Removing Inequality

What impact is the IT revolution having on the content and delivery of educational services? John Connolly looks for some answers

THE educational opportunities offered by computers are almost unlimited yet, until the designation of Ennis as the Information Age Town, most predictions of the effect of computers were based only on speculation. In Britain, the Dearing Report on education proposed that all children should have a laptop by 2005; now, it is the western town of Ennis which will provide this Stateís first test of the computerís power to facilitate and enhance education.

Matt Power, principal of Ennis Community College, believes that the provision of computers to all children in the community will address a fundamental imbalance which exists currently. "There is a computer component on the courses we provide and, at the moment, many students donít have experience in that area," he says. "It will remove the inequality in the system. Previously, students who came in with computer skills did so because their parents could afford a computer. There will now be a levelling of the pitch in that respect."

He also sees an opportunity to forge stronger links with schools in other countries - the college already has links with schools in Sweden, Holland and Denmark - and recognises the potential offered by the Internet. "Up to now, schools just couldnít afford to have a dedicated ISDN line (a special line which can transmit high quality data and pictures)," he says. "It will make things much more exciting."

But Mr Power also believes that the college has the potential to offer a service to the larger community through the provision of the internationally-recognised course in computer skills, known as the "International driverís licence" in the computer world. "There will be a huge need for training, and it would be an ideal way to bring in parents and help them to develop their skills. The beauty of it is that it is internationally accepted."

Clare Vocational Education Committee is already a provincial provider of training in the computer area and is planning to become an approved provider of the "driverís licence". According to Sťan Conlon, the VECís adult education organiser, it is unlikely that there will have to be a significant expansion in computer training in order to equip people with the skills they need to exploit the possibilities offered in Ennis.

"The VEC was already dipping a toe in that water," he says. "By now, we are reasonably familiar with the technology. We will see an expansion of that when Telecom …ireann puts in its ISDN lines. If we are going to meet the demand for training, we are going to need more facilities. I can see a big expansion in the area of providing training for adults.

The Open University has already begun to exploit the educational opportunities offered by the computer age to create its own "virtual university".

"Itís becoming more and more interactive," says Dr David Moore, who tutors on technology and MBA courses in the south west area, including Ennis. At the most basic level, intending students can already access course information or order brochures through the Internet, but there is also the OUís dedicated "FirstClass" system, which allows students access to journals, noticeboards and conferencing via modem.

Maths and science subjects, as well as elements of the Masters in Business Administration course, already require some of their course work to be done electronically. A new undergraduate computer course, to be introduced in 1998, will allow essays to be sent on computer, marked onscreen by tutors and sent back to students, with tutors comments, via e-mail, and the OU is actively involved in developing the possibilities offered by CD-ROM.

In fact, Ennis represents something of a Utopian idea come through for institutions like the Open University. Computers offer a huge potential resource for distance-learning and also disabled students, but financial constraints mean that not every student has access to a modem, or the Internet, or even a computer.

"IF you talk in socioeconomic terms, a few people have been disadvantaged in that way," says Mr Moore. "They may have had the money for the fees but the fact that they didnít have a machine may have put them off." Yet the increasing role of computers in education is becoming an issue for all students. The vision of a community, like Ennis, where everyone has access to a machine, is a vision of a community where everyone has access to an unrivalled educational resource, a virtual library constrained only by the physical dimensions of the screen.

Mr Harry Bulger lives in Ennis and is taking a masters degree in technological design through the OU. He already uses a computer as part of his studies, utilising the "FirstClass" system, although the new initiative will also give him Internet access.

"It would be ludicrous to try to do what Iím doing in complete isolation, without the computer," he says. "Itís opening doors all the time. Itís a new world, completely invaluable." Mr Bulger believes that the arrival of the IT era in Ennis will lead others to take up the opportunities offered to expand their skills and their knowledge base. "An awful lot of people use PCs in work but perhaps for financial reasons havenít got one at home," he says. "It will be opening doors at home for them. Itís not just for the kids. They are going to use the opportunities offered for themselves".