Why we need to sustain momentum on ICT investment in our schools

3 Feb 2011

Ireland stands as one of the countries with the most to gain from ICT investment and the creation of a digital curriculum. Such investments would stand in the country’s favour for decades to come and would rank alongside the visionary decisions made by TK Whitaker and Sean Lemass during their time.

We live in a connected world and into this connected world will troop our graduates of tomorrow. Not only will they be expected to be proficient in their use of ICT, social media and the ability to code upon a whim, but they will be expected to think differently, to think critically and be entrepreneurially minded.

In late 2009, when the Smart Schools = Smart Economy plan to invest €150m was first unveiled, the intention was for the Department of Education and Science to put a laptop and software in the hands of every teacher in the country, as well as a digital projector in every classroom.

The strategy was embraced by the technology industry and an estimated €92m was spent during 2010.

In tandem with this, the Department of Communications pressed ahead with its plan to put 100Mbps broadband into 78 schools across Ireland by the close of 2010 as part of a €13m investment.

The good news: €44m was allocated in the 2011 Budget to ensure that a further 300 schools across Ireland get 100Mbps broadband.

The bad news: in the most recent Budget, the capital allocation for 2011 for schools’ ICT equipment will be reduced from €63m in 2010 to just €1.5m.

The Department of Education said it plans to “leverage” the €92m spent in 2010 over the course of 2011.

So where does this leave our schools at a time when it is clear that Ireland’s surest route out of recession and back to economic growth will be through the skills and talent of graduates?

As an election looms and debates echo across the country over how to return to job creation and growth, people would be wise to remember that pioneering decisions around education in the 1960s and 1970s led to the growth of recent years.

Too many false dawns

The problem with ICT investment in Irish schools is that there have been too many false dawns. An ICT strategy in 2000 lost steam and saw enthusiastic teachers’ hopes wane and computers and equipment grow obsolete.

At a time when Ireland needs its young to be skilled up and at a time when the technology industry has never been stronger, we need to ask ourselves can we allow the Smart Schools = Smart Economy strategy to become another false dawn?

We need Irish kids to believe they can be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Microsoft’s Bill Gates began his technological journey because of his good fortune in being educated in one of the first schools in America to be equipped with computers.

Who is to say that right now in a classroom or a bedroom somewhere in Ireland, a young mind is not already imagining future products and setting in motion events that could lead to the next global technological or pharmaceutical phenomenon. Why not?

It’s time to give those youngsters the chances they deserve and support their teachers in delivering a world standard education. We need to sustain the momentum of the Smart Schools = Smart Economy strategy and decide: no more false dawns.

This begins in the schools where equipment has been deployed, to make sure it is put to the best use possible and teachers, in particular, are encouraged to embrace ICT.

The time is now.

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