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Thursday 18 September 2014

Digital schoolbags firm makes the grade with 'one stop shop' system

Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30

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50 Irish schools and over 5,000 students to use Wriggle 'digital' schoolbags

As debates over Junior Certs and teacher training continue to rage, hundreds of secondary schools around the country are quietly moving ahead with digital schoolbook replacement.

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In most cases, it is iPads taking the place of back-breaking schoolbags. And one company is putting more of the machines into schools than any other, with around 10,000 kids involved.

"We now work with over 100 schools around the country and we think that could grow to around half of the 726 secondary schools in Ireland within the next three years," says Beryl Furlong, director of education at Dublin-based Wriggle.

"It's mostly first year and transition year students, but we'll see some of the kids move into exam cycles now using the iPads and digital schoolbooks."

Furlong and business partner Tom Close realised at an early stage that schools faced a number of fundamental challenges with digital tools.

"One of the problems historically experienced by schools is that they buy a heap of IT equipment and, after a year or two, have no-one to effectively manage it all," says Furlong. "Much of it just ends up sitting in a store room gathering dust."

The same problem applies with tablet-based learning, she says. School principals face the prospect of becoming IT admin managers with devices, content licences, software upgrades and security issues to worry about. So Wriggle simply does the lot: it provides the iPads, digital schoolbooks, software management and security in one go.

"What we've found is that if you make it easy for people, it becomes a much more workable solution," says Furlong.

To this end, the company has come up with a system that incorporates texts and materials from established Irish publishers. Schools effectively have a one-stop shop.

"We learned that you don't go near a school unless you have all of the content and the devices ready to go," says Furlong. "You have to take the pain out of it for teachers."

This approach seems to be working for the firm, which currently employs 12 people but is now looking to hire more. It expects to see revenue top €20m in the coming year and is currently building a new online education platform itself, designed to allow teachers, parents and students to share more educational information online.

"We used to be banging down the doors of schools to show them how a system like this could work," says Furlong. "But now we find that many of them are ringing us."

But is the predominant focus on iPads a sensible one for schools? Aren't there cheaper alternatives in Android or Microsoft formats?

"One advantage to Apple is that all of the management tools are there and easy to use," says Furlong. "We've found that some of the Android deployments are implemented without all of the elements in place. But Microsoft has some good technology in this area also."

The Apple focus may also have something to do with Wriggle's origins, as a spin-off from Apple-focused Typetec.

How does Wriggle make money out of this process? It charges €1 per month per student to manage the devices, in addition to a small percentage of digital schoolbook sales and a "very small" cut out of each iPad sold.

"This isn't a get rich quick business," says Tom Close. "But we have plans to extend into the UK at some point. Once you can get scale, you can establish a really good business."

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