Ireland has a tradition of educational excellence. The National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) has the task of ensuring that, through the integration of ICT, excellence is not only sustained but exemplified by Ireland’s primary and post-primary schools.
The information revolution, which includes computing, the internet and mobile devices, has brought so many sweeping changes that its impact could surpass even the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century. However, with the advent of the technology revolution comes the need to make hard choices and effective future-oriented decisions.
In the case of Ireland’s highly respected education system, the challenge is to ensure that not only can technological change be accommodated and that this educational excellence be sustained, but room is also made for new ways of learning and new educational outcomes to ensure Ireland fields the workforce of tomorrow.
Charged with the task of supporting and advising on the integration of technology in learning and teaching in Irish schools, the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) has a broad remit: designing and providing ICT professional development for teachers; sourcing online resources; developing and maintaining Scoilnet; advising on technical configurations, broadband supports and assisting schools in ICT-led change for 21st-century learning.
Led by director Jerome Morrissey, the NCTE has for the past decade not only carefully managed this task but strived to match the personal commitment of parents and teachers in ensuring that Ireland’s classrooms are the engine rooms of inspiration for that cherished resource, our children.
Evidence exists, he says, that access to high-quality online digital content and the use of digital media not only helps to deliver curricular objectives but also raises motivation levels and adds to student achievement.
The €150m Smart Schools=Smart Economy investment by the Department of Education and Skills will supercharge the deployment of the technologies and digital tools for students and teachers alike. Under the scheme, over the next three years every classroom in the country will have access to classroom laptops, digital projectors and other ICT equipment alongside access to professional development, online resources and other digital content tools.
Concurrently with this, the first 78 post-primary schools in the country will begin this school year with 100Mbps broadband as part of a scheme spearheaded by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The objective is that within two years every post-primary school will have this quality of high-speed broadband.
In parallel, the NCTE will be driving a strategy to upgrade the internal networking capability and provide online digital learning resources to schools.
This significant broadband initiative is a collaboration between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and leads from the recognition by both Ministers Mary Coughlan TD and Eamon Ryan TD that access to internet–based resources is now essential to enhance the learning experience of our students.
We need to pay close attention to how young people engage with technology in the rest of their lives and explore what methodologies and what learning environments can best incorporate this use so that learning will be more engaging, more interesting and more intellectually stimulating.
While arguments have been made that technology investment should have taken place in the boom years, the fact that the investment is taking place now, at a time when technology is not only more affordable but even more cutting edge than before, is very opportune.
Morrissey says it must be recognised that this €150m investment by the Government is being made in tough times.
However, he thinks now is the optimal time. We will be much more discriminating and creative in ensuring that scarce funds are used to the absolute best practical purposes. Ten years ago, 100Mbps broadband in schools wouldn’t have been possible or affordable.
Morrissey says that Ireland – a country that gains so much economically from the presence of Europe’s largest concentration of technology companies – has to make sure its education system reflects the image and quality of a technological advanced nation in its education system.
“In parallel with government investment in ICT in schools there is a strong and realistic expectation that industry, as partners in this initiative, will contribute in a number of real and tangible ways to assisting ICT integration in Irish schools” he says.
e-Learning planning in schools
Successful integration of ICT in schools demands confident and committed leadership from the principal and an e-learning team.
Morrissey says Ireland’s own experience and that of Europe tells us that schools need to have an e-learning plan in place which ties in with the whole school plan to ensure that ICT is integrated in all areas of learning and teaching.
To assist schools in this regard the NCTE has developed a number of supports including e-learning planning seminars for principals; a handbook, Planning and Implementing e-Learning in your School: A Handbook for Principals & ICT Cooordinating teachers; as well as an online course. In the past academic year, the NCTE received very positive feedback on the nationwide set of seminars for primary-school principals on e-learning planning and will run similar seminars for post-primary principals.
Classrooms of the future
In the future, students will bring their own computing devices to class, so schools should prioritise good wireless networks throughout their buildings. Smartphones and new portable computers such as the iPad can use the school’s wireless connectivity to access online learning content, as well as create and manipulate content using different digital-media tools. This capability will present challenges for classroom management of digital technology – how will teachers manage the presence of these devices in classrooms?
New pedagogical skills will be required by teachers to incorporate those devices into the classroom, setting in ways which will assist and progress learning.
