upon its children than that of a good education; one that prepares them for the world ahead, instils them with confidence and one that allows them to be useful, productive citizens.
In this country, brave visionary decisions by public servants like TK Whitaker and Sean Lemass set in train the free education regime of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties that directly contributed to the economic boom we enjoyed in recent years.
Those decisions were made in tough times. For many years thereafter it was with confidence that Irish people discussed the quality of their education system, and to this day investors in Ireland praise the quality of Irish workers and managers and the thinking they bring to the table.
That is why the indecision around investing in core ICT for Irish schools for the best part of a decade – even amidst the highs of a booming economy – needs to be turned into action.
The tough times are back and we need to ask ourselves what decisions will be made now that will drive job creation and make Ireland a good place to invest.
In many ways a country is very much the product of its educational values.
The 21st century is already marked by breathtaking advances in technology and science and Ireland’s so-called smart economy will be underpinned by the ICT tools through which children will be taught.
Already other countries are aware of this. In the UK, 70pc of schools have whiteboards. Students and teachers in Northern Ireland are tuned in and are using social networks to share notes, podcasts and projects; they can conduct video conferences about Shakespeare with Oxford dons. In the US, hundreds of high school students collaborate simultaneously on projects via Google Docs.
But, sadly, the Republic of Ireland, one nation that can count brainpower as its core raw material, has been inexplicably lacking in its approach to ICT in education. Some 90pc of whiteboards that do exist in Irish schools are paid for by parents who fundraise. It is a running joke that Tesco is one of the main contributors of computers to Irish schools and that many computers in schools are still powered by Windows 95.
"In Ireland, less than 20pc of schools have whiteboards, whereas in the UK this figure is closer to 90pc."
At the start of this decade, it all looked very different. A pioneering programme called IT2000 captured teachers’ imaginations and many signed up for training. Within a few short years, the programme was dropped and the teachers who took part became disillusioned with their unexpected new role as glorified IT managers for schools with crumbling IT infrastructures.
Graham Byrne of Promethean is a provider of whiteboards to Irish schools. He highlights the stark situation. “In Ireland, less than 20pc of schools have whiteboards, whereas in the UK this figure is closer to 90pc. It really is testimony to the value that parents and teachers place on ICT that they demonstrate the enthusiasm to raise funds.”
Among the various mechanisms where schools can get whiteboards is a clever programme that Promethean is running with The Jack & Jill Foundation where, for every 300 old mobile phones collected, participating schools earn a 78-inch Promethean ActivBoard with software and tools. And 700 old phones will get a school the same whiteboard with projectors, speakers, tools and software.
Byrne says that if every school in the country was to collect 300 old mobile phones, this would raise more than €3m for the Jack & Jill Foundation.
“Policy-makers need to realise the whole concept of education has changed. It’s not about learning by rote but by doing. It’s about accessing information, understanding a topic and engaging with it.”
According to Byrne, there are encouraging signs that powerbrokers in Government are beginning to see the significance of the right ICT technology in schools. “The discussions we’re having now tend to be in the direction of more joined-up thinking and an acceptance of the absolute necessity to have ICT prevalent in all classrooms.”
In outlining his blueprint for a smart economy, Intel Ireland general manager Jim O’Hara is adamant: “I would start with the kids in the classroom,” he says. “The successful digital economy to me would be one where the country has one of the best education systems in the world. The ingredients are good teachers and a Government strategy that makes it clear what kind of a future the kids would have, particularly in science, technology and engineering, while the business world has a role to play by embracing technology to be more agile and efficient.
“We have to have the best teachers teaching in the most important subjects – maths, science, engineering and technology. These subjects will be the most fundamental building blocks for this country in the digital economy of the 21st century, there’s no question.
“To do this, we have to have the smartest kids. You have to create a vision for them and you have to have them aspiring to careers in technology and manufacturing, R&D and the bio-pharma industries.”
"We have to have the best teachers teaching in the most important subjects – maths, science, engineering and technology."
