Young and tech savvy

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1 April 2005 | 0

At the start of Schools IT 2000 in November 1997, the arrival of gleaming beige cases into our primary schools was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and fear. For many, the challenge of mastering new technologies in an already cramped curriculum was daunting.

Five years later, and with over EUR100 million of government investment in primary and secondary schools, it’s time to take stock.

There are now over 60,000 computers in Irish schools; over 90 percent of these are now Windows-based. Many schools are moving computers into classrooms in addition to having a designated computer lab. This model allows for greater integration of ICT across all subjects and can prove more successful when machines are networked.

 

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Whole school networks are not as commonplace in primary schools as one would think. A perception exists that networking is a ‘Black art’ and many schools prefer supplying multiple CD ROMs for each standalone PC rather than a plethora of hubs, switches and patch cables. If a school is networked, it enables all computers irrespective of placement to access the school server, share files and printers and share an Internet connection.

The whole school network also offers the possibility to use CD-Serve technology, allowing the sharing of CD ROM applications across the school, avoiding the headache of providing and managing multiple copies of software. These units represent a sizeable investment initially (prices vary according to storage capacity), but set-up is relatively straight forward and once configured, applications run like a dream. It is however important to remember as the number of workstations accessing the CD-Serve increases, so must your software licences. The cost of expanding multiple user licences for each application should be investigated in advance of installation across the network.

What else is needed?

Accompanying these state-of-the-art PCs in schools are numerous peripherals printers, scanners, digital cameras, projectors, laptops and even PDAs. Probably most effective are digital cameras. When used creatively they can greatly enhance the educational experiences of every child. Camera resolution (the main purchasing consideration), is measured in pixels and range from the relatively cheap one megapixel models to the break-the-bank six megapixel range.

Much will depend on where you intend using your snaps; if the vast majority of pictures taken are destined for the school Website, high resolution is not as crucial as if you are preparing the school year book. Consideration should also given to the camera’s overall ease of use and how images are stored and transferred to a PC. High quality images are pointless if your camera comes with a ream of cables and demands a high level of technical skill to operate.

The popularity of cameras offering video capture facilities is on the increase and some schools have even gone as far as purchasing a dedicated digital video camera. In truth, digital video is very much in its infancy in our schools (with a few notable exceptions) as camera prices are prohibitive, and professional video editing demands a high-end PC and plenty of expertise.

Digital projectors too are becoming very popular. Though costly investments, they have many possible uses in the educational context.

In the past, far too many schools invested a small fortune in state-of-the-art IT facilities without similar expenditure on a comprehensive educational software library. It is essential that children are introduced to as wide a range of computer applications as possible, both content-rich and content-free. Curriculum reinforcement or ‘drill and practice’ programs can assist greatly in the learning process, particularly in the areas of mathematics and literacy. However, children can benefit just as much from reference programs and publishing tools. A vast array of excellent educational titles are available for all ages and abilities; teachers must decide which best suit their curriculum objectives. The ‘Bells and whistles’ are irrelevant if the program isn’t built on sound educational content.

With a little help…

Fortunately, help is at hand. ‘Evaluating Educational Software: A Teacher’s Guide’ is available from the NCTE, and prepared teacher evaluations on a wide range of programs are available at www.ncte.ie/SoftwareCentral.

Much of the software in use in Irish schools is designed primarily for the British and American markets. Because of the relatively small pool of potential users there is little incentive for the major educational software companies to develop titles for the particular needs of Irish schools. Some software has been localised for the Irish market, most notably Prim-ed’s ‘The Computer Classroom’ series, curriculum reinforcement programs for mathematics and English.

However, localised and adapted programs are not a substitute for indigenous titles. Over 30 percent of class time is spent on specifically Irish curriculum content, be it Gaeilge, geography or local history. A selection of indigenous products has been made available in recent years. Particular credit is due to Robbie O’Leary, who is responsible for the majority of these titles. His latest offering, ‘Who Took the Book’, an adventure simulation game designed to test students in their knowledge of Irish geography, is further proof of the importance of Irish software for Irish schools. This pioneering work needs encouragement and funded support. NCTE and the department of Education and Science must provide the incentive for the production of Irish software.

