Cisco Technology Helps Bring In A New Class Of School Teaching
January 7, 2004
By Jason Deign, News@Cisco
Technology has ushered in a new era of education in which teachers and students may be miles apart; tests can be marked automatically as soon as they are completed; and a keyboard and computer screen augment the blackboard.
A prime example of this transformation can be found in Catalonia, an autonomous region in the north east of Spain where 238,000 secondary and 332,000 primary school students are preparing for the information age through an ambitious project run by the Catalan Department of Education.
There, as a result of plans to improve education standards across the board, every student has access to computers with links to curriculum material relevant to all stages of their academic career. Teachers are given new technology to enhance their teaching methods.
The project, which grew out of moves to introduce telecommunications and computing resources into pre-university education in the 1980s, has four main components: an infrastructure network called XTEC, an application called Clic and an Internet portal each for teachers and students.
XTEC (which stands for Xarxa Telemàtica Educativa de Catalunya - the Catalan Educational Telecommunications and Computing Network) is made up of school LANs connected to a regional hub via a WAN.
The school LANs use Cisco® 800 and 1700 Series Routers connected via 4- or 2-Mbps broadband, supplied by the Spanish phone company Telefónica, to a central hub equipped with Cisco Catalyst® 6509 and 6506 Switches.
This, in turn, is connected to the 100 Mbps Catalan Scientific Ring, a network that connects the region's universities and research centers, and which has 10 and 100 Mbps connections to the outside world, provided by BT and Colt Telecom, respectively.
Depending on size, schools in the region have from two to 500 computers, giving a ratio of about 8 students per computer in secondary classes and 11 students per computer in primary. The Catalan Department of Education plans to cut the overall average ratio from 9.5 students per computer in 2003 to roughly 8 in 2004.
All this technology supports a highly advanced online education system based around two portals - www.xtec.es, for teachers, and www.edu365.com, for students - and Clic, a Windows-based freeware application designed to help teaching staff develop their own multimedia education aids.
Clic is used widely by Catalan teachers - and increasingly by schools across Europe and America - to create educational games, puzzles and other tools for free reuse. A Java version of the software has recently been developed so the tools can be launched directly from a Web page.
The application has spawned more than 115,000 multimedia learning activities to date, grouped in more than 1,000 curriculum packages, mainly in Catalan and the other languages of Spain - mainstream Castillian, Galician and Basque - as well as English, French and Portuguese.
Clic activities are available via the XTEC and edu365 portals, but these support much more besides.
XTEC, for example, last year handled 35 million e-mails and transferred 95 million Web pages - about 45 Gigabytes of information a day. It also hosts more than 2,000 school Websites and 2,500 personal teacher's Websites.
These advances were showcased earlier this year at a three-day conference, called "Education and IT: the next ten years", hosted by the Catalan Department of Education and Cisco Systems.
And the increasing trend towards the integration of IT in learning was highlighted by Bill Fowler, education director for Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, who gave a glimpse of how much further technology could take the classroom.
Fowler said the reason technology has taken so long to impact on education is simple: "Blackboard chalk is fault-tolerant. Our technology has not been fault-tolerant. And when we provide technology to teachers, it needs to work every time."
Technology is finally rising to the challenge, though, and now "you can no longer think of education and IT as separate things," he says. In particular, he lists five things that have impacted education - and will do so even more thanks to network equipment:
- The Google® generation: today's students use applications such as Napster or Instant Messenger, which are easy to use, have obvious value and - increasingly - can be accessed on the move. Successful teaching tools will soon need these attributes, too.
- Teachers: they, not children, are the ones that need access to IT, argues Fowler. Building systems around the teacher will allow them to do things like "Full-frontal teaching - working from projectors to keep eye contact with students instead of around to write on a blackboard."
- Competitiveness: as education becomes increasingly driven by league tables, one of Fowler's goals is to improve the assessment of school results without adding to teachers' workloads. This means building the assessment tools into the system.
- Equity: 'education for all' in now an accepted axiom - and an area in which technology can play a major role by overcoming barriers of space and time. However, says Fowler, it is imperative that easy access should not compromise personal security.
- Budget: "There is little leeway in education budgets so technology applications need to focus on cost avoidance and sustainability. Success metrics should not be just about doing something - but about changing behavior to get the results we want."
Jason Deign is a freelance writer based in Barcelona, Spain.