Ireland's Digital Woes

The nation's economy is thriving. So why aren't its schools technologically better?

Emmet Cole

THE ECONOMIC BOOM THAT THE Republic of Ireland has enjoyed since the late 1990s — known as “The Celtic Tiger” — is one of the most rapid in the western world. Thanks to annual economic growth of 4 to 5 percent, unemployment has fallen from 16 percent in the late 1980s to about 4 percent in 2006.

The standard of living has skyrocketed and, most tellingly, given Ireland’s historical traditions, net immigration has overtaken emigration as people from around the world flock to reap the rewards of Ireland’s new prosperity.

Not every Irish student has enjoyed the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, however. Although education budgets and access to technology have increased, Irish schools still show evidence of a digital divide.

This is surprising, since Ireland’s economic renaissance was built on investments by such high-profile technology companies as Intel, Google and Bell Labs.

Ireland — a small-island economy on the edge of Western Europe with limited natural resources but a well-educated population — is truly a knowledge economy. So, if the problem is not entirely fiscal, what has caused this digital divide?

TECH TROUBLES

Ciaran McAuliffe is an elementary school teacher at St. Cronin’s Junior School in Swords, a town outside Dublin. “Sometimes I think we’re going backwards when it comes to technology,” says McAuliffe, who has been teaching for 30 years.

Most classrooms are fitted with one standalone PC, which is connected to the school’s government-funded broadband network. A computer room stores 11 desktop computers for 585 students, but the schoolchildren seldom use them.

“There are no designated IT teachers in the school system to provide support to other teachers, except full-time class teachers who might have an IT post,” McAuliffe explains. “Therefore, if a teacher needs support, then it would have to be outside work hours. Plus, it’s hard to bring a full class of 31 students to work on 11 computers. But the reasons go deeper than that.”

IT is not an official element of the Irish curriculum, McAuliffe explains, which means that Irish teachers are not required to use technology in their classrooms. As it is, the teacher’s timetable is already full to the brim, so anything that is not peremptory or obligatory is a low priority.

For McAuliffe, this explains why technology is implemented purely on an ad hoc basis, according to the enthusiasm of individual principals and teachers.

The responsibility for determining Irish education policy lies with the Department of Education and Science (DES). Since 1998, the government agency has provided more than 157 million euros (nearly $200 million) for teacher training and the purchase of IT infrastructure, including hardware, software and Internet connectivity. Gaps remain, however.

In an e-mail to EdTech, DES admits that “more remains to be done to integrate IT with teaching practice and broader curriculum and assessment objectives.” Moreover, “there is still some way to go before the educational benefits of technology are more fully realized.”

This admission is backed by a 2003 report titled Digital Divide: Analysis of the Uptake of Information Technology in the Dublin Region, which was commissioned by the Dublin Employment Pact, a nonprofit group funded by the Irish government. The results are based on surveys provided by some 1,200 households and 120 schools in the Dublin area.

Researchers found approximately 26 students per teacher with IT training in Dublin’s high schools, and about one Internet connection for every 13 students. The report called for the rapid implementation of free broadband access and improved technical support across Irish schools.

As a result, the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), a DES agency, in partnership with the telecommunications industry, is overseeing a 30-million euro ($37.8 million) broadband rollout to every school in Ireland. The process began in June 2005 and is expected to be completed by summer 2006.

St. Cronin’s School has broadband access, but McAuliffe would like the government to go a step further and provide full-time technology teachers to support a comprehensive IT infrastructure in Irish schools.

The DES is taking a census of IT uptake in Ireland’s 4,000 schools, and is due to report its findings in the summer of 2006. But McAuliffe is not optimistic. “I see no progress being made unless a proper framework is put in place,” he says. “The children are being put at a real-world disadvantage.” But, he adds, “I know I am going to use IT in my classes.”

INADEQUATE TRAINING

The closest Ireland has to a nationwide IT course is the European Computer Driving License (ECDL), a basic computer literacy test for all ages, taken by nearly 3 million children and adults worldwide each year.

Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 children — and two-thirds of high schools — participate in the ECDL program each year. “We’ve been very successful, in that we’ve filled the void in the curriculum,” says Jim Friars, CEO, Irish Computer Society (ICS), which oversees ECDL training and provision.

However, Friars believes there is a general IT-deficit in the teacher population, and calls for more teacher training.

A sign of the times is that an ICS-supported pilot Interactive Whiteboard Project, involving the use of data projectors, interactive whiteboards and DVD players in the classroom, has just gone live. The response from teachers has been enthusiastic, but the technology is far from ubiquitous: Only eight schools are involved.

