As Westminster struggles with ICT, innovative school provision surges ahead in Northern Ireland
Canadian Ice Road TruckersIce road trucker: face-to-face with Northern Ireland studentsOne of the world’s biggest schools networks – Northern Ireland’s C2K (Classroom 2000) which links 1,200 schools and around 350,000 teachers and learners – is starting its move to cloud technology.

With ironic timing, as innovative schools ICT policy exits the Department for Education in Westminster, Northern Ireland educators are linking homes and schools to advanced services that learners can use on their own devices for "the cost of two Curly Wurlys per week".

The single £170 million five-year contract for the new Education Network Northern Ireland (ENNI) service has been awarded to Northgate Managed Services which has been involved with C2K since its inception.

Cheaper, fairer and reaches children and families at home too

After years of success with its original C2K network the architects of the new service have consulted with their schools and are confident. In answer to his own question, "Why invest in technology in this way?", C2K director Jimmy Stewart says, "It is cheaper – independent studies show that this sort of central procurement can save in the region of 30 per cent on total costs of ownership. It is equitable – it avoids any two-tier service where rural schools are priced out of delivering state-of-the-art education technology because of their location.

Jimmy StewartJimmy Stewart"For the cost of two Curly Wurlys per week children right across Northern Ireland have access to some of the best educational technology resources to be found anywhere in Europe.  Not just available in their classrooms but everywhere and 24/7.  In their homes."

The new development, like the original C2K, is sponsored by Northern Ireland’s Western Education and Library Board on behalf of the other education and library boards and the Department of Education. Also like the original, it is part financed by the EU Building Sustainable Prosperity structural fund.

Northgate is responsible for all aspects of the network, formerly covered by a number of contracts, which will be delivered in partnership with its subcontractor Eircom, provider of the broadband link to the 'education cloud' (200 megabits bandwidth for schools). The company is understandably upbeat.

Northgate marketing director Eleanor Lee said, “Schools will be accessing a dynamic, future proofed, flexible service which provides schools with increased access to learning resources and the ability to collaborate and develop skills which will equip learners for the future.

“There is a shift in focus from delivering a desktop service to a service which is independent of operating system or device. Teachers and learners can use their mobile devices as well as school owned devices to access  applications, files and toolsets from the My-School web portal. My-School provides secure, seamless access to private and public cloud services including Microsoft 365. Schools can also create and share applications in My-School.

“The new Education Cloud provides the ability to scale computing resources to meet the needs of schools both today and in the future with schools benefiting from secure cloud computing. This brings the flexibility and scalability that cloud services bring with the economies of scale of procuring services across all schools. Centralised back-up and archiving services ensure that schools have access to virtually unlimited storage to accommodate the expansion in data and multimedia files.

The further professionalising of school ICT services is also bringing new players to the schools market and Northgate has just announced that it will partner with enterprise networking specialist Meru to deliver reliable wireless networking to Northern Ireland schools. Wifi has been a problem for many schools but the new generation of wireless network products and services is eradicating them. Meru now has 1,000 UK education customers and is said to be picking up 15 new ones a week.

'As a school we feel that the glass ceiling has lifted'

Now the contract is in place (it started on April 1) expectations are high in schools. One school that has won national recognition for its successful implementation of technology for learning is Ballyclare High. Vice principal Trevor Martin acknowledges the important step forward for Northern Ireland schools: "Ballyclare High School has one of the largest C2k networks in the province, with network facilities in each teaching space; each teacher station also provides connection to interactive whiteboards in these spaces. The use of the C2k provision permeates the entire working and learning environment through integration of the technology into the curriculum side of teaching and learning combined with access for all staff to the administration and tracking mechanisms within SIMS. These elements together with a customised VLE outside the C2k provision provides an integrated toolbox essential for all staff, teaching and non-teaching within the Ballyclare High ethos.

