Technology and education: back to the blackboard

16 Dec 2003

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” Instead of the poverty-ridden industrial towns of 19th century England, the resounding and immortal words of Thomas Gradgrind, the less-than-imaginative teacher in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times were unearthed last week for the digerati gathered at the Driving the Digital Society event focused on ICT in education by the director of the National Centre for Technology in Education, Jerome Morrissey.

Widely regarded as one of the driving forces behind the digital society in Ireland, especially in the educational arena, Morrissey (pictured) was at pains to illustrate the point that rolling out technology in schools must be done in such as way that leaves room for stimulation, ideas and not technology for technology’s sake. Otherwise the lesson learnt would be one of cost, not improvement. It is acknowledged that schools and other educational institutions in Ireland are in dire need of better infrastructural facilities, not just new computers, and if the vision of a knowledge society in Ireland is to be realised, the need for elements ranging from wide area networks, broadband and new methods of teaching using technology to empower students would be vital.

Not many people actually realise that Ireland is globally renowned as the “birthplace of e-learning”, with market leaders such as Skillsoft, Riverdeep and Electric Paper starting out in Dublin. As the director of the Vision 2008 Competitiveness Strategy Group of the Irish Software Association, John Shiel, said last week: “We have tremendous knowledge on how to create e-learning, how to distribute it and who to distribute it through. No other country has that advantage to date. Our failure to adopt a focused strategy for dominating this niche means that we are not actively extending the domain knowledge with programmes that encourage Irish companies and institutions to use e-learning as a competitive tool. For example, there is no national programme of e-learning in Ireland’s school and universities. In the public service, can anyone point to a world leading innovative programme that uses e-learning as a competitive advantage and takes advantage of the expertise we have in Ireland to create such a programme?”

Yes, home to saints, scholars and sinners, Ireland has always viewed itself as academically strong. And as Morrissey pointed out, the country has a strong tradition of educational techniques that employed imagination as well as hard graft that were copied throughout the rest of the world during the 19th century. However, by the middle of the 20th century, teaching in Ireland had become an activity based around the absorbing of facts by rote, rather than an exercise in putting ideas into practice and stimulating the student’s mind. If this practice spills over into the implementation of 21st-century technologies, the much needed investment in bringing technology to the classroom could be squandered. It seems the Republic has much to learn from activities in Northern Ireland, which has become somewhat the envy of the civilised world in terms of its massive investment and dedication to its Classroom 2000 programme that will see every classroom in Northern Ireland connected across a wide area network, employing the latest technology.

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, told last week’s conference 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-proof 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,” he added. “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 the conference was Jim Wynn, the schools strategy manager at Microsoft’s EMEA division, who warned educational policy makers not to implement technology for technology’s sake and 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 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