Apply 21st-century teaching now or risk an under-skilled workforce

29 Jan 2009

Technology failures in our schools could hurt Ireland’s economy in the future.

It may seem politically impolite – or incorrect – at a time of global recession to be telling a government where its investment priorities lie.

But as we navigate our way through choppy economic waters, wise minds ought to concentrate on the future, and, in particular, fielding a workforce capable of building a strong economy.

If all we have to show for a decade of unparalleled economic growth is an over-supply of housing estates and fields of unsold SUVs, then the embarrassing deficiency of computers in Irish schools needs to be addressed as a priority.

In the US, entire classrooms collaborate on Google Docs and compile projects via video on YouTube, all while being encouraged by teachers as technologically literate as the students themselves.

Yet in the Republic of Ireland, a €252m investment in computer infrastructure that was announced last year has sadly yet to materialise.

The average computer in Irish schools has been donated through schemes such as that run by Tesco or by the enterprising efforts of parents.

It is a telling sign that in many schools where there are IT networks, these are crumbling affairs. Many computers are still running on ancient Windows 95 software, enthusiastic teachers rely on free internet software to assist lessons, and, in most cases, students are more IT literate than their teachers.

While 95pc of schools claim to have broadband, this was only made possible by a €17m industry investment three years ago, and even this requires an urgent refresh.

Seaghan Moriarty is an ex-teacher who works as IT adviser to the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN). He warns that what’s missing right now is any form of policy for computers in Irish schools.

“The whole focus on IT in education needs to change. We need to acknowledge the difference between schools being the source of information and schools being the facilitators of knowledge and understanding. This is happening everywhere in the world, except Ireland.

“The interaction between any typical class today is centred around the teacher. But if you compare that with how a 21st-century workforce functions and operates – around problem-solvers and knowledge assimilators – that needs to change.

“Anyone can do a Google search for information, but that’s not where the value is. The value is in interpreting the information and turning it into knowledge. Our education system is still based on regurgitating information from a book. We’re not equipping our students – our future workers and graduates – for the challenges of this century.”

According to Moriarty, Ireland got off on the right track around 2000 with an ambitious ICT programme that teachers embraced with enthusiasm. However, the Government shelved the investment and many of those teachers were turned into pseudo-IT managers responsible for a crumbling infrastructure.

“To say that those teachers today are disillusioned and demoralised about ICT is an understatement,” Moriarty observes.

He says that while the Department of Education pays for school buildings and teachers’ wages, by and large it is parents who are paying for the IT running costs of our schools.

“There is a notable shortage of interactive whiteboards – which are de facto in most OECD countries – and the ones that exist are in advantaged areas or fee-paying schools. Most parents raise the funding themselves.

“Our educators need to realise that students today absorb information through colour and sound. Instead, a lot of computers in Irish schools are virus- and spam-ridden. Teachers are educators, not technicians.”

According to Greg Tierney of technology distribution firm Steljes, in the UK alone over 250,000 whiteboards have been installed in 95pc of schools. “What I can see in Ireland is that the internet hasn’t permeated everyday learning in our schools. It’s not ubiquitous.

“We’ve managed to get the internet pipe to the front door of schools, but it hasn’t reached the classroom. As a teaching tool, interactive whiteboards are powerful. They are touch sensitive and bring rich content to the class to reinforce learning.

“Children today are digital natives. If you ask any educator, they would say kids today are growing up in a multi-sensory environment. Their attention is not held in the same way; they are used to mobile phones, Bebo and YouTube.”

In recent weeks, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft – each of which has major investments in Ireland – banded together to develop new assessment approaches, methods and technologies for measuring the success of 21st-century teaching and learning in classrooms around the world.

“Change on a global scale is required to equip students of today with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow,” said Barry McGaw, who was appointed to spearhead the global initiative with the OECD.

The question is, will Ireland be ready?

By John Kennedy