What does ubiquitous broadband coverage mean for the education environment and what challenges and opportunities do schools face in adapting to this?
- Integrating technology across the school curriculum with Wi-Fi
- Monitoring and filtering content to manage risk
- Budget restrictions affect schools' technology investment
- Schools struggle to engage social networking
The UK's IT education system came under fire from Google supremo Eric Schmidt in a recent speech, when he damningly described the country as wasting its technological talents due to an inadequate IT curriculum. But as the flight to all things digital continues at breakneck speed, what do technological developments mean for the school environment? Are we future-proofing the next generation's education?
Tom Paes, network manager at Tomlinscote School & Sixth Form College, recently rolled out Wi-Fi at his school, after implementing a policy to allocate one laptop per child last year. As there was no longer a computer room, this was the logical move, he says. "I like to think that made a very positive impact, for the first year we got an outstanding grade from Ofsted," says Paes.
For Paes it's not so much about having a strong IT curriculum - although he says this is important - but effectively incorporating IT across subjects.
"The aches have mainly been with staff, who have to change the way they teach. All our education material is on the virtual learning environment, which is the key to ensuring the use of wireless," says Paes.
"We set ourselves targets after two terms that 20% of lessons would involve the full use of laptops and 30% of homework would be handed in online. The latest target is to see 50% of lessons using IT in some manner."
All students must come into class with their laptops fully charged, as trailing leads across the floor is a health and safety hazard. If they don't then it's an instant detention, he says.
Saverio Romeo, senior industry analyst of mobile communications at Frost and Sullivan, says Wi-Fi is the most popular internet solution in schools because it tends to be more cost effective and provides better connectivity between campus buildings.
The model is to use a Wi-Fi router to a fixed infrastructure that spreads the signal inside the school with Wi-Fi repeaters, he says.
Public Sector Networks (PSNs), which connect and redeploy internet networks in regional areas, are also helping to bring increased connectivity, says Brown. "Some of the problems are being answered by PSNs. That seems to be pushing connectivity in rural areas," says Brown.
"Last year, when BT cut through a line, we had no e-mail for three days. Hopefully we shouldn't be getting into that situation again. That has been an issue in the past," he says.
But with ubiquitous internet coverage comes a host of distractions. Paes says his school banned Facebook and MSN, which can only be used by the sixth form. Mobile phones are also not allowed. YouTube is accessible as an aid to teaching, but the site is banned for under 13-year-olds, he says.
Monitoring the internet is not difficult, adds Peas. "We have a central feed from out ISP that has a high-level filter disc, we also have a separate filter box on site which we can put additional things on - we have about 90 sites on that, including Facebook. And we have software which gives us snapshots of the students' screens. Porn, or other pernicious material gets blocked at high level on the schools internet feed," he says.
Alan Brown, head of college ICT at Thanet College, takes a slightly different approach to regulating the use of social networks. His college caters for students over 16-years-old and students are also allowed to bring in mobiles, with text tools used to remind them of exams.
"I very much believe in what Einstein says - that any teacher who could be replaced by technology probably ought to be," Brown says.
"If students are on Facebook rather than concentrating on lessons it means we are not engaging them. We should be using technology to make lessons more interesting, rather than using it simply as a sophisticated note-taking device."
"If you say you can't use Facebook, students will just find holes and breaches. Instead we need to educate students and staff on how to use it," he added.
Cyber bullying has been an issue in the past, he says, but by stepping in quickly the school has been able to nip it in the bud. Paes says his school has also had to take a hands-on approach to cyber bullying, despite the fact that it does not allow social networks.
But both Paes and Brown agree the bigger problem facing schools lies not so much in the challenges the technology throws up, but whether they will have the future funds to utilise its full benefits in the future.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, all schools in the EU must have a connected network by 2015. Simon Hollister, regional director at education Wi-Fi specialist Xirrus, says most schools already have some form of wireless with first-, second- and third-generation users: "The real issue is being able to have more capability going forward," he says.
Romeo agrees the main challenge for schools is money, and how the government will support the implementation of high speed connectivity. "I have a bit of doubt about that, despite the Lisbon Treaty," he says.
"The investment on ICT infrastructure in schools is very important, we cannot allow ourselves to have schools where there is not appropriate connectivity," he says.
"The key aim for education policies is how they will do that with money going down. Why not, for example, interact with technology companies and bring companies in to schools in form of co-operation."
The government's slashing of the technology grant by around 50% has created some major problems for schools, says Paes. His school was lucky as it was able to implement its one laptop per child policy and Wi-Fi rollout before this happened, he says.
"This will almost definitely impact on Wi-Fi at other schools. Fortunately our capacity should be enough to last for the next four to five years," he says.
"I feel that schools have suffered the brunt [of cuts] in terms of IT. There is the E-learning foundation which offers more for children from a deprived background, but if you don't come into that very narrow group then you don't get funding at all. It's a good scheme and all very well but we haven't got any money from them."
Romeo agrees that not focusing resources on this area could be detrimental. "The dynamics of mobile space is decided in Silicon Valley, and that's partly because IT education in Europe is behind on educating kids in a digital environment," says Romeo.
He says the biggest thing that needs to change in Europe is the distinction between humanities and technology. "People in Apple for example have diverse backgrounds. Technology and arts are interrelated - a point which Eric Schmidt made in a recent speech.
"Today the European schools system does not give a strong importance to digital technologies as America. IT is important because it connects schools to the digital society and enables the next generation to transform society," says Paes.
According to one expert on IT in education, local education authorities and schools still seem to be struggling to engage social networks and education.
He says: "It is a disciplinary offence in most areas for teachers and pupils to have 'contact' outside of the teaching environment - for obvious reasons. However, increasingly it is hard for the two groups to be kept apart. Naturally pupils make social groups and comment on staff, schools and policies."
Teachers, parent and governors and anyone else are unable to really respond or contribute ethically. Moreover, there are a large number of academics who are not very IT literate.
This was first published in October 2011