Ireland’s Education disaster

This is a long rant, you have been warned.

I had a very long chat with Seaghan Moriarty of Digilogue on Friday about technology in Schools or rather the complete lack of it. I was coming at this issue with my IrelandOffline hat on and the fact that 60% of schools are getting “broadband” using a satellite dish. The connection is a 512k connection when the minimum dsl connection these days is 1mb. Broadband for boats, for schools. Imagine whole schools are powered with a connection many of us started our broadband lives with. The conversation quickly turned to deeper matters like the fact there are probably more Tesco freebie computers than Government sponsored computers in classrooms and the fact many of the computers are those old Gateway 2000 computers and still run Windows 95. What’s worse again is that most teachers are not skilled in ICT and so don’t know how to look after the computers in the schools. There is no tech support for schools either so each school must fend for themselves.

The bigger issue again though is that there is no proper curriculum for technology in the classroom. Seaghan said education seems to be one of the few areas where nothing has changed in 200 years. Take someone from the 1800s and put them in a class room of today and would they notice they have traveled 200 years into the future? Blackboard, teacher droning on, kids sitting, reading books and looking bored. The same would rarely hold for any other part of our culture. No other industry apart from maybe knitting jumpers has changed. What does this say about education in this country?

People might say that we’ve done very well with the traditional model of education. This is true, we have done, but technology now makes it possible to stimulate the brains in more ways and has been shown the more stimulated a brain, the better chance of educating someone. I find it hard in this day and age that lessons in the classroom are not enriched with video examples or web examples and that kids still need to lug books into school. It’s upsetting that the question part of education is not exercised and I mean the kids questioning, not the teachers trying to catch out the kids. We learn most when exercising our curiosity. Teachers should be finding ways of getting their students passionate and interested in various areas. They should be giving them the basics and then let the kids branch off and discover their own information. Teachers and students should have a pilot and co-pilot relationship. Pilots teaching their co-pilots the basic and once to a specific point in the journey they have the co-pilot take control and choose their destination. From then on in the teacher just gives guidance but the co-pilot has the control.

One of the key skills in the future is not going to be retaining information, but how to find information, how to filter it to be relevant and then how to combine it with existing knowledge and present it. Where’s that being taught in schools? It’s an extra curricular activity which to me is just madness. Why the concern though about a better form of education? Because there are dozens upon dozens of countries who have already seen the future and have made the necessary changes to be a strong force in the future global economies. These countries are going to be producing super-educated kids.

We are losing out in agriculture and manufacturing already and those other companies we are currently attracting will have no issue moving on to another country if they are cheaper and they offer a more skilled workforce. It is only a matter of time before this happens. The free third level education has allowed us to attract more international companies to this country as our workforce is currently valuable to them but these skilled graduates need more and more skills to keep the inward flow going. If primary and secondary schools are not future-proofing the kids then there will be even more pressure on third-level institutes to provide these skills. However these colleges will be trying to cram these skills into a 3-4 year period when graduates in other countries will have 10-15 years experience with these. We’re going to lose.

It seems madness in a way that the group I’m in (IrelandOffline) can make a national issue out of broadband and that we can get so much coverage on radio, TV, and print and yet something that’s massively more important does not get weekly attention. Broadband is important, don’t get me wrong and is crucial to the knowledge economy pipedream but education is ten times more important.

It’s annoying for me that until the chat with Seaghan and additional research I was not aware of the extent of this problem. I don’t think my head was in the sand either. The Government has failed us, as have the opposition for failing to make a huge issue out of this. Others have failed too including teachers and parents and those who have noticed the issue and failed to kick and scream. This isn’t about blame though, it’s about action.

So what would I do? I’d set up a group and have cross-section of all the stakeholders in it. It should be an umbrella group comprised of other groups such as teacher organisations, chambers of commerce type groups, student groups, academic groups, other organisations such as IrelandOffline. They should meet and agree on what needs to be done. Maybe create a plan and then share and pool resources to make this a greater issue. example: IrelandOffline campaigns for broadband but we could easily push how important it is for education. We could help write a document on why broadband for schools is currently failing and what is actually needed. A lot of these organisations need people to point to the clothing that the emperor wears.

