North now a world leader in ICT in Schools

Because it’s coming up to Christmas, I am going to devote this month’s column to a good news story: Northern Ireland’s internationally recognised leadership in the use of ICT in schools, a story which is almost completely unknown south of the border (where the equivalent performance is poor by comparison).

The £500 million C2k (Classroom 2000) programme is now 10 years old. It is a centrally managed service comprising an infrastructure of over 65,000 networked computers to the 323,000 pupils in the North’s schools, with a ratio of one computer for every four pupils in post-primary schools and one computer for every five pupils in primary schools. The schools also have 20,000 laptops, the equivalent of one for every teacher in the system.

C2k provides a Local Area Network (LAN) in each school; access to a wide range of digital content to support the curriculum; online administration and management systems for all schools; dedicated high-speed broadband connections to a single regional network and the internet (thus connecting directly to all the province’s public libraries, and to the UK and Ireland’s higher education networks, JANET and HEAnet); and full service support via a centralised help desk.

This is an example of a highly successful public-private partnership, involving a range of ICT companies led by Northgate and HP (Hewlett Packard), who install and own the computers and networks, and provide round-the-clock technical support to the classroom teacher. Evaluations have shown that technical problems are normally remedied remotely online or within hours by a visiting engineer, and teacher satisfaction with the service is high (one senior NI Department of Education inspector says that the network service is now as reliable as ‘switching on a phone and getting the dial-tone’).

The result is a genuinely world class ICT system. According to US expert Bob Pearlman, Northern Ireland’s Educational Technology Strategy ‘holds clear lessons for other nations and regions’. By learning from the US and Australia, the North ‘has avoided costly errors and adopted and adapted the best practices of those forerunners.’[1]

Key elements of the Northern system are a focus on technology support in all subjects, not a separate technology skills curriculum (as in England); laptops for teachers from the start; intensive and sustained professional development and ICT training; a managed service network infrastructure (so that private ICT firms are made responsible for the hardware and software, which is where their expertise lies, leaving the teachers free to teach); and system-wide school-based networks and broadband connectivity.

This international best practice has been recognised at individual school and teacher level too. Two examples: Ballyclare High School in County Antrim has won numerous UK and international prizes both before and since being designated an ‘ICT specialist school’ in 2006; in October Barry Corrigan from Millenium Integrated, a rural primary school in north Down, won first runners up prize in the ‘Innovation in Community’ section of the 2010 Worldwide Innovative Teachers Awards sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning (with 250,000 entrants) for his work on assisting children and their parents with homework using online tools, including email links with teachers and discussion forums.

The contrast with the Republic is striking. Up-to-date statistics here are harder to come by. The last National Centre for Technology in Education ‘census’ of ICT infrastructure and usage in schools in 2005 found that the ratio of pupils to computers in post-primary schools was 7:1 and in primary schools 9:1. At that point only 46% of computers in primary schools and 79% in post-primary schools had internet access.

A 2008 report to the Minister for Education and Science[2] found that the Republic ranked ‘at the very bottom in Europe when it comes to teachers’ satisfaction with the ICT infrastructure: 85% of Irish teachers wish there was better support and maintenance for ICT in our schools. Schools do not have access to a basic level of equipment and technical support to enable ICT integration to take place. The absence of multi-annual funding makes it difficult for schools to plan for ICT development. Teachers do not have access to sufficient digital content and digital content tools relevant to Irish school curricula.’

The same report noted: ‘A lack of sustained investment in ICT infrastructure has resulted in Irish schools falling far behind their European peers (OECD, 2006). Several of the submissions and presentations received emphasised that teachers’ enthusiasm for ICT and their motivation to continue to actively engage in ICT activities have fallen. This has impacted at the level of innovative thinking and practice within schools.’

Last July a parliamentary question from the Fine Gael education spokesman, Fergus O’Dowd, elicited the information that only two per cent of the South’s more than 4,000 schools have high-speed broadband, one of the worst records in Europe.[3]

It is little wonder then that when the Centre for Cross Border Studies brings Southern student teachers to Belfast to do part of their teaching practice in Northern schools, they ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the ‘state of the art’ interactive whiteboards and personalised computers in their new classrooms.  Maybe the recession will start persuading senior Department of Education officials – in common with too many of their colleagues in other Irish government departments – that they don’t have to fly off to America or Australia or the Far East to see the best international practice in action. There is plenty of superb practice 100 miles up the road in Northern Ireland, if only they would open their eyes to see it. I will return to this topic in next month’s ‘Note’, this time in the area of health.

