A multi-million pound investment in national IT education and training by the Irish government has produced a swift, unexpected return.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is close to finalising negotiations with the government on a ¤188 million (Pounds 120 million) project to create a European satellite of the institute's media lab in Dublin.
The MIT will formally propose the creation of a research and teaching centre in the capital to the government next month and the proposal is expected to be received enthusiastically.
Two Irish government representatives would sit on the centre's board, with three well-known figures from the international digital media world. The satellite will be run by Nicholas Negroponte, the media lab's director. Professor Negroponte has been a regular visitor to Ireland, which is building high-speed, broadband telecommunications networks as well as continuing to strengthen IT foundations that have enabled its economy to grow from one of the poorest in Europe to "tiger" status within a generation. The government aims to make Ireland the centre for European e-commerce.
The government has committed ¤ 78 million to IT education and retraining over the past 18 months as well as negotiating several key partnerships with multinational firms, including Intel and IBM.
Schools IT 2000, launched last year and managed by the National Centre for Technology in Education, is providing funds under the Teacher Skills Initiative for IT training to 22,000 primary school teachers and access to hardware for 20,000 post-primary teachers.
The project also equips each school with hardware and free internet access. Thus far, 15,000 computers have been installed in schools. A joint government-Intel project, SchoilNet has been launched (www.schoilnet.ie) to provide online resources to teachers and pupils.
A government spokesman said that the MIT proposal came in part from the knowledge that a generation of IT-savvy young people were being educated and would form a well of excellence from which MIT could draw new blood. He said that preliminary negotiations were continuing and revolved around the siting of the centre and what part of the set-up costs would be paid by the government.
First reports suggest that the government will foot the ¤38 million bill to purchase and furbish a site in Dublin's former docklands area along the mouth of the River Liffey.
The docklands area has become the hub of intense regeneration, spurred by a robust economy and fuelled largely by the growing technology sector. The centre will have between 200 and 300 students, mainly full-time postgraduates, with a teaching staff drawn partially from MIT. It will be financed through a mixture of government funding, private contracts and European research cash.
The centre will focus on internet applications and will draw from a rich archive of MIT media lab knowledge in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and multimedia. Research is expected to focus on multimedia approaches to e-commerce, sports medicine and technology in education. There will be a strong emphasis on developing near-market ideas and helping researchers and students to develop them into products or to build companies around them.
The centrepiece of the government's plans to jump-start an e-commerce environment is a partnership between government and private industry to lay a fibre-optic cable between Ireland and the US by next year. A favoured landing point for the cable is Dublin's docklands.
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