Northern Ireland's 370,000 students and teachers will soon be linked through one of the largest educational computer networks in the world after a pound;70 million contract was awarded to HP. Installation of the networks will be done by RM.
The deal is the final stage in the C2k, or Classroom 2000, project that has cost over pound;200 million.
Education minister Jane Kennedy said the contract would provide email access and addresses for every pupil and teacher, online messaging and video-conferencing as well as web publishing and hosting facilities. A new online data centre in Belfast will provide high-speed access to a wide choice of materials that support Northern Ireland's curriculum. Content will come from the education department as well as providers like Granada and the BBC.
Installation of equipment in pilot schools will begin this year, with the data centre available to all schools by next March.
Jimmy Stewart, director of C2K, said the initiative set a world-class benchmark for e-learning that other countries could use as a model.
HP account manager Clifford Harris said the "managed service" approach would centralise the service schools received. "There's a lot of technology in schools and this is trying to join them up and deliver the same data to everyone," he said.
The network will let pupils collaborate on projects across schools and education authorities and mean those who cannot attend classes will be able to continue studying if they have a home computer. A collaboration tool will allow teachers to upload and share lesson plans and incorporate elements of other lessons, Mr Harris said.
"There is now a huge opportunity for schools to use this network to work together, to share ideas and good practice," Ms Kennedy said.
She added that C2K would also improve schools' access to the management information system, a key element in cutting the burden of bureaucracy on teachers.
The five-year deal with HP will be one of the largest-ever installations of Microsoft Exchange.
* Northern Ireland's education technology strategy report can be read at www.c2kni.orgET_Review