Andy Pollak

[1] Quoted in E-Schooling: Global Messages from a Small Island (Routledge, 2007) by John Anderson and Roger Austin, two acknowledged experts on – and pioneers in –  ICT in education in Northern Ireland.

[2] Investing Effectively in Information and Communications Technology in Schools 2008-2013. The Report of the Minister’s Strategy Group.

[3] The Irish Times, 17 July 2010

  • Reader

    Is there some confusion in terms here?
    ICT is the modern equivalent of Secretarial Studies, as students are taught how to use Microsoft Office applications in a hypothetical future workplace.
    Whereas IT is the technology and infrastructure that supports ICT and office work and the use of computing and the internet in other subjects.
    Most of the essay is about IT. But the headline might refer to either.

  • JAH

    ICT covers all aspects of information and communications technology. It’s long since gone beyond Office. Many Govt departments now use the term as well.

    What the article says is that the infrastructure is working well to enable Schools to deliver. And in comparison to the disasters in England when they’ve tried to do the same, there should be some celebration on this.

    However, it doesn’t tell us if the kids have actually achieved anything by it. In fact there is no study anywhere that has found any link between ICT and improving kids achievement. That’s one reason why Gove killed off BECTA and is rumoured to be about to do the same to ICT as it’s now embedded apparantly.

  • The Raven

    “Evaluations have shown that technical problems are normally remedied remotely online or within hours by a visiting engineer, and teacher satisfaction with the service is high.”

    Oh really? And yet every teacher I speak to, bewails and bemoans the fact that there is no “freedom” within the system. One in particular says that if she finds online references to the subject she teaches, she cannot “use” them in the class, and instead has to print them out from home. That’s geography.

    Another, in business and administration, (I hope I got the title right) says he wants to cover how businesses use social media for marketing and selling purposes. But he can’t as access to the web is in permanent lockdown for anything remotely approaching free-thought.

    The computers are in the room. The freedom to do very much beyond a pre-ordained syllabus, is not.

    Just a note to add…businesses that I work with, which are mostly micro-enterprises – both in terms of owner-managers and their staff – have consistently identified that even the most basic ICT AND IT tasks are often beyond people coming in on the shop floor. But then, they also identify (especially in retail) that numeracy and literacy are wanting too.

  • runepig

    Is this the same C2K? Like The Raven above, I’ve dealt with quite a few teachers and school IT departments, and none of them have hadna good thing to say about C2K.

  • Once IT and CT become routine and simple, they become boring. When students struggled with computers at school, they came to university wanting to learn how to master and control that ornery technology in degrees that included IT.

    Now that school computing is boring, and more limited than pupils’ experiences outside the classroom, they imagine university and business IT is just as boring. So they avoid technical subjects, and go and study law, accounting or even politics.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Very good piece Andy.

    I can personally testify to the excellent service provided by C2K as a class teacher. Their latest big push, Learning NI, is a fantastic resource available for teachers and pupils.

    I would point out that there is – understandably- a significant difference between the computer provision in small and large primary schools, which must have a detrimental impact on the ability of the latter to incorporate both the teaching of ICT skills and the usage of ICT resources on a regular basis.

    As someone who has had the privilege of having an interactive whiteboard in my classroom in recent years, I can also testify to the extraordinary advantage it brings simply because of the ability to instantly access material as well as supplement learning through recourse to interactive numeracy and literacy games.

    One downside remains however: the inability to access Youtube through C2K in primary schools. Given the wealth of material available on the site, it is disappointing that access has not been granted to teachers.

    On your substantive point regarding North-South differences, this is something which Sinn Fein (as the only political party currently interested in running in elections across the country) should really be pursuing through costed policy proposals, highlighting the northern success story. Perhaps there could be a role for C2K in expanding their service to schools in selected counties south of the border on a pilot basis within the remit of cross-border institutions?

  • edgeoftheunion

    I should have thought that in this week of all weeks, a boring competent infrastructure should be a massive cause for celebration. Yes it probably is a bit boring and restrictive, but when you consider what wonders have been built on the boring infrastructure of the internet it may only be a matter of time before we are celebrating the creativity which C2K enabled.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Thanks Chris for the thing this thread was missing, first hand evidence.

  • Driftwood

    An expensive (very) bureaucratic (very) quango that has no raison d’ etre apart from land big sums of government (taxpayers) money to Hewlett Packard. An agency with large numbers of staff that outsources all its lucrative technical issues to a private company. Very Northern Irish, and not even slightly beneficial to anyone but lazy and incompetent teachers- though, given that’s the majority here, you can see the ‘market’. The grammars and FE Colleges regard C2K as a joke.

