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The Future of Digital Learning Looks Bright in Ireland

It’s that time of year where students big and small return to school with heavy backpacks and refreshed minds, while parents feel relieved that routine and lessons are back. We’re used to the regular checklist of back-to-school with pens, paper, and countless books, but what about a reliable broadband connection?  

The pandemic demonstrated how connectivity supported the education sector, with classes pivoting online via video call platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Teachers and students alike showcased agility while traversing a new way of learning. In 2021, SIRO’s Director of People and Culture Blanaid O’Regan wrote about how e-learning is transforming the delivery of education, and the need to learn from the pandemic experiences – good and bad – and build on them. 

At the same time, Ireland’s Department of Education was finalising its Digital Strategy for Education. In April 2022, it was published. It’s a five-year strategy to 2027 and follows on from its’ predecessor which concluded in 2020.  

Digital learning is about using digital technologies and tools in a variety of ways and location, whether as a group or individual, in the classroom, at home or in other settings. 

Embedding digital technologies and adopting digital approaches to classroom learning in our primary and post-primary education system is both a huge challenge and opportunity. To ensure that the new strategy was fit for purpose, the Department, wisely, commissioned a review of the previous Strategy.  

While there were many positives, it also exposed the work still be completed. This included the fact that digital technologies were not a feature of teaching and learning in 45% and 38% of primary and post-primary schools. That many teachers still struggled to access the professional development needed to deploy digital technologies was another standout finding.  

In contrast, where digital technologies were well embedded it was held that, “having access to high-speed and dependable broadband was one of the key supporting factors.” 

To be fair, the new Strategy is working to address the imbalance between those in our education system with reliable broadband and those without high quality access.  

It has set a target that all primary and post-primary schools will have access to a minimum of 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps respectively by 2023. This will be realised by a range of financial measures, including a €15 million per annum broadband fund.  

The commitment to have a further funding envelope to allow for further broadband speed upgrades is also welcome and necessary. This is particularly the case where Gigabit speeds are fast becoming the norm as the footprint of fibre broadband stretches ever further across Ireland.  

Having the backbone for digital technologies – reliable, high quality and future proofed broadband connectivity – is, without question, key. But so too is ensuring our schools have access to the expertise to deploy it in the correct way, maximise its potential and be sufficiently knowledgeable to troubleshoot when required. 

The benefits of digital learning not only extend to primary and post-primary, but for all levels. Third level institutions have long offered flexible learning options through online courses for those working full time. 

The tendency to rely on the sole teacher who is “good with technology” is something specifically called out in the Strategy and sensibly the Department is now looking to examine new procurement mechanisms to give all schools access to technology experts.  

When it comes to the delivery of education, it is not just as simple as online/remote  vs. classroom learning and numerous studies examining which approach works best have shown different findings, depending on who or what was being asked.  

Digital learning is about using digital technologies and tools in a variety of ways and locations, whether as a group or individual, in the classroom, at home or in other settings. What does matter hugely is digital literacy and adoption by students, teachers, and their parents too. 

The benefits of digital learning not only extend to primary and post-primary, but for all levels. Third level institutions have long offered flexible learning options through online courses, including for those working full time. This demand for e-learning at further and higher-level educational settings looks set to grow.  

During the current accommodation crisis facing students, while far from ideal, online education may be the difference for some between pursuing their course albeit online or not at all.  

The new Digital Strategy for Education will make a significant contribution to improving the access to digital technologies in school setting and with-it digital literacy. However, the other vital cog in the wheel is to ensure high quality connectivity in the home.  

For parents, having a reliable, steady, internet connection removes any stress from the learning process, so you and your child can focus on the homework at hand. The broadband landscape is changing on a monthly basis and the availability of high speed, future proofed broadband is reaching more areas day-by-day. If fibre broadband wasn’t an option when the last school year kicked off, just 12 months ago, it may be now.  

It’s always worth checking your Eircode to confirm availability in your area, for your peace of mind and your kids!