Regular investment the key to e-learning

Thu, Jul 12, 2012, 01:00

Despite recent investment in technology in the classroom, Ireland is in danger of falling behind other European countries if the level of spending is not maintained

THE USE of technology in education has come a long way from the days when a single Apple computer was pushed around the classrooms.

These days, schools have access to broadband, interactive whiteboards and digital projectors. Smartphones are a way of life and laptops with always-on broadband connections are the norm.

Textbooks are available in e-book format now, eliminating much of the heavy lifting for students as they are replaced with a single e-reader.

Teachers can record attendance on an online system that also contains all the information about a student.

“You can’t get away from technology, no matter who you are as a teacher,” says Vincent McCarvill, ICT co-ordinator at St Macartan’s College in Monaghan. “There is not a teacher in our school who doesn’t use computers in their class for teaching.”

However, it is an ongoing project that takes commitment, a shift in thinking and, ultimately, cold hard cash to implement an environment where learning and technology sit side by side.

Despite recent investment announced by successive Governments – €150 million was promised in 2009 – Ireland is in danger of falling behind other European countries if the level of spending is not maintained.

Some of that funding has already been disbursed to schools, allowing them to upgrade the existing IT equipment and, most importantly, to ensure the technical support is available.

“Our big problem was always back-up, keeping the computers going,” says McCarvill. “If there isn’t an investment every year to keep this going, it will grind back down again.”

The push to integrate ICT into classrooms has been taken seriously, with bodies such as the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) working on not only getting the hardware into schools, but also software and services. New technologies offer the chance to cut costs, yet still maintain a proper learning environment.

One important element in that is the cloud, presenting an opportunity for schools and other educational institutions to implement new ways of learning and working together .

“It’s a very exciting time for e-learning in schools,” says Tom Lonergan of NCTE. “Cloud-based educational applications are supporting and enhancing e-learning and can be accessed both from within and outside of schools for anytime-anywhere learning.”

The concept of the technology itself isn’t new to schools, he says, with cloud-based email and applications in use for a number of years.

However, these days schools can rely on free cloud-based services to host applications or for file storage.

“These don’t require local technical support and so allow schools staff to focus more on educational applications and integration of ICT for learning rather than on supporting the technology itself,” Lonergan says.

There is one essential requirement for use of the cloud – decent broadband infrastructure.

Over the next few years, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Communications are working together to deliver 100Mbit/s broadband to all post- primary schools. The programme is aiming to have 278 schools connected by the end of the year.

“This is an essential supporting infrastructure to facilitate the increased use of cloud-based applications in schools,” says Lonergan.

Some schools have taken matters into their own hands and either funded the technology investment themselves, or done deals with local businesses to obtain the equipment or software needed.

One thing that may lift schools in the coming months is the plan by Microsoft to roll out its Office 365 product to schools free of charge. The tech giant is offering the technology to schools throughout the country as part of a global programme.

Under the deal, schools will get Office web apps, Lync and Sharepoint. The system, which is currently available to businesses on a subscription basis, will facilitate things like collaborative projects.

Schools will also be able to edit documents and spreadsheets online through the web apps feature.

“This is an attempt by us to try to provide some value into the education sector using our technology to support classroom learning,” says Microsoft’s Kevin Marshall.

He says the move is part of the company’s commitment to education over the past 30 years and is just one of a number of initiatives that Microsoft have been involved in.

“We see the need out there, that students need access to the the latest and best technology,” he says. “We have always taken the lead in education transformation.”

Scoil Chonglais in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, has been rolling out a private cloud model, which includes the use of Office 365, for students. The service will be extended in the school new year, principal Rory O’Toole says.

The school had previously tried to do things itself, with its own servers, but ultimately a cloud system has worked more effectively.

The school is one of those benefiting from the investment in broadband this year.

Without it, such a project would be more difficult to implement because strong wireless networks and good broadband are essential to their success, as O’Toole points out.

The principal adds that the school is interested in rolling out electronic portfolios for students at some point in the future.

Ultimately, O’Toole says, the school is examining the possibility that bringing your own technology to the classroom could be an option.

“We’re hoping to get to a situation where it won’t really matter what the child is using – laptop, tablets. We’ve a good bit to go, and we need as much of a change in our culture as we do in our technology.

"It’s a very different way of doing your business as a teacher.”