Home-grown resources

The potential of the Internet as a powerful resource for teaching and learning has long been understood. The World Wide Web gives children access to the world’s largest information library, facilitates communication both locally and globally, and is a powerful and motivating publishing tool. The ongoing development of innovative ‘home-grown’ Internet resources is very encouraging. Scoilnet (www.scoilnet.ie), the official educational portal for schools in Ireland, is undergoing a revamp, and an enhanced, user-friendly site is anticipated shortly. Teachnet Ireland (www.teachnet.ie) facilitates the publishing of interactive curricula, similar to Web Quests. These units are designed to make good use of time spent on the Internet, focusing attention on using information rather than looking for it.

Tobar (www.tobar.ie), an excellent Internet resource for the Revised Gaeilge curriculum, promotes and supports the teaching of Irish in our schools. There is a seemingly limitless supply of quality educational sites in cyberspace, and if you’re eager to get surfing, your first port of call should be www.into.ie/links, which provides a comprehensive and categorised directory of over 1000 useful sites.

Discouraging dial-up

Currently all primary schools have internet access on at least one computer and ISDN lines have become more common. However, the frustratingly slow and unreliable dial-up connections are seriously discouraging Internet usage.

The ‘Blueprint for the Future of ICT in Irish Education’, launched before Christmas 2001, promised a digital network would be put in place to provide broadband access to all schools. Two years down the road we seem to be no closer to the realisation of this promise. Schools in Dublin and other selected urban areas can avail of Eircom and Esat’s DSL offerings costing a cool EUR107.69 per month after installation and connection charges. There are very few primary schools out there capable of bankrolling such expenditure merely for a fast Internet connection. NTL also offers a high-speed cable option, but availability is even more limited. The exciting new learning opportunities facilitated by the Web cannot be fully realised until connectivity issues are sorted.

Massive Government investment has facilitated the development of our technology-enhanced classrooms and schools will receive new funding in the current year to facilitate further expansion (albeit 40 percent of what was originally promised). How this money is spent on providing ICT-related activities to children will come down to each school. The schools should take stock of their current ICT status and what developments they aspire to. Whether it’s purchasing educational software, digital cameras, school networking or investing in broadband Internet access, making an informed purchase is what counts. If in doubt, the ICT advisor in the local education centre will offer advice on all IT purchasing decisions.

Probably the most important purchasing consideration of all is the level of technical support offered by the vendor, particularly with hardware purchases as there are no technical support personnel for IT in primary schools. In the Blueprint document, it was suggested that pupils could be trained to help maintain hardware. Equipping a ten-year-old with a screwdriver and boot disk to replace an ailing hard drive is hardly the most logical solution. Paying a little more to a reputable supplier with a proven technical support track record makes a lot more sense than bargain hunting on obscure online sites that could easily have folded before the PC is out of its box. In addition, provision should be made within the school’s IT budget for calling in professional help if required. Companies offering yearly maintenance contracts to schools at a fixed rate provide a viable option.

Integrated or add-on?

Have we succeeded fully in integrating ICT into teaching and learning in Irish schools? Or is ICT still perceived as an add-on-activity isolated from the rest of the curriculum? There are no definitive answers to these questions, as schools across the country are at different stages of ICT development but in general, the fundamental elements are in place. Children at school today have far higher exposure to technology than before and essentially in a much more curriculum focused manner. The future for ICT in schools is promising but obstacles to progress still exist. ICT training for teachers must become more relevant and curriculum focused; indigenous software is essential; technical support for schools must be addressed; and provision of broadband Internet access is imperative.

Planning for ICT integration must start from a curriculum perspective and with a simple question: ‘How will new technologies enhance and extend our children’s learning?’ The Integration of ICT into our classrooms is a never-ending journey offering endless possibilities to both teacher and child.

 

Real ICT in real schools

North Presentation Primary School, Gerald Griffin Street, Cork

North Presentation is one of the oldest schools in Cork City. Situated on the North side, pupils number 300, with boys and girls attending up to first class and girls only from second to sixth. Rose Stack, ICT co-ordinator and IT tutor explains: ‘Computer use is pedagogy based and teachers only use computers when they see it as beneficial to the pupil or subject area.’ 

A comprehensive software library provides opportunities for the re-enforcement of class work. The children’s favourites are: Tizzy’s Toybox, Maths Circus, Who Took the Book, Creative Writer 2, and Bodywise.

The Internet plays a central role; pupils use it as a research tool for projects and communicate via e-mail with peers globally. North Presentation was designated an INTO Magnet School in 1998 and, along with four post-primary schools, participated in the SIP Technology in Music project (www.sip.ie). Currently the school boasts two computer rooms — both networked, one PC and one Mac platform. Each classroom also has a workstation.