I’d field candiates in the election in every single area where the Government are weak and where a change of power could happen. I’d do the same for all the shaky seats by the opposition parties. This is a cross party issue and every party needs to take notice. This should not be an empty threat. Do it and become the king makers. Areas that contain colleges could make a significant impact. Cork South Central where John Dennehy won by less than 20 votes is the perfect example.

Some might say I’m probably not seeing the “big picture” and there are other areas like social welfare and health to be considered too. Go create groups for them too. Education would get me going more than anything else, not that I haven’t opinions on those areas. I’d very much welcome other opinions on education and what is working and what is not and suggestions on how change can be brought about.

7 Responses to “Ireland’s Education disaster”

  1. simon says:

    I remember one time in school during a free period I was asked to teach the computer class. Aother time I had to update all the wordprocessing software on the computers.

    Funnly enough I was also banned at those times from the computer room by the principal for making all the computers cruse when ever someone clicked a button.

    To me educations surplantes everything. By far the most inportant thing

  2. Mark Dowling says:

    Well, yeah I would say you’re missing the big picture but not in a bad way. First let’s talk about the schools setup technically – I wouldn’t place as much worry about a 512mb connection. These machines should be proxied and locked down (no torrents, do it at home lads) and probably remotely administered where possible.

    As to the old PCs – that’s what Linux distros are for. Firefox, OpenOffice, Thunderbird, Nvu all run on Linux after all. They are also perfectly good file/print servers if you have enough to make an image (our print servers in the office are 1996 vintage Dell Dimension P75/P100s!)

    However – this is where the big picture thing comes in. We should be continuously examining the education system as a whole, what we should be prioritising etc. Simply putting computers into schools isn’t enough – you have get a definite win from having them there.

    For instance, one law prof in the states has banned laptops from class because she feels her students are losing note-taking abilities. I suspect many of them are probably IMing too.

    It could be that ICT could be a method for delivering school courses into small schools that don’t have enough teachers to give a broad curriculum using conferencing tech.

    Ultimately I’d like to see an existing educational network provider (HEAnet) have a leading role in deploying networks to schools rather than farm it out to the private sector piecemeal as appears to be happening.

  3. Damien says:

    Mark: The piece is NOT about ICT, it is about education as a whole. It started off talking about tech as an intro to a bigger issue.

    By the way, all the traffic goes through Heanet with these systems as part of the broadband for schools plan. 512k cannot power a whole class nevermind a whole school. How can teachers not trained in computers get their heads around linux when they can barely understand Windows? As I also stated there is no tech support so who is going to remotely admin these machines when nobody will pay for it?

  4. I think you could provide a Citrix solution for the entire second level system in Ireland and administer it for no more than two man-hours a day once it’s installed. Some techies have discussed this in HEANET discussions and I think it should be part of the discussions concerning value-for-money for the technology dimension of Irish education.

  5. Mark Dowling says:

    Bernie – how well does Citrix run over sat links? Never tried it myself.

    Damien – I’m more qualified in ICT than in education so obviously my answers are going to weighted but I’ll try and respond:

    I’ve worked in situations where 2400bps (0.00004% of 512mbps) was sufficient to do a job – it depends of course on the tasking. If you have managed messaging and firewalling so you block portscanning, torrents, spam and large email attachments at ISP level and do some traffic shaping for the rest, you really don’t need all that much bandwidth – the killer in that situation is likely to be the satellite latency if anything. I’m glad that HEAnet is involved as you say, but without further information I can’t accept your arbitrary figure of 512mb minimum without explanation of what that’s based on and knowing that your personal goal is bigger pipes everywhere – not a bad thing but bandwidth optimisation is a good thing to be involved in all round.

    As for “how do you teach teachers about Linux” – well what kind of teachers? If IT Teacher training is OS specific, it’s the wrong kind of training. Kids need to be taught in as platform neutral a way as possible – if they want to manage an AD environment, that’s what MCSE is there for, not the Leaving Cert.

    The day to day management can be carried out remotely over very low bandwidth connections (dialup will do for RDP/VNC/SSH) – all of the IT staff in my firm work in Toronto but we manage four other offices up to 400km away, visiting in person maybe twice a year. RDP/VNC for the Windows boxes and SSH for the Linux file & print servers and web interfaces on the Xeroxes allow us to configure and administer virtually every device we have. The staff just need to push power buttons or plug something in or out when we ask them to via our VOIP network.

