KILKENNY -- Noel Dempsey, the Minister for Education and Science, maneuvered around several road works on the streets of Kilkenny on last night on his way to a two-hour community meeting. Minister Dempsey brought a few ideas to the Kilkenny meeting that revealed the government had €18 million in mind to use for filling in the road works with something more than crushed gravel.
Like several other cities around the country, parts of Kilkenny’s streets are sliced open for the laying of a community broadband ring. These fibre optic cable systems serve up high-speed Internet access to those connected to the newly laid cables. Minister Dempsey announced how the broadband rings would help to connect every primary and secondary school to broadband Internet services.
Both the Minister for Communications and the Minister for Education have set a target of December 2005 for all 4,100 primary and secondary schools to be connected to always-on broadband.
The government has negotiated “a voluntary commitment of €15 million over a three year period by the telecommunications sector,” Minister Dempsey said. The money comes primarily from industries represented by IBEC’s Telecommunications and Internet Federation. A further €3 million comes from the Government.
Broadband connectivity will open up much faster download speeds for educational content, greater access to multimedia applications, the development of a central schools Internet network and associated helpdesk for safety and security. Primary schools connected to this broadband system would have the proper speeds to allow students to review examination materials. Current developments could also lead to online access for parents to review the progress of their school children.
Following an initial series of technical discussions with a joint departmental working group, Minister Dempsey expects that a tender will issue in May 2004 with a view to beginning deployment in schools by December 2004. All schools should be connected one year later.
During today's launch, Minister Ahern pointed to the hugely significant project. “This helps provide for our future skills needs. I applaud the telecommunications sector’s vision and tangible support, which will ready our young people for participation in the knowledge economy. The applications and learning tools which broadband will open to schools everywhere will pay dividends in years to come.”
The Department of Communications’ wider vision promotes the use of broadband technologies in local communities around the country. Philip Nolan, Chief Executive of eircom, said, “We are committed to bringing broadband to every town in Ireland by March 2005 and including schools in this programme is an extremely important facet.”
Universal access to broadband at all levels of education forms an integral part of the Department of Education’s strategy of integrating ICT into teaching and learning.
Minister Dempsey said, “The delivery of broadband to the classroom will significantly enhance the potential of ICT in teaching and learning by facilitating whole class access to a wide range of multimedia applications, much faster download of educational content and on-line communication and collaboration between school communities.”
A natural connection currently exists between the major telecommunications companies and the education sector. Esat BT already drives technology through its continuing sponsorship of the Esat BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. O2 and Vodafone phones are in the pockets and backpacks of most students, underscoring how Ireland’s youth are accessing electronic content at a much earlier age than ever before in Ireland.
Two other facets appeared at the Tuesday launch. Minister Dempsey explained a new set of guidelines, produced by the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment, for Teachers in the use of ICT in the Primary Curriculum. The guidelines show how ICT can become a powerful resource. It is up to teachers to ensure “children are using these tools to add value to their learning.” The new guidelines “represent a significant milestone in providing a continuum of support for the use of ICT in schools.”
The greatest measure of support for the programme could lie in a partnership between HEANET and all schools. Additional Government funds are being invested in establishing a dedicated centrally managed schools broadband network and associated helpdesk facility for primary and secondary schools. Observers point to the role currently played by HEANET, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for Irish higher education.
HEANET currently provides high-speed broadband connectivity at very competitive rates to member schools through a central point. As a proper ISP, its network filters content, scans for virus infections, locks down basic firewall rules, and searches for rogue intruders. It gives third level institutions a direct route to the fastest Internet nodes, ones dedicated to research and multimedia. The HEANET anti-spam service alone is a value-added function that cleans up e-mail better than any free Webmail host. Its protective features mean that students are safer to browse at school than at home.
Should primary and secondary schools connect to HEANET, they could efficiently communicate directly with each other and with an extensive education network spread across the world. Ultimately the network will also act as a platform for the hosting and delivery of curriculum related digital content and applications. It could conceivably offer a cross-section of third level lecture notes to second level students and foster a new dimension of connected communities.
Schools will receive detailed information on the broadband programme next month. Details on all the commercial ISPs and on HEANET options exist online already.
Information Society Commission -- "Ireland's Broadband Future" (544kb PDF)