Lack of Planning Detrimental to Digital Skill Acquisition in Irish Schools
It’s that time of year again when the media covers the costs associated with education in Ireland. The usual suspects are ever present; the uniforms, the books, the busses, the ‘voluntary’ contribution – however this year particular ire was directed at the cost of purchasing a digital device for those students who attend so-called ‘one-to-one’ schools.
Pointing out the added financial burden on parents is all very well, but what about pointing out the obvious – the ‘why?’ Ann Marcus Quinn quite rightly notes ‘when the Department of Education embedded the use of technology into the Junior Cycle, the provision of access to technology outside of the physical school building was not part of the roll-out. The reality is that, in order to complete a successful Junior Cycle, students need to have access to technology at home. It is possible to carry out the ICT aspects using a smartphone, but this is far from optimal.’ (Irish Times, August 23rd 2022)
It is obvious that many parents, like myself, did not attend secondary school at a time when digital devices were a ‘thing’, in fact the internet…no I’ll not even go there! So, for dinosaurs like myself, understanding the need for a digital device can be a tricky one, often I hear ‘well we managed fine without them.’ Yes, we did manage, but no we didn’t live in a world like our children do. If I wanted to talk to my friend I couldn’t simply text, I had to physically walk down the road (we had no landline). Nowadays our children are part of an ultra-connected world. My own teenagers are prime examples. They use their phones to text or instant message. They use their computers to play games with each other and talk to each other at the same time using apps like ‘discord’. They also use their computers to create their ‘CBAs’ (classroom based assessments) for their Junior Cycle and collaborate on homework projects in real time with their classmates who live in the neighbouring town.
When questioned about the costs associated with sending a child to school the Minister pointed to the autonomy of school ‘Boards of Management’ to make their own decisions in this regard. But that is where there’s an issue. Yes, some schools in more affluent areas can add the digital device to their booklist and they can ensure that their students’ educational experience will be enhanced through the range of activity made possible with a device. Other schools simply cannot add the financial burden onto their students’ parents as they are under severe financial pressure already. In those cases, school management faces the headache of making the most of limited school-owned resources and timetabling for the use of technology as an add-on, rather than as part and parcel of education.
Training teachers in the use of digital technologies is left to the schools themselves to organise. Yes, they can schedule a visit from the PDST Technology in Education team, they can encourage staff to avail of training online or provide in-house training. Due to this lack of centralised training teachers countrywide have very varied abilities. Even the teacher training colleges don’t have one streamlined specification which they follow when training teachers in the use of digital technologies for teaching and learning. It is very much down to the individual college what training is offered. The ESRI report (June 2020 ‘Learning For All?’) also pointed out this disconnect in governmental planning as at ‘both primary and second levels, teachers’ ICT competencies are not formally assessed. However, within the context of a school inspection, ICT use is noted.’ It does not make any sense to expect teachers to make effective use of digital technologies which is ‘noted’ by the inspectorate when they haven’t even been formally trained according to a national standard in this regard! (I wonder does one exist?!)
Another media report pointing to our government’s lack of planning appeared in the Irish Independent (10th April 2022) when Anne Sheehan wrote ‘Up to now, schools have been encouraged to work autonomously, with each school seen as best placed to meet its students’ needs. While that approach has its merits, it has also led to marked differences in how students get to experience technology in learning, while school managers and principals are swamped in unnecessarily time-consuming administrative tasks. The system also needs a joined-up approach when it comes to data analysis to get a nationwide view of what works.’
I think the time has come for that data to be gathered and analysed. What does the effective use of digital technologies in teaching and learning look like? If it involves the use of personal devices why isn’t our government advocating for that? If inspectors are going to visit our schools to assess our teachers, surely they deserve to have the requisite (on-going) training from when they begin their initial teacher education journey?
So, let’s not blame schools. In fact, let’s not get caught up in the blame game. Instead let us be proactive. Let us direct our attention instead to what should be done – namely a comprehensive review of our education system when it comes to digital technologies and their use, so that we can avoid the same old conversation this time next year.