Ballyclare HighBallyclare High: strong reputation for ICT"The original C2k system had been in place for a significant period of time and was originally conceived and implemented almost as a ‘one size fits all’ and as a result some schools, including ourselves, felt the restrictions of a glass ceiling for school innovation. Frequent reference to emerging technologies, coupled with new innovations gleaned from visits to BETT, left us somewhat frustrated. In saying that however, we were encouraged by the willingness on the part of the solution providers to consider advice from the chalk-face, although this was often a slow process due to the restraints of the contracts in place at that time.

"The move to the 'education cloud' concept which should provide schools with the ‘anytime, anyhow, anywhere’ approach is an exciting concept and one which will create a ‘pick and mix’ solution which is long overdue. This, coupled with increasing access speed and bandwidth, will provide schools with facilities to perhaps mirror and even improve on the home facilities of many of our pupils. It is rather frustrating for pupils who have latest technology at home to arrive in school to significantly slower operating speeds and early versions of software.

"The financial situation and its impact on school budgets is a very real concern and any solution which provides connectivity using pupil devices is welcome; it seems appropriate to use personal devices rather than provide hardware paid for from an ever shrinking budget. It will however raise an issue for schools in relation to their acceptable use policies; schools have traditionally been extremely security conscious within their remit but the time has now come for serious consideration for the use of smart phone technology within the school environment."

'Teachers, parents and young people can work in real partnership'

The ENNI vision is ambitious and embodies hopes common to many educationists. Outlining the underlying philosophy, Jimmy Stewart added, "This could be summarised as the desire to provide a service that gives teachers and pupils access to the best learning resources from across the world and bring them right inside the classroom. Not only that but, with the virtual classroom and e-learning tools, lessons and resources can be accessed 24 hours a day – allowing teachers, parents and young people to work in real partnership.

"The 'bring your own device' [BYOD] approach and the communications and learning environment services support the development of an individualised pedagogy and real collaboration between schools to allow them to work more efficiently and effectively together and give all their pupils a richer learning experience.

"Further, the management and administrative tools allow teachers to focus their attention on the classroom and learning, and they provide information to allow early diagnosis of problems at the individual pupil level. This information also helps managers in and beyond schools to make appropriate decisions about the strategic direction of the education service.

"This investment has placed Northern Ireland ahead of any other region across the UK and Europe in terms of pupil access to modern technologies.  This will clearly support the development of our economy and attract investment from major international companies into the region.

Liz WeirStoryteller Liz WeirThe technology supports and enables the collaboration between schools that is being sought both by the minister and school principals. With this new generation of C2k services parents will also be brought into this mix allowing them a much more hands-on input into their children's education."

What might this pedagogy produce? "It allows classroom teachers to access expertise and best quality resources from anywhere in the world," said Jimmy Stewart.

"Examples: Pupils in locations like Loughguile have been able to come face to face with the Canadian Ice Road Truckers; pupils in four schools spread across the region were able to share the services of a world renowned award-winning story teller (Liz Weir) to inspire their own writing and creativity; pupils from four secondary schools worked with schools from around the world on how they might co-ordinate an international response to a simulated major natural disaster, the exercise being co-ordinated by NASA from the US."

 It's early days for the ENNI project and a lot of work remains to be done, but there's no mistaking the appetite for change. Ballyclare High's Trevor Martin concluded: "The movement to a web-based approach will benefit both teachers and pupils alike and provide that seamless transition between school, home and personal device technology.

"As a forward thinking school we are one of the first schools in UK to be awarded a 3rd Millennium award.  Consequently we are well aware of the need to integrate to technology into the learning process... We are now in the 21st century and the provision in schools must allow educationists to prepare students for 'real world' environments. The potential for the new C2k generation of services is exciting; as a school we feel that the glass ceiling has lifted. No longer will the one size fits all approach be a constraint and the opportunity to extend and build on our relationship with the service provider, given the financial constraints, bodes well for the future."