Reflecting the crucial importance of broadband to learning, many of Ireland’s leading third-level institutions are significantly upgrading their broadband capabilities by taking up direct connections to the fibre-optic Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) near to them.
Recent high-speed connections to Athlone IT (Dark Fibre), NUI Maynooth – Kilkenny Campus (20Mb) and Cork IT (10Mb) have further bolstered an already impressive roll-out of the technology to third level institutions. A recent survey suggested that 87,996 third level students are directly relying directly on MAN services.
This is just the latest demonstration that the MANs are delivering for Ireland. This series of roll-outs shows the success of the MANs in bringing high-speed broadband and the associated benefits to educational institutions across the country.
The significant uptake of fibre technology is a strong indicator of the way that technology is revolutionising the way these third level institutions operate. Online learning is amongst the most compelling applications for broadband technology in higher education.
International education is a niche but growing export industry for Ireland, with international students bringing economic benefits including fees and living expenditure on goods and services. Access to broadband is a key enabler of growth in online learning.
Among the critical challenges for third level institutions are, adequate bandwidth to allow academics to perform collaborative research with peers in other institutions, provision of simultaneous internet access for large numbers of students, and the development and delivery of online or distance education.
The growing use of ICT in general and broadband in particular is fundamentally changing the way research is conducted in higher education. Researchers rely heavily on the internet to access research information and online journals, as well as communicating with international colleagues.
There is growing use of modeling and data visualisation in research to better understand complex processes, especially in fields such as environmental science and biotechnology. Such research is dependent on the availability of high performance computing and advanced networks to facilitate the manipulation and exchange of very large data. Those universities that lack sufficient bandwidth will increasingly find that they are unable to participate in key fields of research. There is a real fear that institutions will become marginalised in the global research community and will be unable to attract high quality researchers or research funding.
Many stakeholders have identified the need for staff development as a barrier to the integration of broadband technology into educational institutions. Lecturers need adequate training, and time away from teaching face to face, to research and incorporate broadband material into their courses and realise the advantages online learning can afford. The question of cultural change is closely related to that of staff development. The use of the internet in the classroom and the move to flexible learning off-campus for students are significant changes and could caused resistance amongst teaching staff. It’s clear that staff need support to understand these new technologies. They also require a broader context to understand how the changes caused by broadband fit in with wider developments in the education sector.
New technologies are playing an increasingly significant role in the development and competitive fortunes of Ireland’s third level institutions, Through the provision of high-speed, flexible and reliable communications solutions, phase 1 of the country’s MAN fibre network has played a crucial role.
As the country completes the development of a Next Generation Network throughout Ireland, the Phase 2 MAN towns are set to play a major role. The success to date of the country’s fibre in facilitating more effective learning in third level suggests that their importance will only be increasing.