    For the rest of the teachers, plenty of government installations in Europe have installed KDE, Firefox and OpenOffice and people have hardly batted an eyelid. The fact is that by depending solely on Windows you essentially guarantee bandwidth depletion due to all the crap that comes with it like security patches unless you have a local Patchlink or WSUS server to cache them. It also encourages usage of technologies that aren’t portable like ActiveX. We spend huge amounts of time not merely administering Windows boxes but applying patches in ways that users won’t notice or be forced to reboot. Linux on the other hand has a very good uptime record but has different limitations for desktop use in respect of drivers and other issues. You use the tools which are appropriate but which also allow re-use of time expired equipment.

    Now – your education points. Here’s the problem: to do what you want to do, you need to reshape the curriculum and teacher training. Arguably you’d need to hire a completely new cohort of teachers and completely mould them in new teaching methodologies and gradually replace the old guard by attrition rather than attempt to impose retraining – this would increase the number of teachers at a time when enrolment is falling due to falling birth rate per capita.

    In either case, the fight with the union will be enormous. The teacher unions rarely prioritise major curriculum and structural change because they are a conservative bunch who don’t see what’s in it for them – you can see it too in their dog-in-a-manger attitude to their temporary colleagues who drift from permanent interview to interview knowing the job is sown up already.

    I completely agree that research is something that should be taught, if only so kids can appreciate the value of peer-reviewed information rather than the subjective opinion which colours so much of blogs and of sites like Slashdot and Wikipedia (both of which I contribute to).

    As for the colleges – this is where you’re really dreaming. There is no zealot as hardy as a college activist but they form a miniscule proportion. Liberal parties in every country in the West have prayed for students to vote for decades – they just don’t because they don’t give a rats ass. Old people vote (political parties run cars from nursing homes – when was the last time you saw that on campus) – persuade them and you can have anything you want.

    Nice post btw – forgot to say that off the top.

  6. Great article Damien and thanks for the exposure to what is essentially a national disgrace.

    I won’t go over old ground, but in deference to teachers that I know in Primary school – they are hugely committed to the best education they can deliver (which in many cases is through and about ICT). However, the continuing lack of vision, policy and investment is resulting in even these leading edge teachers becoming cynical and disillusioned. Teachers who a couple of years ago would spend saturday morning fixing up computers for colleagues, or working after-hours to get a colleague’s printer working, or bring a laptop to get fixed etc.. – many have now totally given up – and abandoned using technology in the classroom.

    I’m just in the middle of designing a course to be delivered by 50ish tutors all around the country to groups of 15 to 25 teachers. The time allotted for design of this course has decreased, the number on the design team has decreased – and most of the course is based around Open Source and freeware!! This is because as schools have received no money for software, hardware, tech support etc. for 4 years, it would be disingenuous to learn about commercial software.

    I would call on the government for two items in the coming months:

    1. A policy document on education for the knowledge society
    2. A budget of €300million for ICT in the Primary sector to cover 2002-2007

    Ireland’s slide in the international broadband and technology tables is almost inconsequential in comparison to our lack of preparation for tomorrow’s learning needs.

    Is this ‘point of rescue’ for our economy of 2015? I certainly believe so.

  7. Branedy says:

    I’ll put in my two bits here.

    I know of a school in Cork where the principal did not want to put a computer into the teachers lounge because she did not want them to use computers. Most of the so called ‘computer’ teachers only used the computers in the computer room to teach ‘touch typing’. There were NO classes using the computers to teach other subjects. No one used the computers for any internet activity. Even the Library computer was not permited on the internet. There was only one teacher who maintained the computers, and managed to get them on the internet, almost in opposition to the principal and board of management.

    As for the technology, gee, anyone could make that happen. it only takes money. But you have to train the teachers first. Then replace most of the computers in the schools. Then you can start to think about the education of students.

    As for the linux comment, how does that work with two thirds of the computers being under 300Mhz, and 64MB memory, 1/3 being 75Mhz and 32MB. Windows 95 was an upgrade, 98 and 2000 are highpoints there. With no machines having 128M, or more than 5GB disks.