At a time of high unemployment, the general manager of Dell in Ireland Dermot O’Connell says it is vital that decision-makers on ICT funding for schools realise that if all students aren’t digitally literate they will struggle in the workplace.
“Anybody in a job right now is already an information worker. Today’s jobs in Ireland and tomorrow’s, a lot of them aren’t going to be traditional manufacturing, they are going to be information-based jobs.”
Continues O’Connell: “Everyone realises that Ireland’s future is going to be a digital future. The divide in education is becoming more pronounced than just whiteboards. All IT in education is funded by parents and cake sales. School principals tell me they are struggling with the funding they get from the department.”
He says that getting the connectivity and the technology is actually the easy part, the hard part will be ensuring that technology transcends teaching and that teachers are suitably trained and technology sufficiently refreshed.
Seaghan Moriarty is an ex-teacher who works as IT adviser to the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN). He warns that what’s missing right now is any form of policy for computers in Irish schools and adds that many principals who would have blazed a trail in recent years in driving IT in classrooms have simply given up.
“ICT is like electricity, you can’t function without it in the 21st century. But yet nearly 70pc of children in the country are doing without technology, which at this stage should be considered a basic human right. It is hugely frustrating. I am a parent of three school-going children whose contact with technology is 95pc in the home and only 5pc of the time at school.
“There is also an emerging class divide. Schools in affluent areas might be very well equipped because of the efforts of parents, but what about children from deprived areas?”
Moriarty points out that any investment in technology in education in Ireland should involve consistent and regular refreshes of technology as well as consistent training for teachers.
Martin Murphy, general manager of HP in Ireland, says that if Ireland wants to have an outcome from the digital economy then the country simply has to invest. “We need a new perspective and a plan that deals not only with maths and science but with all subjects and equips all school leavers with an evolved IT literacy. We need a master plan.
"It won’t be just about throwing money at technology, but sustaining that investment going forward."
“The evidence is there today that effective use of technology, combined with exemplary teaching and learning practices, will be beneficial to an economy. We were involved in the Classroom 2000 strategy in Northern Ireland and it is clear that because the children have access to rich learning and world-class technology and resources, it is lifting all boats. Jobs are coming to Northern Ireland and those kids’ parents are also benefiting from greater digital literacy. Their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland aren’t experiencing this.”
Earlier this year, HP, which already employs 4,000 people in Ireland, announced it was creating 500 new jobs at a global services desk in Leixlip, attracted by the quality of Irish workers. “These are the kind of jobs that will be critical to Ireland going forward, powered by graduates with the know-how, technology savvy and linguistic capabilities.
“In the future, Ireland will have to be an export-driven economy. To compete in that globalised world, you need to have the best graduates money can buy and every euro invested in a pipeline of excellence from Irish schools will show real dividends in five to 10 years’ time when Ireland becomes a leading export and services-driven economy.”
Murphy says that whatever these investments are sustainability will have to be central and mistakes of the past such as the halting of the IT 2000 initiative must never occur again. “In the fast-moving world we will live and compete in, it won’t be just about throwing money at technology but sustaining that investment going forward.”
He adds that the 100Mbps broadband to every school by 2012 is laudable, but says this is just one part of the overall jigsaw. “There’s no point in having 100Mbps to every school if the computing devices and the network in the school aren’t up to scratch. What I’m talking about is transforming the entire education system, so that all lessons are taught via ICT.”
The general manager of Microsoft in Ireland, Paul Rellis, agrees with Murphy’s views and says a plan for the next decade is fundamental.
“The key would be to have a plan. Ireland would want to move to a model where technology is not a subject at school but facilitates the overall curriculum.
“Given the future smart economy, I think the four stakeholders – the teachers, the students, the parents and the Department of Education – have a core role to play in 21st-century learning.
“The No 1 step is professional development of teachers to be able to shift from teaching ICT as a subject to a situation where it facilitates the curriculum students are learning and enhances the stickiness of skills. It is much more than putting PCs in schools or creating broadband networks.
“First and foremost, the professional development of teachers is vital if we are to take the right first step forward,” Rellis concludes.
By John Kennedy
www.digital21.ie – Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.