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'The demand for tech and IT just skyrocketed overnight'

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Alan Johnson of Johnson Technology with one of the
latest batches of laptops he sourced and set up for a secondary school to allow students work from home during the ongoing lockdown.

Alan Johnson of Johnson Technology with one of the latest batches of laptops he sourced and set up for a secondary school to allow students work from home during the ongoing lockdown.

Alan Johnson of Johnson Technology with one of the latest batches of laptops he sourced and set up for a secondary school to allow students work from home during the ongoing lockdown.

While front-line retail workers have received the lion's share of the attention, another group that has been kept extremely busy keeping the country running are those involved in the IT sector.

With all schools and most of the private sector now working from home, the demand for IT services has gone through the roof, while the supply of the necessary equipment all but dried up as much of the country switched to home working.

All this has led to unprecedented demand for IT services and one of the busiest people working in the sector in Kerry is Tralee-based Alan Johnson.

Alan - who runs Johnson Technology - has been working day and night since the crisis began to help schools and private firms all over Ireland meet their new technology requirements.

With all classes now taking place remotely, schools have dominated much of Alan's time, with much of the work linked to the emergency grants the Government provided for schools to buy IT equipment.

This €10 million fund - with €7 million for second level and €3 million for primary schools - was announced at the start of the lock-down and has resulted in an unparalleled spend on educational IT.

A typical large secondary school has been granted between €17000 and €19,000 to spend on IT, with the bulk of this usually going on laptops and tablets.

While the schools have the cash, there's also the small matter of sourcing the equipment and setting it all up. That's where Alan and his colleagues in the IT industry enter the equation.

Though setting up the devices so they're ready to be turned on and used immediately by students is a simple but time-consuming process, the real difficulty has come in actually sourcing the machines.

With thousands of major firms moving to home working almost overnight, the demand for laptops and tablets far outstripped demand, as Alan explains.

"When it comes to schools it's not just the students, a lot of teachers need hardware as well. A lot of them had desktops in their classrooms so they need laptops to work at home. You had a situation where almost the entire private sector shut down at once. There were large firms in Dublin buying up 600 or 700 laptops in one go," he said.

This demand - with schools competing with some of the country's largest and wealthiest firms for the scarce IT resources available - was compounded by an existing lack of supply caused by the shut-down of chip production overseas.

"Before the pandemic there was already a shortage of Intel chips, and now there's a massive demand for hardware. There are outlets that have hundreds of laptops on their sites in the morning and every one of them is gone 24 hours later," said Alan.

While the supply situation has normalized to an extent - most firms have suitable remote systems up and running by now - Alan says the demand is likely to remain high as school's prepare for an uncertain start to the next academic year.

"The demand is going to continue. If schools return in September, they will probably have to operate a blended learning system for several months, with pupils dividing their time between school and home.

"That could easily go on until next year, and schools will need to tool up during the summer so that they are ready for whatever happens."

While the systems used by schools - such as Google Classroom - provide an excellent solution in the current situation, Alan acknowledges that they are not without their faults.

"The systems like Google classroom are very good and extremely easy to use, but they have their issues. For a start, they're all Cloud-based, so if you don't have a good internet connection, there's a problem

"They are a very good alternative but, basically, there's no substitute for a classroom. Say you had a problem in maths class, you can call the teacher over and ask them, you just can't do that online.

"You also have a situation where a lot of schools don't have proper technology strategies in place.

"That's something that a lot of schools are working to address right now."

Kerryman