Saturday 25 October 2014

From mountains to the islands – broadband should be top of the class

Every second-level school should have high-speed broadband from September.

Published 28/05/2014 | 02:30

Hi-tech: first-year pupils at CBS Secondary School in Thurles Tom Ryan (13), Tom Clarke (14) and Peter Melbourne (13) with their iPad ebooks. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

It is a quiet revolution that has taken place in classrooms across the country. By this September, every second-level school should have high-speed broadband.

Airspeed Telecom will provide a 100Mbps broadband service to a further 65 schools, completing a national jigsaw.

So long as they have the equipment in school, teachers should be able to hold video-conferences with other schools across the world.

Teaching through YouTube and other digital resources has now become second nature to many teachers. The use of wireless broadband has transformed teaching facilities in schools in remote locations, including the Aran Islands and Tory Island. It is hoped that these improved communications will help keep island communities together.

In some schools, good connections have the potential to improve the choice of subjects available.

For example, if a school does not offer classes chemistry at Leaving Cert, students with an interest in the subject can follow the course at another school using video-conferencing.

At Coláiste Phobail Cholmcille on Tory Island, teachers struggled to get on the internet at all before high-speed broadband arrived, but now their connection is perfect right across the school.

Principal Máire Clár Nic Mhathúna says: "Previously our connection depended a lot on the weather and the phone lines here, which are often not the best.

"Even when we had a connection, basic email was all we could really manage. Now we have high-speed broadband access in every classroom."

The Post Primary Schools Project was launched almost a decade ago to meet the Government's ambition to develop Irish schools as "world class centres of e-learning". Broadband has arrived in fits and starts.

When this phase of installation activity is complete, it will mark the end of the entire project, meaning that all 760 secondary schools in the country will have access to high-speed broadband.

Connecting every school has been an enormous challenge. The idea is that a school in the Black Valley in Kerry should have the same quality of connection as a school in Blackrock in Dublin

Because of their remote location, it has not been feasible to connect every school by cable, because in areas of low population density it is uneconomic.

Liam O'Kelly, chief executive of Airspeed Telecom, says: "We use the topography of the mountains to deliver broadband by radio. It is the same type of technology used by mobile phone companies to connect with base stations.

"If a school is on an island, we have a transmitter on the top of a school and then we would have another link on top of a mountain on the mainland."

Tiernan O'Donnell, principal at CBS Thurles Secondary School, is looking forward to having 100Mbps broadband from next September.

He says: "It will greatly enhance the learning experience for our students. As a school it has helped us to decide to bring in ebooks for first year pupils next year."

From next year, every first year student at CBS Thurles will have an iPad, costing €375 each. They will also be part of an ebook rental scheme.

The school has already used ebooks on a trial basis, through a number of different devices.

Although the school is just getting top speed broadband, it is already oriented towards new technology. Thurles CBS has uploaded maths materials on to the ITunes U study app, and this is available to other schools.

Mr O'Donnell says: "We already have broadband and it works reasonably well but when we have over 100 pupils on iPads and teachers also using them, it will need the higher speed."

Mr O'Donnell has no doubt that digital learning brings benefits to certain pupils.

Some students may not relate to paper books, but learn well using devices such as iPads.

He says: "It also opens up a wealth of new material that can be downloaded. If you are teaching history, students can see video of the Normandy landing or Adolf Hitler."

The completion of second-level broadband programme will help to make this more accessible, but Irish primary schools still lag a long way behind. Some teachers also question whether the best possible broadband is of much use when many schools cannot afford the equipment to use it effectively.

Learning compromised

Lack of good broadband has affected the quality of digital learning in Irish schools, according to education researchers.

Second-level schools have been promised high-speed broadband in September, but there is no such commitment at primary level. An OECD study found Irish teenagers need to use more technology in the classroom and engage in new ways of learning if they are to improve performance. That is the conclusion from a study on creative problem-solving skills using computers, where Irish 15-year-olds ranked as "average".

Ireland was 17th out of 28 countries in the developed world, and 22nd out of a broader comparison of 44 countries. In an analysis of the results, Ireland's Educational Research Centre pointed to the lack of computer use in as a likely reason for the disappointing showing.

Irish Independent

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