The State’s largest investment in technology for schools

14 Sep 2010

The €150m investment by the Irish Government in ICT equipment in schools will see every teacher equipped with a laptop and software and every classroom equipped with digital projectors.

Across the country parents have been asking their children about their first days at school with the start of another school year. Many kids will be regaling their parents about the crucial differences they’ve noticed about their classroom.

For one thing, many teachers will have laptop computers on their desks. Another thing will be the fact that at least 78 schools will be equipped with 100Mbps broadband – even faster than most businesses can avail of. Also noticeable will be the existence of digital projectors and whiteboards that will open the entire classroom to a window on the world, bring lessons to life and help students to enjoy a good, 21st-century education.

All of these changes are being brought about by a major investment plan revealed by the Government in November of last year to invest €150m to kit out Irish schools with the latest computers, software and audiovisual equipment as part of a long-overdue injection of technology resources in Irish classrooms.

Every classroom is to get a teaching laptop, software and a digital projector over the next three years as part of a €150m plan for smart schools.

The brains behind the smart schools action plan

The new action plan has been produced by the joint advisory group chaired by Microsoft Ireland managing director Paul Rellis and comprised of members of ICT Ireland, the Telecommunications and Internet Federation, the Irish Software Association, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE).

Not long after the investment plan was revealed, Microsoft said it would employ 20 graduates to develop digital content to support the curriculum in primary and post-primary schools.

They have been working with the NCTE on tasks aimed at supporting the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) into teaching and learning.

“It is clear to all the stakeholders – the teachers, the unions, the Government departments and the parents – that there is a definite need to upgrade digital infrastructure in schools and use it as a way to teach,” explains Rellis. “This is not about teaching people to use ICT but to use the technology to help people to collaborate, share and solve problems. It is not about changing the existing method of teaching but supplementing these methods.

“Think about it as 21st-century learning skills – broadening people’s minds and imaginations through the use of technology, making subjects more interesting, more challenging. Many children would have that broad experience at home but sadly until now have been missing that at school.

“Most people would use technology and the internet for entertainment, for research and for learning. What’s missing by not having that in the classroom has been the collaboration element, the structured learning, and teachers are missing the efficiencies they could gain. For example, if you can use this technology to share lessons between teachers in Donegal, in Cork or in Dublin, it can be facilitated,” he says.

“What we have today is the teachers on board, the unions on board, the industry on board and the department on board.”

Rellis says teachers and students will be the core beneficiaries of the €150m investment.

“It is not about changing the existing curriculum but helping teachers to improve and manage it. For example, if you could digitise a lot of the Irish language archives and make that available to teachers online, that’s a stunning use of technology.

“Another factor is new teachers coming on stream are already digitally literate, are open to the use of technology and are hungry to use technology. Another factor is the digital divide between schools that could afford technology and schools that couldn’t. This irks people. This initiative will bring everybody up to the same standard.”

Paul Rellis

Microsoft Ireland managing director Paul Rellis

Baseline technologies in schools

The director of the NCTE Jerome Morrissey explains how some €40m had been invested in primary and post-primary schools at the end of 2009 and that, under the revised programme for Government, €37m a year will be invested per annum in schools’ ICT.

“The first stage of the investment focuses on laptops, digital projectors, visualisers and laptop banks for the schools. After that inter-operability between classrooms and schools will be the focus. Whiteboards are great but only after we focus on ensuring schools have the baseline technologies, beginning with networks and laptops.”

Morrissey says that while Ireland is starting on this journey later than some countries, it is also the ideal time in spite of the recession.

“We have to think leaner and we are being forced to think outside the box and make sure that the funds available are being used to the best practical purposes. Schools are benefiting from the advent of new technologies. For example, if you were to say eight years ago we were to put 100Mbps broadband into schools it would have been financially and technically impossible. But now it’s happening and at a more reasonable cost.”

Morrissey says the investment is crucial in highlighting Ireland as a technology nation.

“The education system has to reflect the image and quality of how technology is important to the Irish economy. The partnership between industry and government is very important. The €150m investment is set in stone. The point is that in tough times this country is making the investment and we have to be much more innovative, creative and clever.”

He says teachers will discover the arrival of the technology in their classrooms to be both a challenge and an opportunity.

“The reality is, from a societal point of view, we have to come to terms with digital technology and it is a great opportunity from a professional development perspective. This will require leadership in the schools from principals who will need to be pro-technology and ensure that they can integrate technology into the daily life of their schools. It begins with leadership,” Morrissey explains.

The €150m investment will provide a considerable boost to many of the educational ICT providers active in the Irish market who have been urging the creation of a digital curriculum for many years now.

Self-directed learners

Graham Byrne of Promethean, a provider of whiteboards and online learning resources, says the importance of the €150m investment should not be underestimated.

“This will be a game-changing format for the classroom. If you look at how kids interact and the tools required for the working world, ICT is an integral component. This will be a world of self-directed learners who embrace technology.”

Byrne warns that for the investment to pay off, accessible content is critical.

“The content needs to extend not only to teachers and students but also to parents where the new learning abilities can be embraced in the home as well.”

He says that 20pc of Irish classrooms have purchased interactive whiteboards over the past 12 months. “Statistically this is far more rapid than anywhere in the world.”

Seamus McGuinness of Prime-Ed Publishing, a provider of copymasters and digital tools to classrooms, says that the onset of a digital curriculum will need to fit in with how teachers currently teach.

He says the €150m strategy is a good plan that has been well thought out.

“Our country is ready to embrace the digital age. Everybody is using technology and engaging with the schools is the right thing to do. Teachers can now look up digital content and set homework for kids. Giving every teacher access to a projector and a computer to use is very valuable. The next steps beyond this are around content to ensure teachers and students alike have access to good-quality information,” says McGuinness.

Pillars for success

Greg Tierney of Steljes, a company that distributes SMART Board technology to Irish schools, says that while Ireland may be later than other countries to make this significant investment, it is never too late.

“There are three pillars for success: first the infrastructure and hardware, secondly getting it into the hands of the educators today and there’s no point in doing that unless you back it up with professional development and making them comfortable with the tools they teach with. The third pillar is curriculum-aligned content. If those three come together we have a strong base to work from.

“Teaching hasn’t changed, but the tools available give better access to information and improve the experience for the kids.”

Clever use of ICT assets

Paul Roche of Wexford-based technology provider Net Communications has worked with schools across Ireland for 15 years and urges principals to be clever about matching their existing ICT resources with the new equipment that will come with the State’s investment.

“The important thing for a school to do is to keep track of the assets it has. A career guidance room doesn’t need the same powerful machines as a language lab or the CAD department. Old computers can be kept alive using thin client technology on an office server. So protect your existing investment and benefit from the new investment, too.

“The State’s investment will go a long way. There is never a good time to buy technology but we are fortunate in that many things are coinciding like the broadband investment and the equipment investment.

“Don’t underestimate how keen parents and teachers are to use these tools. Eventually the technology will become invisible and the real focus will be on the endgame, the curriculum. Teachers will embrace this technology with open arms.”

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