  • The Raven – as a Computer Technician the reason for the lock down is pretty simple. I repair home user computers on a fairly steady rate and the vast majority are spyware / virus problems as opposed to faulty components. An open system allowing hundreds of thousands of kids access to music downloading sites like Limewire and flashbased game sites would be a computer networks worst nightmare. I recall that you could get round the C2K systems by using a proxy server to hide the urls but think that was plugged a while back.

    There is bound to be a blacklist and whitelist that teachers can get useful sites added to. I understand where you are coming from but from a technical and efficiency angle I can understand the walled garden approach being used in a large schoolling system – its going to stop porn, virus & spyware quite effectively.

  • PACE Parent

    Is this the £500 million “investment” that can’t manage or train users to let the BBC Northern Ireland staff know if a school is open or closed during a spell of cold weather?
    Five children through school syatem and not one of them taught in school to type/word process. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing costs about £10.
    Driftwood has it spot on. Chris Donnelly must do better. One or two teachers out of 21,000 is hardly an evidence-based endorsement. If teachers were paying for the devices themselves I imagine they would be a lot more critical and demanding. How about Incas Chris – do you have a ringing endorsement to make for the University of Durham too?
    Edgeoftheunion are you comparing HP C2K with the whole internet? please tell me not.Take a look at the C2K logo and tell me it isn’t the work of some geek from about 1972.

  • Chris Donnelly

    PACE
    Surely you need to redirect your aim at those actually responsible for not informing BBC NI- i.e. school leaders in individual schools, all of whom were made aware of the procedure in place to inform the broadcaster.

    I don’t actually think that anyone is interpreting comments on this thread as being representative of 21,000 teachers, be those comments positive or negative.

    Now with regard to INCAs, I think you’ll find the two of us can march hand in hand in the same direction. I don’t particularly rate the quality of the assessments and am very critical of the lack of proper diagnostic feedback, most particularly regarding Maths.

    Furthermore, for the second consecutive year there appears to be a breakdown at some level regarding the Maths, with schools again querying the scores for a particular year group, having already been told that scores can not be compared with previous years due to restandardising having taken place.

    Not a big INCA fan, PACE. Much prefer the ALTA Systems programme, and thanks to our large computer suite I can ensure that whole classes can avail of the ALTA Systems programme on a weekly basis.

  • edgeoftheunion

    As GBS might have said:
    “Those who can, teach, those who can’t, blog about teaching.”

    Stephen – Chris has dealt admirably with the snow debacle. As to learning typing…. my kids both learned to type very well at school even to the extent that they taught me a thing or two about keyboard shortcuts. Though how that has any relevance to the quality of service of an infrastructure I’m not really sure.

    The C2K logo? You cannot be serious.

  • JAH

    PACE Parent (profile)
    “Five children through school syatem and not one of them taught in school to type/word process. ”

    You clearly haven’t a clue what your 5 kids did at School if you honestly think ICT is teaching typing! Might be a good idea to look at the curriculum surely.

  • PACE Parent

    Edgeofthe union.
    At least the writer of this thread quoted his sources accurately. Your attempt to quote GBS with a “might have said” sounds like a ready made excuse to be used, for instance, to explain failure to teach numeracy and literacy in primary schools with or without ICT infrastructure and costing close to £500 million. .
    As you may be aware actually GBS said “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.
    G.B. Shaw, “Maxims for Revolutionists” in Man and Superman (1903)
    Or as I say “100% of nothing is still nothing”
    Did you kids learn keyboard shortcuts using Macs or PCs? The publishing and graphics industry was raised on Macs and adopted keyboard shortcuts to improve productivity. The PC shortcuts may be different. It is worth checking- perhaps your children are only fluent in one set of OS shortcuts.

  • Mack

    I don’t know much about C2K, but took a quick look. Looks like an lms for schools?

    I never been particularly convinced by e-learning, as Chris points out above there is a wealth of real-world information in ‘the wild’, finding that stuff, learning to navigate real world systems, distinguish signal from noise, is a very useful skill in itself. But as Kilsally points out managing / allowing access to the good stuff while preventing kids from downloading all episodes of ‘The Wire’ or worse is difficult.

    I can confirm that ICT infrastructure in southern schools is pretty poor, it was a big deal getting broadband in the school where I teach my night class a few years back.

    So much for word processing! Are they going to teach the kids how to program?

  • edgeoftheunion

    Oh Stephen!
    Unless you are aware of the original quotation you cannot use it as the basis for a quip.
    My children learned on PCs but are completely fluent in both platforms. Thankfully they did the practice bit of “Drill and Practice” and thanks to Assessment for Learning and Constructivist teaching methods at University have learned how to learn.

