Minds open to embrace the living experiment

The Examiner, Tuesday, June 8th, 1999

Judy Murphy looks at how Ennis has changed in the 18 months since becoming Ireland's Information Age Town.

It's now over 18 months since Ennis was selected by Telecom Éireann to become Ireland's Information Age Town, part of a living experiment which is allowing Telecom to see how improved communication affects people's lives and to discover what people want from the enormous array of information technology now on offer.

Since then, as part of a £15 million investment by Telecom, technology has been introduced to Ennis on a scale never seen before in Ireland. Computers have been installed for a nominal fee in 75% of the town's 5,500 homes, and for free in Ennis's 12 schools, while telephones, voice mail and Internet facilities have also been made available to homes, businesses and schools.

So far, one fact is revealing itself clearly, says Des McLaughlin, chairman of Ennis Information Age Town, (IAT) the organisation established between Telecom and local groups to develop the project. If technology works for people, they'll use it.

But some people are more receptive to the Information Age than others, acknowledges McLaughlin, a senior Telecom executive who is well aware that, for some people, it represents a huge leap into the unknown.

"Awareness is the biggest obstacle," he says. "You are taking these services into the community, but people have to decide in their own way and in their own time what this technology means to them as individuals. I'm not saying it will change lives, but it will only enhance lives if people see it as having that potential."

Because it's not all hi-tech, Ennis's IAT status has actually had an impact, to some extent, on almost all residents. This is shown by the enormous take up on Telecom's offer of free telephones and free access to voice mail with 93% of homes in Ennis now having phones - more per head of population than anywhere else in Ireland. Over 77% of telephone lines in Ennis are using voice-mail, the highest usage of any town in Ireland.

Among those benefiting especially from the town's new status are schoolchildren, businesses and community organisations. The communications technology being piloted in Ennis also offers special advantages to people with learning and physical disabilities, as computers and improved communications allow them to become part of a workforce or community in a way which wasn't previously possible.

Dulick Enterprise Centre is proof of this. Located on the outskirts of Ennis, it provides training for people with a wide range of disabilities, including mental health problems, learning difficulties and other disabilities such as visual impairment. Run under the auspices of the Mid Western Health Board it caters for 66 trainees, aged between 16-45 and offers courses in catering, hairdressing, computers, business administration, sewing/crafts, woodwork and horticulture.

The aim is to help trainees find employment locally, explains Joe Sweeney of the centre. But some people who would benefit from training are unable to attend the centre, either because of distance or health problem. Because of this, Dulick Centre is now moving into distance learning, in partnership with the Information Age Town Project.

Using special ISDN communication lines, and computer hardware, trainees and centre staff will be able to set up video links between the centre and people's homes whereby teachers can train the pupils via this live link.

As part of the pilot programme, scheduled to begin shortly, students will receive computers, video cameras and other equipment, which will be adapted to suit individual needs. Long term, the plan is for the students to work from home as teleworkers.

Teachers and pupils of Ennis's 12 schools are also closely involved with the IAT Project, with pupils using technology for research projects and for co-operating with other schools nationally and internationally. Ten schools in Ennis now have computer laboratories, fitted with data projectors, scanners and printers, while 470 computers have been installed. To ensure pupils gain maximum use from these, the IAT is providing a special training programme for teachers, in conjunction with University of Limerick.

One school where computers are now part of daily life is St. Flannan's College. An array of skills are taught and career guidance classes are regularly conducted with companies and colleges via the Internet, says Fr. Brendan Quinlivan of the college. Outside teaching hours, St. Flannan's provides computer courses for adults and pensioners, using college facilities and expertise.

St. Clare's School in Ennis, which works with children with learning disabilities, is also taking advantage of the new technology. Teacher Anne Walshe says interactive computer programmes help pupils learn basic communication skills quickly, and enhance their attention span. Pupils also communicate with other schools in Ireland and abroad via e-mail and the Internet. Ms Walshe is currently taking an Information Technology diploma with UL and for her, this technology definitely complements her work.

But not all the new technology has been so successful as is shown by the electronic money introduced by AIB and Bank of Ireland. This consists of a card, which can carry cash. But, it hasn't yet captured people's imaginations and the uptake has been very low.

But, it's all part of the learning process which this month saw IAT launch a £2m Business Programme, developed in consultation with Ennis businesses to make the Information Age a reality for the town's 800 businesses. IAT hopes that, by the end of 2000, at least 50% of Ennis's businesses will be trading goods and services over the Internet and the majority will be using e-mail.

The impact of this project is long term says McLaughlin. Not everyone is excited by it and some feel intimidated by technology. But it is having an effect and is part of the future. And, as a new generation of computer literate children grow up in Ennis, the results of this venture promise to be very interesting.

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