DIGITAL INITIATIVES

There are some positives, however.

Its contemporary design a gleaming symbol of Ireland’s new prosperity, the Digital Hub rises into the Irish sky. The nine-acre site is just a 10-minute walk from the city center, within the historic Liberties area of Dublin.

The Digital Hub is the heart of a government initiative to develop a digital media enterprise center in a traditionally disadvantaged area of Dublin’s inner city. Nearly 60 high-tech companies — in sectors as diverse as robotics, digital television and games development — have offices there.

The Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative (DLLI) was created in 2002 to leverage the Digital Hub’s private sector expertise to bridge the digital divide in deprived inner-city schools. Eleven elementary and four high schools participate, with a total student population of 3,600.

John Hurley and Michael Hallissy, both former elementary school teachers, were appointed as directors of learning at the Digital Hub Development Agency. They spearhead the DLLI’s digital education projects.

“Young people are coming from a media-rich environment,” Hallissy says. “But they are, in a lot of cases, coming into schools where there is a total disconnect between what they experience at home and what they experience in school. We need to engage these kids. The only way to do that is with technology.”

Diageo has provided 1.3 million euros ($1.6 million) funding for DLLI programs, from robotics to digital filmmaking. It’s the kind of public-private collaboration Hurley says is essential to overcome the lack of digital access.

A number of graduates have gone on from DLLI projects to pursue university-level training in digital media and other technology-related courses.

“Two of the main problems in this area are poor self-esteem and motivation,” Hallissy says. “Technology engages those young people in education, and, in some cases, keeps them in school.”

The DLLI collaborates with the National Schools Completion Program, which works with children aged 15 and 16 who are in danger of dropping out of school.

From a national perspective, Hurley believes the argument for technology in the classroom has shifted from an educational to an economic one.

“We’re competing in a global economy, and our economic success to date has been built on knowledge,” he says. “If we want to sustain and develop that, and safeguard Ireland’s position as a knowledge-led economy, then we have to ensure that the new literacy for the Digital Age is encouraged at the school level. Islands of excellence don’t suffice.”

Clifford Brown spends five days a week in schools, helping to get DLLI programs operating and providing constant classroom support to teachers. Brown also conducts professional development workshops for teachers at the beginning of the school year.

“Many teachers haven’t really come around to seeing the potential and possibilities that these technologies can bring to the classroom,” Brown says. The main challenge for groups like the DLLI, he says, is “convincing teachers that technology will bring positive changes to their educational practices.”

Despite Ireland’s thriving economy, a lack of leadership from the government is hurting its schools. This has left teachers and principals fighting to integrate IT into classrooms. Sadly, Ireland’s digital divide has less to do with economics than with an overall strategy and a culture in which IT is a low priority for educators and policymakers.

Emmet Cole is a freelance journalist from Ireland, now working in Austin, Texas.

JUST THE FACTS

• Irish schools are equipped with only 85,000 computers for 918,000 students.

• In 2002, the average pupil-to-computer ratio was 12:1 in elementary schools and 9:1 in high schools, down from 35:1 and 18:1, respectively, in 1998.

• Of the 49,122 elementary and high school teachers in Ireland, approximately 34,000 have taken IT training programs.

SOURCE: IRELAND’S DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND SCIENCE

BY THE NUMBERS

Adequacy of Information and Communication Technologies Funding in Dublin Schools

Secondary – Boys

MORE THAN ADEQUATE - 0%
ADEQUATE - 20%
INADEQUATE - 60%
COMPLETELY INADEQUATE - 20%

Secondary – Girls

MORE THAN ADEQUATE - 3%
ADEQUATE - 30%
INADEQUATE - 38%
COMPLETELY INADEQUATE - 30%

Secondary – Coeducational

MORE THAN ADEQUATE - 5%
ADEQUATE - 21%
INADEQUATE - 53%
COMPLETELY INADEQUATE - 21%

Community/Comprehensive

MORE THAN ADEQUATE - 0%
ADEQUATE - 50%
INADEQUATE - 38%
COMPLETELY INADEQUATE - 12%

Total

MORE THAN ADEQUATE - 2%
ADEQUATE - 32%
INADEQUATE - 44%
COMPLETELY INADEQUATE - 22%

SOURCE: DUBLIN EMPLOYMENT PACT REPORT, 2003. ONE ROW OF FIGURES EXCEEDS 100% DUE TO ROUNDING.

Oct 31 2006

Sponsors