Getting ready to embrace changes

Published 14/01/2014 | 05:34

Deputy principal Eddie Crean with students in the computer room at Coláiste Abbáin.

COLAISTE Abbáin principal Senan Lillis jokes that he has letters after his name. The letters are BC, which stand for 'Before Computer', acknowledging that he is old enough to recall an era when boards were black and a mouse was something which ate cheese.

Now he looks forward to the day dawning when his students will abandon books in favour of tablets, while many of the raw ingredients of learning will drop from a cloud - or maybe even from The Cloud.

Deputy principal Eddie Crean is a self confessed computer geek, though he too comes from the BC generation. When he first arrived on to the campus in the early eighties, Adamstown was still very much a computer-free zone, like every school in the country.

However, it was not long before the first of the new machines arrived. Some farsighted officials in the VEC cleared the way for purchase of a couple of Apple 2e's, revolutionary pieces of hardware in the vanguard of taking information technology away from scientists in white coats and into the lives of the general public.

The Apples were followed by Wangs on which classes of secretarial students learned how to type. Mere typing, by the way, was being replaced by something called 'word processing'.

For the nerds who wanted to know how computers worked, there were courses in simple programming. He may be a BC dinosaur, but Senan Lillis embraced the new technology, learning to conduct these classes in computer languages called Basic or COBOL on a Commodore 64. The times were truly changing.

The challenge was to bring these new fangled, and increasingly compact, gizmos to education in the wider classroom, not just to the word processors and the nerds. As far as Eddie Crean remembers, it was engineering which led the way, with computer assisted lathes.

By the nineties, Coláiste Abbáin had its first computer rooms, full of PCs. The internet was not much accessed. It was a time of laboriously slow dial-up connection. However, rudimentary links were created between all the computers in the room. Not world wide by any stretch of the imagination, but a web of sorts nonetheless.

'We had an ISDN line and a dial-up connecting,' remembers Eddie, rather like the manager of a giant power station harking back to the day when someone first rubbed two sticks together to make fire. Via such primitive wonders a pioneering night class devoted to the subject of culture and heritage downloaded images of murals from far-off Belfast.

he deputy principal is constantly mindful of the fact that his school is 13 miles from the nearest town. Improving the link between rural Adamstown and the outside world was achieved by means of a sophisticated satellite connection via Forth Mountain. This has proven a major step forward as Coláiste Abbáin has kept pace pretty well with the growing momentum of the information technology tsunami which is rocking education and altering society.

As things stand, the computer is already standard equipment in the classroom. The first interactive whiteboard was installed in 2005. The total stock of computers in the school is around the 70 mark, serving a population of 20 teachers and 166 students.

Now comes the long awaited letter from the Department of Communications with a cast iron promise that high speed broadband is on the way to Adamstown some time in 2014. Soon videos which take minutes to download via the mast on Forth Mountain will be available in seconds. The days when the system slows down to a crawl because too many users are logged on and active will be gone. Small wonder the deputy principal is excited.

'Where we had a country lane, now we are getting a motorway built to our front door,' he says.

Meanwhile, head man Senan Lillis is preparing to ensure that his staff are trained to seize the change and move up a gear to harness high speed. Better broadband has the potential to open up links with other small schools to organise the teaching of subjects for which there is minority demand, for instance.

The teacher may be in Dunboyne or Dublin but his students could participate via a virtual link. The possibilities are endless for links within the school and beyond the school. It is a dizzying prospect as pupils and teachers will be able to share lessons on screens which are increasingly portable.

What happens in the school reflects what is occurring beyond. Staff already find that most youngsters arrive computer savvy. The problem is bringing the minority who do not use IT at home into the fraternity of screen users and keyboard tappers.

In English, the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh will be brought alive with recordings of the man himself reading his verse. In art, the drawings of Da Vinci will be instantly on tap - with very little need for code. Irish classes may expect to spend more time enjoying the TG4 player. The music room will continue to enjoy the services of a wonderful old upright piano, while pencils and T-squares remain in the technical graphics workshop, but the scope of the old technologies will be magnified by the new, once reliable high speed broadband is on tap.

Few schools have abandoned text books in favour of tablets but the teaching profession realises that the rest will inevitably follow. It is the job of people such as Senan Lillis to make sure that the move will represent progress rather that mere novelty.

- DAVID MEDCALF

Gorey Guardian

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