Tech sector invests in education R&D centre

23 Feb 2006

Industry leading tech firms such as Microsoft, HP, Cisco and Intel have jointly invested in an all-Ireland centre of excellence for ICT research in education that will be based at HP’s offices in Belfast. The investment is being made in collaboration with the Northern Ireland government’s pioneering Classroom 2000 (C2K) initiative.

The research developed in Belfast will be made available across the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region and the centre will work in tandem with new School Technology Innovation Centres (STICs) in Prague and Jordan as well as other new centres that will be established in Brussels and Johannesburg.

The purpose of the new centres are to help educators evaluate new technologies and share best practices on how to create richer, inspiring and more effective learning environments. They will include interactive demonstration facilities.

The STIC in Belfast will be part of HP’s new European Education Research and Innovation Centre (EERIC) which is also opening today and which will work in collaboration with projects such as the Northern Ireland C2k (Classroom 2000) programme. HP is investing more than €1m in the project.

“The purpose of the EERIC is twofold,” says Clifford Harris, director for education and health care business for HP EMEA. “It will be a centre of excellence where we and our partners can conduct research into how best to use ICT to deliver course content and to develop methods and practices that support life-long learning. It will also allow us to showcase what we are doing in Northern Ireland to governments from around the world that want to learn how best to make use of technology in education.”

Each of these new centres will include a teacher training facility and conduct training courses focused on building universal models of the best ways to incorporate technology use within the curriculum. Each training area will feature a technology showcase, where teachers can explore, research and evaluate the latest technological innovation for teaching and learning.

“Microsoft has been a key partner in the C2K programme in providing the software foundation for a fully integrated and distributed digital learning environment to all 1,240 state schools across Northern Ireland,” said Jimmy Stewart, director of C2K. “Taking the lessons learned from the C2K Managed Service, I see the opening of the STIC in Belfast as the provision of the perfect resource to lead and assist in the development of new approaches to teaching and learning that creatively use technology to its maximum benefit.”

Northern Ireland already hosts the successful C2K ICT project, in which HP, Intel, Cisco Systems and Microsoft are all heavily involved. The programme, run by the Western Education and Library Board, involves 900 primary and 250 post-primary schools throughout the province and serves some 350,0000 students and teachers. It comprises between 60,000 and 70,000 PCs distributed across Northern Ireland. According to Stewart, there is nothing like this in existence anywhere else in Ireland or Britain and very few around the world that have the same scope and co-ordination over a full national territory.

HP won a US$100m contract in 2003 to deploy the computers and management technology to 1,200 Northern Ireland schools over a 12-month period and then to manage and maintain the infrastructure needed to support the schools over a five- to seven-year period as part of the Classroom 2000 initiative, which will connect 350,000 users.

By contrast, in the Republic a mere €18m — mostly stumped up by the local telecoms industry — is being spent to connect more than 4,000 schools to broadband. The aim was to have 4,000 schools connected to broadband by last September when the school year began. However, it is envisaged it will be June this year before all Irish schools have broadband.

In contrast with the pioneering top-down approach embraced in Northern Ireland, the by and large piecemeal approach by the Irish government has raised scathing criticism from local industry leaders.

Last year, HP Ireland general manager Martin Murphy remarked: “The level of investment in ICT within schools in the Republic of Ireland is way below where it needs to be if our children are to become conversant with the demands of an information society,” he said.

“Unlike our counterparts elsewhere — in particular in Northern Ireland — there is no coherent vision or funding for the development of a managed learning environment for schools; there is no policy for furnishing schools with a minimum standard of ICT equipment needed to provide our children with an essential awareness of technology and there is no central procurement and distribution of technology by government to schools,” Martin said at the time.

By John Kennedy