COMPUTERS - Are they mega or what?


TWO THIRDS of primary schools have them, many second level schools do, so the computer age has arrived in the Irish classroom and we are marching ahead with the rest of the developed world. Or are we?

The answer is a firm "no", according to teachers and their unions. And some people in the computer industry itself say that the lack of appropriate hardware the machines - and software the programmes - makes us a Third World information society.

"Leaving pupils without the skills to open a computer is as unacceptable as not allowing a child to learn to open a book and read" Senator Joe O'Toole, general secretary off the Irish National Teachers' Organisation says.

Eddie Guilmartin, chairman of the Computer Education Society of Ireland and a teacher at Templeogue College in Dublin, says his group sees lack of resources as the major stumbling block to the use of information technology in schools. Another is lack of proper teacher training; one business studies teacher reported that at a recent in service training workshop, instead of sitting down at a computer keyboard, teachers were handed a photocopy of a keyboard and expected to familiarise themselves.

ASTI president John Mulcahy says that often, when schools purchase technology, they lack direction and advice. "Many schools have made purchases of computer equipment and found that it is obsolete in a short time. There should be definite guidelines with regard to minimum specifications," he says.

Anne Riordan, business manager of Microsoft in Ireland and a member of the Government's steering committee on information technology in education, says the Government recognises the problem. "We're a small country and we can turn this around really quickly if we all, policy makers, industry and education, work together," she says.

But how - and in what manner is a bone of contention between the industry and educators. The INTO's own survey has shown that of the primary schools with computers, 60 per cent were provided through the school's own fundraising, while 27 per cent were acquired through commercial promotions.

When told last week that Microsoft, with its Irish base in Sandyford, Co Dublin, was offering £2.5 million worth of software free to Irish schools, Joe O'Toole said: "It is a frustrating situation, but the reality is that the offer of free software and free access to the Internet and the World Wide Web is of no value to 90 per cent of Irish primary schools - because they do not have the computers and appropriate software. As Microsoft is well aware of this fact, it is difficult not to feel somewhat cynical about the motives behind its free offer." Microsoft is offering schools free Internet access, Internet software tools and information and training videos for teachers. However, O'Toole insists: "Computerisation cannot be allowed into schools in some haphazard way at the whim of marketing executives and image conscious multinationals."

Ann Riordan of Microsoft says the initiative should be seen in the context of Ireland as a whole, not just education. Riordan says she has been approached by many companies in the IT sector, financial markets and industry, asking how they can help. Microsoft is not trying to get involved in the curriculum, she says. "We would like schools to explore how PCs and information appliances can add to the excitement of learning - then it will be up to the Department of Education to see how they can be used in education." And she stresses that schools that access the Internet via other providers are not excluded from the offer.

O'Toole maintains that each of the State's 3,000 primary schools should be equipped with a computer, a printer, modem and connection to the Web and Internet. This could be done for as little as £1,500 each - not much more than the cost of an encyclopaedia. The total cost would not be more than £4.5 million.

This would not be sufficient, however, he says. Another £20 million would be needed to put one computer into each of the 20,000 class groups. This would be a good way to spend some of the additional tax revenues of £300 million which the Department of Finance expects to collect this year, he says.

He wants a national committee for educational technology to be established and serious policy commitment by Government. Industry and commercial interests should stake a "keen and participatory interest" in this development.

Guilmartin welcomes the Microsoft initiative, and says it might raise awareness of schools needs. Teachers could conceivably be teaching IT and never have used a computer - unless there is considerable investment in in service training, he claims.

The establishment of an IT coordinator in schools could play a key role in the development of IT in schools, he says. The co ordinator could identify appropriate software and bring it to the attention of the appropriate subject teacher, as well as identify needs.

Guilmartin would like to see IT integrated into the primary and second level curriculum, not just "fenced off" into computer studies and technical subjects. He is concerned at the absence of appropriate software specifically directed towards the curricula.

Rose Malone, education officer with the TUI, says that the provision of adequate levels of equipment is also "an equality issue".

"Schools that are well funded, often privately, have good equipment," she says. "It is also a gender issue. If people have to take turns to use scarce equipment, research shows girls usually come off worse."

Malone adds that computer simulation is not a substitute for practical subjects which are important in their own right.

John Mulcahy of the ASTI points out that schools participating in the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme are given a specific list of equipment, but schools not in the programme are simply hoping for the best and buying what the salesman recommends. There seems to be very little investment outside of the LCVP, he reports. Indeed, he says, there is no IT policy. "We seem to be operating in a void."

IN MARCH THIS YEAR, the Minister for Enterprise and Employment, Richard Bruton, announced the establishment of a steering committee to develop a "national information society" strategy and action plan. The Department of Education sent a submission to this steering committee last month outlining the current situation in Irish schools (see panel) suggesting future possibilities.

The Information Technology Integration Project (ITIP), an initiative funded by the Department of Education, is at the report preparation stage and its findings comprise much of the submission. The submission states that the "ITIP report is likely to recommend that the imposition of a `grand plan', developed at national level, would be inappropriate. Instead, pilot projects, operating initially at local level within individual schools or groups of schools, could be set up to develop curricular IT skills and an appropriate pedagogy for IT".

However, the Department's submission suggests that, though the overall thrust of a Statewide policy should be to encourage a decentralised approach to IT in schools, a national body for IT co ordination in the education sector is required. This "small, tightly focused unit" could develop a national strategy on IT in education, to link policies across the different levels of education.

The proposed body would also co ordinate existing and future initiatives on IT in education, provide advice and support and initiate the pilot projects with a "strong emphasis on curriculum integration, teacher training and national dissemination of outcomes". As a first step, a steering committee on IT in education would be formed.

The ITIP survey asked about the barriers to the use of computers in Irish second level schools - and found that teachers identified the lack of curricular integration, lack of appropriate training and lack of time as being of greater significance than the non availability of hardware and software.

But John Mulcahy warns: "The Department of Education's submission is talking about setting up a committee. Setting up a committee is often a substitute for action. Other countries seem to be well ahead of us and a couple of years, in IT terms, can literally become a generation gap.