    Mavis Beacon is a self learning typing package which requires the learner to practice their manual skills until they are fluent.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Mack / Andy

    I don’t know if you have read Fintan O’Toole’s ‘Ship of Fools’.
    Chapter 7 ‘Off-line Ireland’ is an excoriating analysis of the structural and cultural weaknesses of ROI education WRT technology.

  • Mack

    @Edgeoftheunion

    Nope haven’t read it. In fairness I think they have put in the investment where it is most effective and reaped the rewards from that. I.e. Broadband infrastructure for foreign multi-nationals and appropriate third level courses. There have been successes such as Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle, Sun, Netscape, Aol, Avaya, Apple, Vodafone, O2, Citi, Amazon, eBay / Pay Pal, DEC, Intel, HP, Ericsson, Compaq have all had some engineering presence over the last 20-30 years.

    LinkedIn and Facebook are two new arrivals – doesn’t seem to be many engineering roles in either yet (some partner engineering jobs on the Facebook website), and Twitter is en route apparently.

    You also have some local successes such as Havoc Games (with the founders working on a new startup Kore), TrinTech out of Trinity and Changing Worlds out of UCD (also honourable mentions to spectacular blow ups of Baltimore and CBT Systems / Smartforce), & other firms such as Fineos and Houghton Mifflon Harcourt (the later ironically, produce high quality educational material for US schools!).

    I think we’d see more of the later (Irish startups / indigenous firms) if more kids learnt to program while they were young and had the time to experiment (and also while they are still part of the tech-heavy youth demographic..). I think there was some experiment with ICT training in Ballyfermot (or somewhere similar) that resulted in skilling participants to such an extent there was a succesfull animation company for films either attracted or formed as a result. I remember reading a Fintan O’Toole article on the topic previously..

    But we also need to invest in infrastructure for Irish SMEs as well as in schools. The VC link up Brian Cowen announced last year is also interesting, but may be pitifully small compared to the kinds of deals that get companies going in Paolo Alto (and even Isreal).

  • edgeoftheunion

    @Mack

    FO’T is probably unduly pessimistic, however the decision to privatise Eircom just at the time that high speed broadband needed to be spread across the country does seem perverse.
    I think Andy is right. We are in serious danger of underestimating just how good C2K is. The measure is not what it delivers to a Grammar school in Belfast, the measure is what it delivers to a seven year old in rural Tyrone.

  • Mack

    @edgeoftheunion

    however the decision to privatise Eircom just at the time that high speed broadband needed to be spread across the country does seem perverse.

    It depends. It was part of the effort to open up the Irish telecoms market. We’re definitely better of for having competition proper competition there. Eircom appears to have struggled in the new environment, I think at this stage they’re struggling to hold their ground never mind invest.

    But the government raised funds from the sale that could have been reinvested in infrastructure. Just because Eircom is in private ownership doesn’t preclude public investment in infrastructure (that could be licenced back). AFAIK, this is what they are proposing now – looking €2.5bn public investment to build a next gen broadband network servicing every home & business in the country. We didn’t get large investment with a private Eircom, but there is no guarantee we would have had better investment with a publicly owned eircom either. Would the government have preferred tax cuts, wage rises to buy votes than the ongoing cost of pumping money into bringing broadband to rural areas earlier, then ripping out the infrastructure now for next gen?

    My point is, it’s the relatively low level of infrastructure investment that is the problem – not the ownership (I’m not sure the state should be running telephone services, directory enquiries or mobile phone companies anyway – though they do have responsibilty to ensure there is high quality infrastructure at the lowest possible cost)..

  • edgeoftheunion

    @Mack

    Yep this is a familiar discussion. How do you open up a market at the same time as expanding provision? In the UK both Sky and Cabletel/NTL/Virgin spent massive amounts on infrastructure. Is it fair that they should not benefit from their investment?

    In the Greater Belfast area we have benefited massively from cable investment. Did the equivalent ever happen in Dublin?

  • Mack

    Yes, there is UPC (ex NTL, ex Chorus) providing Cable TV and high speed internet broadband. To be honest I think the complaints about broadband in the south pertain mostly to rural Ireland and maybe unusual spots in Cork city.

    There is a 3G network that covers most if not all of the country.

    And wireless broadband providers.

    They all appear to have come together though almost as a cartel to demand state support for next gen (100mbs – 1gbs).

    My guess is it will happen in Dublin regardless, but will roll out to rural Ireland much later. Whether this is a bad thing is another matter.

    Motoralla spent billions building a satellite phone network (called Iriduim I think) only to lose 99% of it’s investment because of the (unforseen) rise of the cellular phone!