Education in Ireland

Perspectives on the Irish education system distilled through the crucible of experience,leavened with the empirical wisdom of the perpetual student!

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Evolution of ICT and its Impact on Education

The speed of the evolution of information and communications technology (ICT) has been phenomenal. My grandfather grew up in a society without the telephone; my father in a society in which the radio was a source of wonder and television a late and expensive purveyor of black and white imagery. I live in a society that constantly expects to receive broadband Internet connectivity and my sons live in a world where music is an MP3 file downloaded from Napster.

The changes the ICT evolution has wrought affect every sector of society. My mother’s hearing aid is a miracle of miniaturisation and transistors. Without microprocessors hospitals would have to close, airlines would be grounded and the bank is enabled to closely monitor the details of my current account through on-line banking.

The evolution of ICT has occurred in five stages:

· Computer
· PC
· Microprocessor
· Internet and
· Wireless Links

The story begins during World War II with the large electromechanical calculator Harvard Mark I. It was 50 feet long, eight feet tall and weighed 5 tons. Some years later the ENIAC was presented in Philadelphia. It used 18000 vacuum tubes and weighed 30 tons. Each task to be performed required the throwing of 6000 switches covering three walls, a mammoth machine occupying a large space. In 1947 the first transistor was invented and the use of transistors allowed for the development of smaller, more versatile and more powerful computers. “Computers” became a catchword and input-output technology graduated from punch cards to magnetic tape; new computer languages were designed to allow interaction with the new technology. Applications were expanded and the ICT evolution was underway.

The second stage in the evolution of ICT began in the 1970’s when it became possible to place processors on a “chip”, and magnetic discs were constructed. In 1977 Ken Olsen, the President of Digital asserted that “There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home.” How wrong he was! At the same time, Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak began to sell their Apple II machine and a young man called Bill Gates had founded a firm called Microsoft. Within a few years the PC had changed from being regarded as an esoteric toy to a valuable work tool for word processing, accounting and later graphics. IBM first launched its Personal Computer on the world in 1981. Now the PC has become as popular as bicycles in my grandfather’s time or the radio in my father’s time.

The third part of the ICT evolution is that microprocessors have now become embedded in a myriad of products to the extent that the world as we know it would grind to a halt without the humble microprocessor. The steering systems of planes, the traffic lights on our streets, the control panels of power stations, air conditions systems all depend on microprocessors. Microprocessors control every facet of our lives; they are constantly expanding their capacity, applications and users.

The fourth evolution of ICT has its origins in the 1960’s when the US Dept of Defence drew up guidelines for a communications network among computers called ARPANET. Universities within the US and later from outside the US began to link up to this system and to use it to send messages. France developed a variant – Minitel system – at the start of the 1980’s. The US National Science Foundation set up its own network as also did a number of universities on the east coast of the US. In Europe EARN became a network among academic institutions and CERN in Geneva was crucial in the development of the World Wide Web which only got its name in 1990. Within a few years “surfing” on the net became a social phenomenon. The advent of broadband will accelerate this phase in the evolution of ICT. What is important about this evolutionary phase of ICT is that users have built social networks to make them useful and effective. Indeed the social superstructure in this instance is indeed super!

The fifth and current stage in the evolutionary process of ICT is the wireless one. This phase began with the invention of the mobile phone. The initial mobile phones were large and bulky. Reduction in size has been accompanied by a greatly expanded range of functions. Now, depending on the age of the user, mobile phones are used for talking, transmitting messages, pictures and music. Linking without phone lines is now taking place not just inter-continentally but via satellite. High frequency short-range radio transmitters that cover a specific area and “blue tooth” and infra red communication within buildings makes wireless communication a world-wide phenomenon.

The speed and impact of the ICT evolution is a practical proof of Says’s Law: Supply creates its own demand. Contrary to Ken Olsen’s prediction, PCs have become a household appliance. When they became linked to a telephone line they were transformed into networks and their usefulness increased exponentially when access was available to libraries, information and email. The PC was a household gadget that became a necessity. The PC itself has become synonymous with globalisation. Components come from all continents, chips from Asia, software from America, mobile phones from Europe. Brand names are instantly recognisable all over the world.

The development of new products and services has been to the forefront of the burgeoning Irish economy and the Celtic Tiger over the past ten years. The development of the World Wide Web and the Internet has led to the development of an interactive network of individuals. It is by and for interacting people. This epitomises what the ICT evolution has been all about. It has been about spotting opportunities and inviting everybody to participate and to make good use of them. The ICT evolution has been an evolution in learning. The individual has realised the potential of the new tools and has introduced them into his/her home. As an evolution in learning, ICT has transformed the available technologies; the means of studying, the modalities of school operations, investment and expenditure on resources, and the way we think about what education should be.

The development of the Web and the Internet and the increasing availability of broadband will allow schools to post course material on the web, assignments can be communicated and received via email, and teachers can be accessed at any time. Indeed the new technologies will allow schools to reach out to many students who up to now might have slipped through the educational net. Distance education is now a reality.

The evolution in ICT should make us question the way we think about organised education. ICT liberates the provision of education from time and place constraints. Education and training can be customised by allowing materials to be adapted to individual needs and paced according to individual progress.

In Ireland we have been on the cusp of the great “leap forward” into ICT-based learning since the late 1990s. Those years of energy-charged enthusiasm have now petered into a déjà vu sense of “where did we go wrong?” Teachers have been trained in the use of ICT; computers have been put into schools, but why has the educational system not been transformed? My personal opinion is that it is far too soon to say the revolution has failed. After the hype there must be a “bedding-in”. Many teachers are only now coming to terms with ICT. Only when teachers as individuals begin to use ICT for email and begin to make use of the Internet for personal research, will they fully comprehend what an awesome tool they have for teaching and learning. It’s an evolutionary thing, which is where I think I began this essay!


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