Schooldays can be Netdays
`I didn't learn anything useful at school," is the common complaint of many adults but that may soon be a thing of the past. Today's pupils won't be able to moan that the school has nothing to do with real life because, via the Internet, the world has arrived in many classrooms. To the envy of their parents, many children are not just able to use a computer as a glorified typewriter, but are also learning to program, design Web pages, and experience live video conferencing.
To raise awareness of the exciting challenges ahead for all centres of learning, this week has been designated Netd@ys Europe '98. Projects to create cultural links between school students all over the EU and the world will take place, while Ireland is celebrating 95 per cent of the country's schools becoming Internet-ready. Primary schools lead the way in Netd@ys and other Web activity, because they are less syllabus-dominated and many have had PCs for longer than second-level schools.
It's not often you hear it said, but Ballymun is the envy of all other areas - in terms of the provision of computers in school, that is. While every school in the country has at least one PC, the 11 Ballymun schools each have a fully-equipped state-of-the-art computer laboratory. "All children in every school have access to computers," says Tom Leonard of Ballymun Partnership, the organisation which provided the impetus behind this Computers in Schools project.
Online video conferencing has already connected the children of the towers with US children in San Jose. "When the children go online, they exchange cultural information," says Leonard. But it's more than using technology to chat: "the aim is to give the children of Ballymun a headstart so they are IT-skilled - and to create opportunities. In the future, whatever employment they take up, they will need IT skills." A teacher in Ballymun's Holy Spirit Girls Comprehensive, John White, believes that IT is the major issue facing young people in the area and having computer skills "doesn't make them feel so much the underdog."
The key to computers in schools is the training of the teachers so that they feel confident with the technology and are then to be able to integrate IT into their lessons. "There is huge interest from teachers in terms of looking for training," says John Hurley of the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE). "The teachers' subject associations are very enthusiastic about the new developments." 8000 teachers have received training so far - although only one quarter of these are post-primary teachers. "Schools don't use PCs enough," says Gerry Reilly of St McCartan's College, Monaghan. "Teacher training is way behind because the Government isn't moving quickly enough, isn't investing enough in training. I'd like to see IT integrated into the curriculum, whether it's history, geography or religion, and the PC labs used for general classes."
The syllabus and teachers' unfamiliarity with both hardware and software can cause problems. "Second level schools have not got the same freedom within the curriculum to use ICT (Information and Communications Technology) as primary schools have and this means that teachers find it difficult to integrate the use of the Internet in the classroom," says Michael Farry of St Michael's BNS in Trim, Co Meath.
The Information Age town of Ennis is the vanguard of today's techno-revolution. The teachers are trained and have enthusiastically formed subject-based software evaluation groups - while the young people are raring to go. Students want to set up electronic newspapers, says spokesperson Triona McInherney, and there has been enormous interest from abroad. "Links abroad have to be more than just keypals," she warns, "They must be meaningful and project-based with a learning aspect attached."
Teacher John Hartery, IT enthusiast at CBS, Tramore, Co Waterford, believes IT has to be integrated into the curriculum and used in all classes. "It shouldn't be the luck of the draw which teacher you get which decides whether or not you use IT. Every teacher should have the skills to integrate and you may as well do it today because tomorrow will be too late." It is the possibilities of the Internet which teenagers find exciting. When the boys learned programming off-line, it didn't catch their imagination, explains Hartery, but with close links with a school in Newfoundland, Canada, culminating in last Wednesday's collaborative live webcast with the President, Mrs MacAleese, in Canada, the classroom walls seem less confining. Farry agrees that it is the contact with the real world which motivates children: "School websites display pupils' work to a worldwide audience, therefore giving a real audience for work which otherwise might be a meaningless exercise."
Teachers stress the importance of access to the technology outside class hours, but feel that Internet use is only possible with supervision: "Our guys would get around Cyber Patrol or Net Nanny," laughs Hartery. Another theme common among schools is the importance of a principal and management boar d who are willing to make computers a priority and to make timetable changes allowing more access, so that the state-of-the-art labs are not lying empty.
A rapidly-increasing number of schools are developing websites and most of them can be found at Ednet, which hosts over 120 second-level sites and provides an email directory. In the future, they may go to NCTE's fledgling Scoilnet, which is part of the government's Schools 2000 IT initiative and aims to be a comprehensive resource for teachers, parents and students.
The Ednet sites are not listed geographically and neither is there any idea of content or standard. Most of the schools offer straightforward information about the school, its history, philosophy and curriculum and some provide photos, run a database for past pupils and list school achievements. In general, if you want to enrol your offspring into a school, or if it's your alma mater, it would be worth checking out the website, but apart from that, there is little reason to surf to school.
The weak point of most sites is that they lack pupil involvement, displaying little of the personality of the school, its staff or its students. From a random survey, the sites which were most enjoyable presented students' own work - art, poetry or homepages designed by students themselves.
The most innovative sites by second-level students are the finalists of the Spin A Web competition, sponsored by Microsoft, and organised by Trinity College's Computer Science Department in order to establish links with schools. "Many kids see the Trinity campus as an alien place and wouldn't apply for computer science here - our Spin A Web Open Day brings them onto campus and they can see what Trinity is like," says organiser, Padraig Cunningham.
Schools should construct their own sites, believes Gerald Horgan, IT instructor at Villiers School, Limerick, which came fifth in Spin A Web. "Students learn varied skills in creating a website, such as group participation and IT techniques. And they gain valuable knowledge about the Internet and related areas which can be used in whatever occupation they choose in the future," says Horgan, who is also the primary mover behind the mailing list for schools who want to exchange techie Net information.
Some schools have gone further than entering competitions - they have entered the market place. Semsites, of St McCartan's College, Monaghan, is just one of the mini companies which design websites for local businesses. "The students learn valuable technical, personal and social skills, especially teamwork and responsibility," says Gerry Reilly, "and it gives them a taste of the cut and thrust of the market place." Another successful business is Tourweb at CBS, Tramore, Co Waterford.
And the future? NCTE isn't sitting back to rest on its laurels now that PCs are in the classroom: "Although we're grateful to Telecom Eireann for putting PCs in schools, we're looking to the US where they're wiring every classroom rather than just a school," says Hurley.
The Spin A Web Open Day takes place on 31st October and all school students are welcome, in groups or as individuals. Details from the website or tel (01) 6081765.
Some school sites
- under construction, but very promising humour from St Coleman's College, Midleton, Co Cork.
- Sutton Park School, Dublin, book reviews and links to Amazon, the online bookshop.
stjoseph - what does Braille look like? Check it out from St Joseph's School for Visually Impaired Boys, Drumcondra, Dublin.
- homepage of Leaving Cert. student Mark Dunne, at Bailieborough Community School, Co Cavan.