It has been a significant priority for me and my Department, in the context of the shift to online teaching and learning that has arisen from the public health restrictions, to provide support to students to facilitate connectivity and to examine options designed to seek to minimise the extent to which connectivity challenges act as a barrier to full participation in higher and further education.
In this regard, as part of the package of financial support approved by Government to help underpin the recommencement of higher and further education for the current academic year, my Department allocated €15 million to higher and further education providers for a grant to support disadvantaged students in accessing ICT devices. This initiative which enabled a bulk purchase of approximately 16,500 laptops on behalf of higher education institutions is intended to help address concerns regarding the digital divide in the context of the shift to online and blended models of learning, and the importance of supporting disadvantaged students to adapt to these new models of learning.
The delivery through the National Broadband Plan of high-speed internet connectively nationwide will ultimately provide a solution to current differences in broadband experience for students and learners. In the interim there are initiatives across a number of Government Departments to facilitate connection through community-based broadband hubs and liaison with telecommunication providers on packages, including unlimited data. It is also worth noting that, at the present time HEAnet provides a wi-fi solution - EduRoam - designed by and for the higher education community which operates across the education locations nationally. EduRoam allows a student to access wi-fi wherever EduRoam is broadcast, enabling a student to seamlessly roam from one EduRoam location to another.
HEAnet has extended the reach of EduRoam beyond the traditional campus locations to areas within the wider community. The extended EduRoam footprint greatly overcomes connectivity challenges and facilitates staff and students in effective teaching and learning activities.
In addition, on 11 May 2021, I launched a new project, “Next Steps for Teaching and Learning: Moving Forward Together”, aimed at building an informed vision for the future of teaching and learning in Ireland, co-ordinated by the National Forum and funded through its Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund. Digitalisation has been identified as a strategic challenge across all areas of government within the National Development Plan and higher education has an evolving digital transformation agenda which has been impacted by the recent shift to online/remote teaching and learning. This project will inform upcoming strategic developments at national level as well as being of practical benefit to members of the wider higher education community, and involves a collective consideration of what was known about enhanced teaching and learning across face-to-face, blended and online/remote contexts prior to the pandemic, as well as what we know so far about what has been learned from the experience of the shift to fully online/remote learning since 2020. It is planned that findings and recommendations from this project will be published at a national launch due to take place on 10 November 2021.