Education and the cloud

2 Oct 2011

There’s a major opportunity for the Irish education system to take advantage of the revolution in cloud computing to deliver the much-needed digital curriculum.

Cloud computing effectively means all the infrastructure that you used to have in-house to do basic things like send email, access the web and securely store data, can now be accessed remotely. All you need is a broadband connection and a computer or smartphone.

For most of Ireland’s schools, which are in the process of being kitted out with super-fast broadband, there is a parallel opportunity to use the internet cloud to enable the delivery of education material and create a learning environment that will allow teachers and students to collaborate and share knowledge.

In many of Ireland’s third-level institutions, students are already taking part in online learning classes via videoconferencing and can download podcasts and MP3s of lectures. Across the land most students use Facebook, download their music from iTunes and use programmes like Skype.

If Ireland is serious about creating a digital infrastructure and curriculum, there is a massive opportunity to build this in the cloud and enable a host of learning materials and ways of communicating via the internet.

The chief education officer of technology firm Promethean, Jim Wynn explains: “Digital education is not just about computers in schools, it is about making the curriculum a digital one.

“Children in Irish schools need to be equipped with 21st century work skills such as digital research. Schools who intend to deploy digital technology need to ensure policies are in place so every teacher and classroom makes use of the technology.”

Wynn believes that all public sector services in Ireland and overseas are under intense pressure to reduce costs and therefore there needs to be some fresh thinking in education to see how the service can be made fit for the third millennium within much smaller budgets.

Student achievement must keep improving. Other appropriate learning experiences, such as collaboration, must be introduced if learners are going to be fit for the world they will join after school, especially if Ireland is to succeed as an innovation hub. These trends and others suggest that some serious thinking has to be done around the curriculum, assessment and how courses are fundamentally constructed and delivered.

Wynn believes passionately in Ireland’s potential as an education hub, locally and globally, and in the quality of Irish education.

“Where Ireland is in a sense a little behind in digital education is its opportunity. If the country takes a breath and does it properly it could leapfrog everybody else. There’s no other country in the developed world that is better placed than Ireland to leapfrog other countries in terms of digital education.”

An example of what could be possible would be delivering high quality education assets via platforms like iTunes or Amazon to devices like the iPhone, iPad or the Kindle e-reader.

“My main point is if people just digitise what’s already there instead of creating a proper curriculum then we’re missing the point and it will lead to a disaster,” says Wynn.

‘There’s no other country in the developed world that is better placed than Ireland to leapfrog other countries in
terms of digital education’

Fiona O’Carroll, vice-president of innovation and new ventures at global education content prover Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), maintains that the cloud is the most obvious route forward.

“If it’s a knowledge economy, we need to be digitally connected. That view of the cloud, if we think about learning and the evolution of how it needs to map with what’s going on in schools today, it really will become a 21st-century experience.

“Having a cloud-based experience means I am mobile as a learner and I can access learning experience and connectivity any time no matter where I am. It is critical we get that right.”

The harsh economic lessons of the last three to four years should not be allowed to diminish our enthusiasm for the future. But, urges O’Carroll, that future is ours only if we prepare for it.

“Never forget the foundation that we built. We’ve been hearing doom and gloom stories for a long time now but that foundation that we’ve built in the 1960s and 1970s is a real solid one. What we need to do now is not erode it but continue to evolve.”

O’Carroll says that the Government of Ireland will need to be very strategic in how it prepares Ireland to be a leading player in the global digital economy.

“That vision of where do we need to be 20 years from now – we need real strategic leadership.

“Our human capital on this island is the No 1 asset we have. Investing in education and human capital has to be a No 1 priority,” she adds.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years