Developing the digital curriculum


2 Oct 2011

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A digital school isn’t just about having the technology. Schools need to fully take advantage of it to find new ways of teaching and to prepare students for the 21st century.

Giving schools hi-tech equipment is only the first step in digital education. The school system won’t change simply by dropping the latest technology into classrooms. There needs to be thought put into how it can improve the learning process.

"Technology in education is often project managed at a country level down to implementation. But time and time again the thinking isn’t eclectic enough," says Jim Wynn, chief education officer, Promethean.

"So you put broadband in each school. So what? We need to ask ourselves what is it meant to be doing. What people don’t talk about when it comes to technology in education, beyond computers in classrooms, is the digital curriculum – how the technology merges with the syllabus."

The opportunities the tools provide can spark any imagination for new ways of teaching. The internet offers endless resources for creative lesson plans, which integrate interactive activities and multimedia content.

e-Books can offer links to definitions and analyses on the passages that students are reading.

Technology can even help those disengaged from the traditional learning system, either by letting them study a subject online in their own time or even connect with their class through videoconferencing tools.

The fusion of the curriculum and technology could have an enormous impact on the classroom, transforming how students learn forever.

"For Ireland, the strategy needs to be around developing 21st-century workers and that skill set is very different from the first wave," says Fiona O’Carroll, executive VP at HMH.

"What’s going to matter is being a global player – 21st-century critical thinking, collaboration, peer-to-peer, being able to work in complex and fast moving environments and being able to work in innovative R&D types of activity.

"So we need to align the education system so that that is what we are producing, just like we did when you look back at the 1960s and 1970s. We had a vision of what we needed to produce for the jobs that would exist 20 years from then and we got it right – history has proven the success we had. Now, we need to do the same again."

FACTS AND FIGURES

■ 62.9pc of students use computers in Irish
schools, significantly below the OECD average
of 74.2pc, according to an OECD PISA report
into online digital literacy
■ 93.2pc of Irish students use PCs at home,
slightly above the OECD average of 92.3pc

One example of a programme helping to move Irish students into the 21st century is Lero’s software development lessons for transition-year students.

Undertaken with support from the Irish Computer Society, Lero trained 50 teachers to use Scratch, a graphical programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab to make animations and games for the web.

Scratch is simpler than most other programming tools, as it’s very visual, but still teaches the fundamentals of software development. It also helps improve students’ mathematical, creative and team skills.

Forty-five hours worth of teaching materials are also provided, along with a student workbook, allowing these trained teachers to show transition-year students how to code. Along with this, Scratch.ie has further resources and details of a competition for students to design their own project.

So what should be considered when developing content through digital means in education?

"One of the big things I’ve come across initially is picking the right tool. It helps an awful lot if it’s free and also if you can install it without needing high spec machines," says Claire McInerney, education and outreach officer at Lero, noting that not all schools will have an up-to-date technological infrastructure.

"We did look at other tools initially but they were hindering what we could do because we wanted this to become a national programme. So if you want to get something to go into a lot of schools, you’ll want to get something for the baseline."

Encouraging these group projects is essential to train students to work with their peers, which will be necessary for the future workplace.

However, independent learning is also crucial, to help them increase their own understanding of subjects. For example, The Educational Company of Ireland has podcasts and exam resources for students to help them learn on their own.

Ultimately, one of the biggest aims for the digital curriculum is to help foster a love of learning among students. Encouraging them to take the initiative to teach themselves is vital for their growth and development, as they continue to learn as they enter adulthood.

"No longer do we leave school or college with a set of skills that will last us until we’re 65," says O’Carroll. "So we have to be able to constantly learn, and to be able to engage with a digital learning experience will really facilitate that."