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Digital Schools Sponsored by Cisco Are Set to Connect Isolated Islands to IT Opportunities

October 19, 2009

By Mike Stone

Some 1500 km from Lisbon and about 3900 km from the east coast of North America, the Azores may appear cut off from the world.

But this Portuguese Autonomous Region is becoming more connected every day, in part thanks to a digital schools project supported by the Cisco® Networking Academy®.

The project is part of an ambitious initiative which aims to "transform the region in terms of both public services and the way in which people learn," says Paulo Malta, Cisco public sector account manager for Portugal.

Four years ago, the Azores' regional government linked up its various agencies on the archipelago's nine major islands via a network of digital service stations, providing citizens with greatly improved access to state services.

"The Escola de Novas Tecnologias dos Açores is doing an excellent job."

— Nuno Guarda, program manager for the Networking Academy in Portugal and the Nordics

In the last few months, the concept has been extended into the educational arena, with all 35 schools in the territory being connected to the government's network, allowing fast digital communication from school to school, and school to government.

Each school was provided with a LAN, wireless networking and IP telephony equipment to support free calls between schools and to government agencies.

What is more, schools have had a technological make-over, with computers, SmartBoard interactive whiteboard systems and video projectors in most classrooms.

Initially this technology is primarily intended to help improve mainstream teaching, but there are plans to use it too to incorporate IT courses, based on the Networking Academy, into school curricula.

In order to do this, Cisco is providing hardware such as switches, routers and wireless kit to schools. This will provide students with a vital practical, hands-on opportunity to hone their skills.

So far, six instructors from Azores University, which has its own Networking Academy, have been trained to teach the Cisco CCNA® courses.

The instructors are now being tasked with training teachers across the archipelago, with four already prepared to teach either CCNA Discovery or CCNA Exploration courses to their students.

"It was not entirely straightforward," admits Nuno Guarda, program manager for the Networking Academy in Portugal and the Nordics. "The university teachers were initially concerned that they would be teaching about Cisco, not IT.

"The courses focus on teaching students a broad range of technical skills, including networking, that will provide them with the foundation to be successful in the 21st century."

Several school-age students are already studying at the Azores University Networking Academy, but it is the islands' vocational schools that are spearheading the rollout of IT studies into the mainstream educational system.

"One of the schools, the Escola de Novas Tecnologias dos Açores, has already started and is doing an excellent job," explains Guarda.

"Several dozen vocational students aged 16 to 18 are already taking CCNA Discovery and Exploration courses, and some are learning about with wireless technology. Two other vocational schools will probably start this year.

"Regarding the islands' 35 public schools, those offering secondary education are likely to start joining the project next year."

Great care is being taken to ensure that these new IT courses are integrated seamlessly into school curricula, to avoid disrupting the current lesson schedule.

The number of hours that the digital schools classes are taught will vary from school to school, depending on their particular needs and wishes.

Although Cisco is making a significant contribution to the project in terms of know-how and technology, most of the necessary investment is coming from the Azores Regional Government and the European Union.

The success of the digital schools project will be an important demonstration of how networking technology can connect remote communities.

Apart from being distant from the mainland, the Azores cover a massive geographical area, straddling three tectonic plates in the middle of the Atlantic. The total landmass of the archipelago is 2346 km2, supporting a population of around 240,000.

Giving students access to Networking Academy teaching will ensure the islands' upcoming professionals are equipped with the latest in IT skills to be competitive in the global economy.

The Cisco CCNA Discovery curriculum provides foundational networking knowledge, practical experience, opportunities for career exploration, and soft-skills development to help students prepare for entry-level careers in IT and networking.

The curriculum offers a hands-on approach to learning, and uses interactive tools and easy-to-follow labs to help students learn the general theory needed to build networks.

CCNA Discovery is designed to be offered as an independent, standalone curriculum or combined with programs offered by secondary schools, technical schools, colleges, and universities.

Students who enroll are not expected to have previous technical skills or knowledge, aside from basic PC experience.

The Cisco CCNA Exploration curriculum, meanwhile, provides a comprehensive overview of networking; from fundamentals to advanced applications and services. It is based on a top-down approach to networking that is popular in many colleges and universities.

The course emphasizes theoretical concepts and practical application, while providing opportunities for students to gain the skills and experience needed to design, install, operate, and maintain networks in small-to-medium businesses, enterprise and service provider environments.

Mike Stone is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.

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