Reimagining Irish education


14 Sep 2010

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In an age where digital technology rules both at home and at work, education should be at the forefront of introducing it to younger generations.

Many Irish schools are pioneering forces in digital education, pushing the boundaries of teaching and gaining worldwide recognition for their efforts.

Coláiste Chiaráin, a post primary college in Croom, Co Limerick, is one such school. Over the last few years, it has been integrating technology into the classroom, becoming a leading school in this regard.

The school has been working with Dell to ensure that its teachers and most of its students are equipped with notebook computers. Each classroom has a data projector, which is networked to the teacher’s notebook.

The school has not just focused on hardware, however, as principal Noel Malone points out the previous lack of school resources online.

"The early thing we noticed as we adapted this project is the lack of curriculum-specific material on the web,” he  says.

As a result, the school’s award-winning website (www.cco.ie) is an information hub for staff and students, providing news, educational resources and an email service based on Google Apps.

The school community has fully backed this project and their creativity has helped push it beyond their original hopes. Malone also praises the teachers for their involvement in the project.

"The teachers have been very much behind the project,” he says. “It wouldn’t have happened without them."

Microsoft School of the Future

Scoil Naomh Fiachra in Freshford, Co Kilkenny is another revolutionary school that has become the first Irish primary school to join the Microsoft School of the Future programme.

In 1999, the small rural school was asked to join the Empowering Minds project to encourage IT integration into schools. The theme of the project was “Story, Myth and Legend.”

The students used MIT’s Programmable Brick, which extends a Lego construction kit, allowing students to reinterpret the story of Don Quixote by using robots to animate the tale.

The students split into groups to program the robots, research windmill technology and learn the history of the story.

The project was a finalist in the Rolls-Royce Science Prize 2006/2007. However, it didn’t stop there.

Irish schools pushing the boundaries

In Ireland’s first virtual learning environment three students who wanted to study chemistry but couldn’t because of budgets were faced with the prospect of having to switch to a new school.

But thanks to the initiative of school principal Tom Stack and the support of the local VEC, Microsoft and Dell, sixth-year students from St Fintina’s VEC secondary school in Longwood, Co Meath – Ciara McDonald, Ben Nock and Rachel Ennis – have been able to stay in their school and, in doing so, are in the vanguard of a new movement in Irish education.

The students are able to attend chemistry classes via videoconferencing with teacher Ruth Smith who is based at Dunshaughlin Community College, 35 kilometres away.

Describing how the digital link-up all came about, Stack says: “With the cutbacks in education last year we weren’t able to provide chemistry for the students. I spoke to Seamus Ryan, education officer with Meath VEC, and we got together with Dunshaughlin to provide a remote access link.

“We’ve learned, however, that there still needs to be some face-to-face interaction, so from next year the teacher will come over once a month to work on the more difficult and technical practical work. We think this model has potential for small schools around the country.”

The students themselves agree. “Once you focus it’s just like a normal class,” explains Rachel Ennis.

Adds Ciara McDonald: “The teacher asks us questions like in a normal class and interacts with us. It’s new and interesting.”

Ben Nock says: “I feel lucky because I was going to leave the school and would have had to make new friends elsewhere.”

Microsoft took notice of the school and invited it to take part in its Worldwide Innovative Teachers Forum in Helsinki in 2007. The school took first prize for the Innovation in Content category.

Since then, principal Tommy Maher has integrated e-learning into the curriculum, extending it to all aspects of learning. Microsoft now funds all the technological aspects of the school.

Each 4th, 5th and 6th class student has their own tablet pc, equipped with video, sound and photo editing software along with word processing tools.

The school is developing a virtual learning environment with Software Asset Management Ireland. This will allow students to connect remotely with each other to collaborate on school work and projects.

Maher is keen to note that while technology is fast becoming an important aspect of modern schooling, there is a lot more to future learning.

"The overarching thing is that it’s only value is if it’s improving education,” he says.

“It certainly improves kids’ motivation to learn, but more than that, it allows them to learn in whatever way that’s most apt for them to learn, so you’re not restricted in the ways that you can teach or in the ways that they can learn."

Seamus Ryan, education officer at Meath VEC, agrees. "It’s not just [about] the technology. The type of education we’re providing has to include collaborative experiences of learning.”

Ryan was formerly the principal of Dunshaughlin Community College, a secondary school that is part of Microsoft’s School of the Future. He now works for Meath VEC, which covers nine schools in the region. All these schools have projectors, high-speed internet access and wireless broadband.

Ryan helped pioneer a scheme in St Fintina’s Post Primary School in Longwood, where three students could remotely access chemistry classes in Dunshaughlin by using a camera and a computer.

He believes teachers who are wary of bringing in technology to the classroom need not worry, as students can be quite supportive of their efforts.

“Sometimes teachers imagine that, if they didn’t know everything about computers, that they really couldn’t use them in class.

“But the experience was that once [teachers] were shown to actually try, students were supportive and would help rather than mocking them in any way," he said.

In fact, often, teachers see that the students themselves are innovating with the technology. Noel Malone from Coláiste Chiaráin recalls how students have made podcasts of science experiments that could be put onto their MP3 players to make studying the subject easier.

"I think in education we do a disservice to our teenagers if we don’t include technology in the way we teach them because they’re using technology themselves,” adds Ryan.

“While it’s not the answer to everything in learning, it can certainly improve the engagement and improve the efficiency of what we do."