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

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.

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