‘We purchased a data projector last year and it has proven a great success with all teachers finding it a very useful teaching aid,’ says Rose. ‘Also our digital cameras are in constant demand.’ These are used by senior classes, incorporating pictures into multimedia authoring and other project work. However Rose believes future IT development demands affordable Internet access, funded technical support and further school-based IT training.

Inver National School, Barnatra, Ballina, Co. Mayo

Inver is a small, five-teacher school, situated about seven miles from Belmullet on the west coast. With 77 boys and girls the school boasts a computer-pupil ratio of less than 1:4. Current hardware includes 18 PCs, two laptops, two digital cameras, a data projector and three webcams. The pupils’ favourite programs include Carmen Sandiego, Netscape Composer, Logo, KidPix Deluxe and E-Jay.

Máirín Glenn, ICT co-ordinator at Inver explains the Web is central to the schools integration of ICT. ‘We use the Internet to reach out and communicate with people in places that normally would be outside our reach; we invite people to visit our school site, explore our workplace and see where we live.’ Their website has received both national and international acclaim — a Golden Spider in 1998, a Childnet Award in 1999, Spinaweb in 2001, a CyberFair Gold Award in 2001, and an e-learning award at e-schola in 2002.

‘Technology in the classroom enhances different kinds of learning through the use of multimedia, it motivates children to want to learn and helps children gain an insight into and appreciation of other cultures,’ says Máirín. Inver’s CELT (Community Empowered and Learning through Technology) initiative takes ICT into the wider community, inviting parents to share IT facilities and get involved in their children’s projects (www.inver.org). Looking towards the future Inver, like North Presentation, sees funded technical support as its top priority.

Scared Heart SNS, Killinarden, Tallaght, Dublin 24

Sacred Heart SNS in Killinarden, West Tallaght, has 285 pupils, boys and girls from 3rd to 6th class. One of the first primary schools to publish a Website, Sacred Heart has long been associated with innovative ICT practice.

Robbie O’Leary, deputy principal and ICT co-ordinator, explains: ‘In Sacred Heart, ICT is seen as a tool for teaching and learning. Computer skills are taught informally in an educational context. Paramount to this is a broad range of software to engage pupils at all levels and of all abilities.’

Favourite titles in Killinarden include Maths Circus, Cluefinders, WriteOn for Windows, and The Magic School Bus series. At present there are over 60 PCs throughout the school and work is ongoing on a whole school network.

Robbie outlines the main benefits. ‘The integration of ICTs across the curriculum has proven hugely motivational and stimulating for teachers and pupils alike, helping make educational activities more enjoyable and meaningful, facilitating collaboration and boosting problem-solving and research skills.’

Sacred Heart was named a Microsoft and Siemens Nixdorf Centre of Excellence in 1997 and an INTO Magnet School in 1998. In addition, their fifth class website was runner-up in The School and University Internet Awards in 2000 (www.suia.org).

So what about future development? ‘Unreliable internet connectivity and the deficiency of curriculum-relevant software must first be addressed before progress can be made,’ Robbie explains.

Rahara National School, Rahara, Co Roscommon

Rahara is a two-teacher, 34-pupil school situated in the rural parish of Knockcroghery, in Co Roscommon. Currently the school has seven PCs, one laptop, two digital cameras, three printers, a scanner and Internet access in all classrooms. Their main ICT focus is provision of equal access to all pupils.

Children in junior classes use paint programs, re-enforcement games and educational adventure programs. The senior classes are exposed to a broad range of software, word-processing, multimedia authoring, curriculum reinforcement, adventure games, reference programs and access to the Internet and e-mail. Top five titles are Carmen San Diego, Map Detectives, Creative Writer 2, Tizzy’s Toybox and Logo. Anne Connaughton, principal and ICT co-ordinator, explains the main benefits of ICTs: ‘It’s student-focused, motivates and challenges children, accommodates a variety of learning styles and encourages lifelong learning.’

Anne and her pupils have recently been involved in two interesting initiatives: the IBM KidSmart Early Learning Programme, promoting the role of ICT in early childhood development; and the ‘River of Dreams Project’ (www.riverofdreams.ie) in conjunction with the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and NCTE.

In Rahara, they are no strangers to awards, winning The European Young Consumer Award in 2001 from the National Youth Council for their Introduction of The Euro project, and the Ericsson Award for their school newsletter in 2002.

20/03/2003

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