€150m laptop investment like ‘supplying cars without roads’

A €150 MILLION investment over three years in a laptop computer for every classroom in the country has been likened to supplying cars without roads because of inadequate internet access in schools.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s announcement that every classroom in the country is to get a teachers’ laptop, software and a digital projector is a direct response to a recommendation from an expert advisory group on information and communications technology (ICT) in schools.

The Department of Education will spend €22m this year putting equipment into primary schools and work in second-level schools will begin next year.

Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe admitted that there has been underinvestment on ICT in schools and that he is replacing some of the money he had intended to spend last year but which was diverted elsewhere in the capital budget.

The advisory group report also recognised the constraint of connectivity issues for schools, although acknowledging pledges by Communications Minister Eamon Ryan to start rolling out high-speed broadband to 78 second-level schools.

One-in-three of the country’s 4,000 schools uses slow and unreliable satellite broadband, which many schools have given up using because looking up material on the internet takes so long or sometimes does not work because of the weak signal.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation incoming general secretary Sheila Nunan said the investment, equating to about €1,000 per class, will just cover the cost of a laptop and projector.

“Broadband connectivity and teacher training will have to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Putting a laptop into a school with no broadband is the same as giving someone a car without any roads,” she said.

The ICT industry is committed to providing training facilities for teachers in use of the new technology.

However, the advisory group – including industry representatives and chaired by Microsoft Ireland managing director Paul Rellis – has also urged the Government to invest €30m a year to update equipment and software in its Smart Schools Smart Economy report.

The €22m being spent before the end of the year will come out of Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe’s €841m capital budget. The Irish Examiner revealed last week that €140m of the €664m due to have been paid in capital costs by the end of October was still in Mr O’Keeffe’s department.

The minister has told the Irish Examiner that, while he can carry up to 10% (around €84m) of the capital budget into next year, anything remaining at the end of the year of the €318m unspent would go back to the Exchequer.

Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes said yesterday’s announcement must not be another gimmick that promises much but delivers little and continues to leave Irish schoolchildren behind their international counterparts.

Previous studies have found Ireland to be one of the worst in relation to the numbers and ages of computers in classrooms, compared with other EU and developed countries.

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