We can already see the classroom of the future emerging creatively and imaginatively in the FÍS (Film in Schools) initiative. FÍS illustrates how digital media, film and the curriculum can sit side by side to create a dynamic, collaborative and highly engaging learning experience for the child and the teacher. The classroom of the future will extend to the home when out-of-school online learning becomes a structured part of a student’s contribution to classwork/homework.
ICT will provide new opportunities to schools to provide more personalised learning environments.
Individual student work will be clearly identified and assessed in e-portfolios and project team work.
KEY INITIATIVES OF THE NCTE:
The initiative provides relevant and up-to-date ICT advice and supports to schools on equipment and related services. The initiative co-ordinates the Schools Broadband Programme, which provides broadband connectivity, content filtering, webhosting, and security services to all primary and post-primary schools.
CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT (CPD)
Teachers must know how to successfully integrate ICT in their teaching. A wide-ranging professional development programme for teachers is in place which provides practical ICT skills and how to incorporate new technology in delivering the curriculum.
DIGITAL CONTENT AND SCOILNET
The Digital Content initiative focuses on the availability and provision of digital content resources that are appropriate to all areas of the Irish curriculum. Scoilnet.ie provides learning and teaching resources covering all areas of the curriculum and is used by teachers and students.
SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS (SEN)
The special needs area of the NCTE strives to ensure that the needs of students with special educational needs, and their teachers, are integrated into all the initiatives.
Webwise is the national internet safety initiative of the NCTE to raise awareness among students and parents as to safe and appropriate use of the internet and to provide learning opportunities to develop ethical approaches to internet use.
The NCTE’s strategy for digital content is to ‘build, buy and share’. The Scoilnet portal is the national online resource for primary and post-primary schools and we work with specialist teachers who are expert in the use of ICT and the curriculum to source and repurpose content for Scoilnet.
The NCTE benefits from shared learning and teaching content through a partnership with the EUN European network. Access to content is also provided by the Library Council of Ireland, The Irish Times Archive, Teachnet and others. Recently, through Scoilnet, school access was provided to Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book covering all subjects on the curriculum and they are available to teachers in schools and at home.
Key to this change is the professional development of teachers.
Teachers have shown tremendous interest and commitment to their professional development.
The NCTE has developed a range of ICT-based courses and workshops for teachers to help them keep pace with ICT as a learning and teaching resource. The courses span basic internet and email for learning to sophisticated courses in design, digital media, subject-specific ICT, using handheld technology in the teaching of maths and computer-aided design (CAD).
Schools themselves have shown great enthusiasm for and innovation in ICT over the years and we have fostered very positive relationships with industry, educational partners and others to nurture this innovation.
Because technology can often be abused rather than used effectively, parents and teachers alike are concerned about everything from smartphone bullying to strangers children may meet online. The NCTE took a proactive approach to tackling the problem by providing Internet Safety Packs for teachers, students and parents as well as launching the Webwise website.
Webwise outlines the risks associated with using the internet, how to tackle and minimise exposure to illegal material, the development of an acceptable usage policy in our schools and how to work with parents on areas such as internet permission, cyber bullying and stranger danger. In parallel, an information campaign aimed at students themselves and how they can protect themselves and surf wisely was launched in the form of a web portal: www.watchyourspace.ie.
“All of this is critical,” says Morrissey. “Schools have good systems in place to filter out harmful content. However, it is not sufficient to block or ban online content. Young people have numerous and often ingenious ways of accessing digital content. Developing ethical attitudes and personal responsibility in internet use is the focus of a new taught module in schools.”
Now more than ever parents need to inculcate an attitude of responsible internet practice and to reinforce the ideal of ethical and responsible behaviour in their children. The availability of internet-enabled smartphones makes it almost impossible for parents to monitor the online behaviour of their children any longer.
The internet will be a potent force for changes in practice by teachers as it has been for most other professionals. The nature of learning, teaching and assessment will evolve to enable the student to experience and benefit from a more personalised and challenging learning environment.
Morrissey concludes: “I believe that our teachers are among the most capable and confident to accommodate these impending changes. In 2009, approximately 11,000 teachers attended part-time courses in the practical application of ICT in their subject areas. This interest and commitment encourages me to believe that Irish teachers will meet the challenges and opportunities inherent in the incorporation of ICT in their professional lives.”