SchoolSat is an initiative to utilise advances in satellite technology to improve access to the Internet for Irish schools. It is partially funded by the European Space Agency under the ARTES 3 Multimedia Programme and will run from December 2001 until January 2003.
The purpose of SchoolSat is to set up, manage and evaluate a pre-operational satellite based service for compulsory schools in Ireland. It has as a clear objective and expected outcome: the establishment of a business and deployment plan for a fully operational and sustainable service for the Irish compulsory school sector based on a strategic mix of unicast and multicast services.
Digital content from a variety of sources, including data and video, will be brought together into a managed content repository, where it will be themed and channelled. Selections from this asset base will be multicast on a scheduled and ad hoc basis to caching servers at the pilot sites for desktop viewing and manipulation.
The return channel will be implemented via DVB-RCS.
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SchoolSat is a direct response to the relatively poor level of connectivity to the Internet experienced by primary and secondary schools, despite the Irish Government's stated intention to provide every Irish Classroom with a broadband connection to the Internet. The outcomes and experiences of this service will be used in the development of a comprehensive business plan addressing all relevant issues including cost and pedagogical impact. This plan will be put forward to the Government Department with responsibility in this area in order to actively seek the deployment of a large-scale and sustainable service for a significant number of Irish schools. The key issues identified by the project team are as follows:
- Creation of a suitable service offer taking into account individual school size and use of the Internet
- Identification of a realistic balance between unicast and multicast services
- Identification of a critical number of users to make the service sustainable in the short to medium term
The main benefits of such a service are to allow all primary and secondary schools similar high-quality access to the Internet regardless of location. Such access is increasingly seen as fundamental in keeping with current thinking regarding the implementation of a comprehensive plan for the effective use of the Information Society in the Educational sector.
The SchoolSat Pre-operational Pilot project uses Internet via DVB satellite technology with the KU band return channel for the establishment of the interactive channel. The aim of the trial is to investigate in how far this technology can offer a solution to connect schools to the Internet, to build schools networks and to transmit large files of information be it data, video, audio, or graphics.
The planned service is based on the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) standard which is deployed Europe-wide (and is becoming accepted as a worldwide standard) for digital television. It allows the user to receive Internet services with a relatively small antenna (less than 1metre diameter) and a PC equipped with a satellite modem anywhere within the footprint of the Eutelsat W3 satellite (used by Web-Sat). This PC can be used as a gateway to connect multiple PCs to the Internet.
This 14 month project will include the following phases:
Phase 1: Set-up and orientation of end-users: December 2001-February 2002
Phase 2: Pre-operational pilot phase: March 2002-December 2002
Phase 3: Evaluation: March 2002-January 2003
Phase 4: Business planning and deployment: September 2002-January 2003
The following schools are taking part:
- Gairmscoil Mhic Diarmada, a vocational school on the Irish speaking Arrain Mor island
- Gairm Scoil Chu Uladh, Bellanamore Secondary School
- Carrick Vocational School
- Loreto Community School, Milford
- Scoil Mhuire, Buncrana
- Abbey Vocational School, Donegal Town
- Loreto Secondary School, Letterkenny
- Carndonagh Community School
- Donegal Education Centre
Although the formal SchoolSat project has now concluded, the service is still operational in the schools which took part in the project. This was made possible through the contribution of NCTE and evaluation of the use being made by teachers and pupils continued until the end of May 2003. Efforts are now being made to secure funding to ensure continuity of the service for the next academic year.
Meanwhile the final report has been submitted to ESA, which includes the report on the pedagogical value of such a service as carried out by Dr. Aidan Mulkeen from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. This report describes the main activities and outcomes from the project and broadly concludes that the service is of great benefit to schools particularly those in rural communities where opportunities for broadband access via means other than satellite are scarce. It also shows that putting in place a satellite service for schools is manageable and describes a service which ran relatively fault-free for more than 1 year. Although attempts were made to correlate the level of service with both size of school and pupil/PC ratio, it is apparent that the use of the Internet in schools is generally far more a function of teacher motivation, experience and expectation and the service offer being made by Web-Sat and ATiT to the Dept. of Education and Science reflects this fact. This service offer targets not only Secondary schools which lie in small towns or rural parts of the country but also the large number of primary schools in similar situations.
Plans by the Dept. of Education and Science in Ireland to set up a broadband service for all Irish schools are advancing well and the initial blueprint for the national service is expected to be discussed in the coming months. Datanet, the company making recommendations to the Dept. of Education and Science for this service, expect to be issuing an RFP by the end of 2003. It is likely, based on current trends that the broadband service to be made available to schools will be managed centrally in Ireland allowing the Dept. of Education and Science to choose for regional and even national solutions based on "best fit" and value for money. This is in variance with the tendency previously observed in Ireland to facilitate "bottom-up" spending in schools, whereby each school was individually responsible for its own spending.
Most observers agree, that whatever the final mix chosen for the national service, it is highly likely that some form of satellite supported service will play a role particularly with regard to rural schools.