“Technology in classroom still in the Dark Ages” – Are we Really?

Last Thursday The Irish Times carried an opinion piece by Brian O’Connell entitled, “Technology in classroom still in the Dark Ages”. In this article Brian makes some interesting observations on the state of ICT in Irish primary and second level schools. Though these observations appear to be based on personal experiences it is good to see the issue of ICT in schools being discussed in the national media. When we discuss a “World Class Education System” we should surely look critically at how we use technology to support teaching, learning and assessment in the context of a modern 21st century education system. However, it seems the issue of ICT is often ignored or at best discussed only in terms of how much technological devices we have in a school or throughout the system. The issue of ICT in schools is complex and can be interpreted in different ways – are we talking about ICT as a stand-alone subject or are we discussing how to integrate ICT across the curriculum to enhance teaching, learning and assessment? These are two very different issues and both notions are touched on in this article.

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However, I am just going to take some quotes from the article to highlight the need for us to discuss this issue more deeply and for society to develop a plan that meets the needs of our young people.

“Many schools at both primary and second level have IT facilities, including dedicated computer labs, classroom computers and interactive whiteboard technology. But the fact remains that digital literacy in Ireland is not seen as important enough to teach as a standalone subject and more often than not is taught only when it can enhance or complement the current curriculum.”

The most recent Department of Education and Science Policy statements on ICT, Smart Schools Smart Economy, encouraged schools to move away from computer rooms and move to locating technology in classrooms. Such a move is to be welcomed, after all we don’t send students to the pencil room. Yet we know that just locating the technology in classrooms is not enough – we also need to change how we teach and how we engage our students. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to teach digital literacy but I would not equate digital literacy with teaching computer skills as a standalone subject. Here lies a central issue – what do we mean by Digital Literacy? A number of years ago Dr Leo Casey and a number of other high profile researchers carried out a small-scale research project on Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools (DLIPS). The DES funded the research and to date a number of peer-reviewed research papers have been published, yet the document does not appear to have been considered by policy makers. For more visit the DLIPS homepage in NCI. (Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools).

However Digital Literacy is a contested term and it means different things to different people. Professor Chip Bruce, who co-authored the DLIPS report, has provided a number of possible definitions on his blog that you might like to consider? Chip Bruce. Paul Gilster was one of the first to develop a definition for digital literacy but the notion has developed considerably since 1997!

So maybe we should clarify what we mean by digital literacy in an Irish educational context and support teachers to help their students develop these skills?

“Some changes are being planned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, including a short, 100-hour on coding that will be available for schools from 2014 for the junior cycle curriculum.

The new Junior Certificate examination will also feature 40 per cent portfolio work and the intention is for this to be produced or submitted on a digital platform.”

The work of National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in developing a short course on coding is to be welcomed, but is this enough? I attended the Intel Computer Clubhouse Global Conference in Dublin yesterday afternoon and there I witnessed how such after-school facilities are meeting the digital and social needs of many young people today. Though they support young people to develop their programming skills they do it in a holistic way that is focused on construction and creativity. The focus is not on teaching programming it is on using computers to make things, using them as “finger paint” to quote Mitch Resnick. I have written in previous blogs about the dangers of overly focusing on teaching programming alone – I believe we need to be more creative and inclusive in our short courses. Otherwise we may find that only a minority of students will take the subject and it could cause more harm than good.

Ultimately we need a vision and a plan on the role of ICT in our schools. The Programme for Government had the following to say in relation to the creation of 21st Century Schools but how much, if any of this, has or will materialise?

“21st Century Schools
This Government will end the treatment of ICT in education as a stand-alone issue, but will integrate it across education policy. This will begin with merging the National Centre for Technology in Education with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. A new plan to develop ICT in teaching, learning and assessment will be developed. This plan will incorporate the integration of ICT policy across other agencies, such as the Professional Development Services for Teachers, the State Examinations Commission, and Project Maths.”

The Programme speaks about a plan and surely this is where we should start? We can figure out who does what once there is some consensus on the plan but we need a plan first. Brian O’Connell’s piece helps to highlight that there is concern in many quarters about this issue and we need more, not less, discussion about what needs to be done. We also need a much wider debate on this subject – we need to hear multiple voices and perspectives on what people perceive is needed.

It is surely time to reconsider what role ICT can play in schools and to rethink how we support schools, and in particular students, to avail of the new learning opportunities it can bring. So let’s get the debate started and how about focusing on what we mean by “digital literacy” in the first instance. It is obviously a hot topic at present as there are a number of upcoming talks and conferences on this very issue, for instance the Irish Learning Technologies Association and the Digital Childhood Seminar Series in DIT are both addressing this topic in the coming weeks.

“But Teachers’ Union of Ireland president Bernie Ruane is correct when she says there has been a “lack of real engagement on best national practice for the use of new technology in the classroom . . . ”

I agree with Bernie Ruane’s quote above in relation to the “lack of engagement” so let’s start engaging and what better place to start than describing what we mean by being digitally literate?

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