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Broadband versus Britannica

Here is the Department of Education & Skills (Ireland) press release announcing free Encyclopaedia Britannica access for students at school and at home.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn T.D., has today announced free home access to the online edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica for all school-going children. For the past three years, primary and post-primary schools have had access to the resource, and today’s roll-out is an expansion of this service.
Britannica Online School Edition is a unique and comprehensive resource designed for all levels of learning. It has four age-specific learning areas which contain various engaging teaching and learning materials, all designed to build confidence and inspire continuous discovery.
Announcing the new development, Minister Quinn said, “I am committed to providing digital content to students that enhances their learning through the use of technology. Our children and young people will now have access to Britannica Online in their own homes and this means that whatever their ability, they can learn at their own pace. Access is available to Britannica remotely via the scoilnet.ie website and will encourage students to continue the process of learning at home.”
Britannica Online has more than 129,000 articles with over 46,000 graphics, 4,000 videos, plus audio clips, interactive games and quizzes. It is updated with new material daily. With an average of 160,000 visits per month, scoilnet.ie provides a central resource to teachers, pupils and parents, offering access to a growing repository of advice and information.
Today’s announcement comes as the roll-out of high-speed broadband to second level schools continues, with a further 200 schools expected to be connected by September of 2013. ENDS
So, there you have it. Free access to the famed Britannica, thank you very much Mr. Quinn. However, several points come to my mind.
Firstly, as I explained the details of this wonderful resource to my class of pupils this morning one very perceptive 9-year-old mentioned that it is great news…and then (out of the mouths of babes): “But, sure, isn’t google free?” Her point being, Mr. Quinn…what’s the big deal? As if to reinforce the point, as part of our Great Famine history lesson we had been googling for reliable information from several noted sources (here, I use my blogger’s licence to recommend Waterford County Museum), but when we searched Britannica for information about “coffin ships” we came up with NOTHING. Absolutely nothing. Isn’t that rather interesting? Try it for yourself. So, what’s the big deal Mr. Quinn?
Secondly, I have to bring to my readers’ attention the fact that in many Irish schools broadband provision is a joke. The last sentence of the press release above refers to increased provision for secondary schools. As a primary school teacher / principal let me tell you my story. My small rural Waterford school in Stradbally received grant assistance ten years ago to purchase equipment, a satellite dish was installed and the school was networked. I began my teaching in Stradbally in 2007, and quickly became aware that whereas the local infrastructure was in place, and a government contract was in place to provide (slow speed) broadband to my school, the system simply did not work. I spent hour after hour on the telephone to the help-desk in Limerick. Lovely people they all were; very pleasant, and very professional…but I suspect that they too were aware that they were attempting to support/fix a system that simply did not work on a regular basis. Here, I am adding a link written by a past-pupil reflecting several years later on our experiences and frustrations at that time.
Our situation worsened until 2010, in particular because we invested heavily in technology and attempted to integrate this technology into everyday school life, without a reliable broadband connection. We certainly were frustrated. Finally, we had to make the decision to abandon the ill-fated Department of Education & Skills broadband provision. I am informed that more than 700 rural schools were in the same terrible situation, and some still are. It seems also that the Department Gurus were aware that they had signed a ten-year contract (reliable information?) and had been sold a pig-in-a-poke. Maybe they were able to secure some refund? Maybe, but that does not solve our problem. We decided to source our broadband from a local supplier, Solar Broadband. Quite literally, we have not looked back since then. We can look forward, and we can plan with confidence. We can attempt to educate to 21st century requirements. We can google reliably; we can research; we can play; we can bring the outside world into our classroom.
This is entirely as a result of reliable broadband provision. Encyclopedia Britannica might be cool, but it’s only a tiny part of the bigger picture. Broadband versus Britannica? You can’t really have the cream without the cup!

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