Thursday 22 March 2018

The brave new world of e-learning has changed the game

Carissa Casey

WHEN new students at St Colman's College in Claremorris, Co Mayo arrive for the their first day of secondary school in September, most of them won't be bringing text books into class.

Instead the vast majority of first-years at the school will have iPads, Apple's new tablet computer, loaded with electronic school books (e-books).

Their parents have been able to buy the iPads for €657 under a scheme being offered by the school. The e-books which will be used right through the Junior Certificate cycle cost an additional €200.

"It's received tremendous support," says Jimmy Finn, principal of St Colman's.

"It's a voluntary scheme. Some parents felt very strongly that they didn't like the idea of their kids using computers rather than traditional text books. That's fine, we respect that. But the vast majority have taken up the offer."

Of the 62 new first-years, 56 will be using the iPad and e-books. Many of the parents have paid up-front for the technology.

But the school has also done a deal with the local credit union, also called St Colman's, for a low-interest loan for the package, with repayments of €23 per month.

For the last few years, the constant new editions of printed school books have grabbed all the headlines because of the additional cost burden they imposed on parents of school-going children. But printed text books might yet be antiques within a very short of space of time.

According to Seamus Ryan, education officer of Meath VEC, within three to five years traditional text books will be replaced in nearly all schools by e-books.

The advantages of e-books in the classroom are many, he claims, not least that children learn technology skills at a very young age.

"You don't have problems with young people lugging huge text books in school bags. They learn to touch type at a very young age and that's a really important life skill in today's world.

"The thing kids seem to like best is that everything is in one place -- the books and their notes. We also provide them with controlled access to the internet in the classroom so they can do discovery-based learning. That's another very important skill," says Mr Ryan.

But will e-learning mean higher costs for parents?

Mr Ryan has been at the forefront of introducing technology into schools in Meath. Students at St Fintina's Post Primary School, in Longwood, have been testing e-books for three years. They are using either a specially-designed student laptop, called a Fizzbook Flip, or standard Dell Laptops.

"We rent the laptops to the parents for €100 a year over the course of the five school years. At the end of that time they own the laptop," Mr Ryan explains.

"Because we were beta testing the e-books, we didn't have to pay for them so that was a huge saving for parents."

As yet, only a handful of Irish educational publishers are involved in e-publishing but there are signs that once out of the free pilot stage, there are savings for parents.

At St Colman's, for example, the e-book package is definitely cheaper than the traditional print text books, about €200 over the course of the Junior Cycle compared with €400 for text books. But there is the additional cost of buying the iPad.

"I suppose the point about the iPad is that it can be used for many other things," says Mr Finn. "Other people can use it in the family. In some cases, people already have iPads and then it's only the cost of the e-books."

Mr Finn is optimistic that the cost of e-books will continue to be less than the cost of printed books. "I think there is potential there for the overall costs to come down, once you set aside the cost of buying the hardware," he says.

"But I suppose the publishers will say that the biggest cost for them is the development of the books and not the printing," he adds.

Mr Ryan is also optimistic that e-books will be cheaper.

"I think what could happen is that people pay for a licence for the e-book for a period of time. After that, it disappears off the laptop. That means you don't have to pay for the whole cost of the book. It's a rental scheme, if you like."

He believes that with this system the annual cost of e-books for secondary school students in the Junior Cycle could be as little as €10 a subject.

E-learning has yet to be piloted in either primary schools or during the Leaving Cert cycle.

There are obvious issues, Mr Ryan points out, with piloting new technology on students studying for the all-important Leaving Cert. At primary level, there is the challenge of giving small children responsibility for expensive gadgets.

But the potential cost savings in both these areas would be huge. Workbooks, which can't be recycled, are a significant part of the cost of books for primary children. The book costs for Leaving Cert students are among the highest in the post-primary cycle.

Meanwhile, it might be worth hanging on to old school text books. They could yet become collectors' items over the next few years.

Irish Independent Supplement

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