Comment: Piecing together the education puzzle

5 May 2004

People talk about a ‘generational shift’. Well my experience of technology in education suggests that there is a half-generational shift going on too. Although the schoolgoers of today might find it hard to believe, the arrival of technology in schools and at third level is only a relatively recent phenomenon.

When I was at school two short decades ago (cue the Hovis music), there were no PCs, no internet to use as a study aid or research tool and no typing of essays. College was the same and, a few years later, when I got my first job in London (no, not on The Guardian unfortunately, but a low-budget shipping monthly), QuarkXpress was still only a glint in its developer’s eye. Instead, we used a freelance layout artist, a bloke in cycling shorts called Roger who used to drop by once a month. Armed with a scalpel, he would cut out the galleyed-up text and paste it onto the page proofs, leaving space for pictures.

Nowadays, technology is everywhere. Even before starting school, children are well advanced on their learning curve. We sometimes forget that their first real experiences of technology will not be email and a PC but the TV remote control, the microwave, the DVD or the PlayStation. There’s some truth in the cliché: “I don’t have a clue how to set the VCR; I leave that to my six year old.”

Even so, we are anxious, a little paranoid even, that our children will get left behind in the technology stakes when they start school. We fret about child-to-PC ratio, worry about the lack of broadband, wonder what flaky hardware they might be using. The Government is worried too, worried about our long-term competitive position, and is finally tackling the area in earnest. A levy on the telecoms companies will provide much of the funding needed to connect up every primary and secondary school in the land to broadband. Moreover, the Education Minister, Noel Dempsey TD, is preparing to launch his new four-year technology strategy for education, a key element of which is certain to be a significant investment in new hardware and software systems.

So, a few million euro and a couple of years later, our technology-in-education problem should be sorted, right? Wrong. I mean, having a load of new PCs and broadband piped into classrooms will be great but they are only part of what’s needed. There are two other elements that are equally important, without which the massive technology investment would be pointless. The first big question is where will the content come from. Yes, it is important that children learn computer skills but if brushing up on Word or Excel is all we use this great technology for, then we are missing the point.

Leading academics have been saying for a long time that technology needs to be integrated into the curriculum as an aid to teaching, not as an end in itself. One organisation that is putting this theory into practice is the Liberties Learning Initiative, the inner-city training and education programme based in the Digital Hub. I recently accompanied its learning director, John Hurley, on a visit to a local school, Mater Dei Primary School, located in Basin Lane, just around the corner from the hub. This school along with 15 others in the area have initiated a number of projects developed by the Liberties Learning Initiative in conjunction with the National Centre for Technology in Education. These projects aim to use technology in a creative and enjoyable way, so enhancing the learning experience. In one project, children at Mater Dei used lego and miniature motors to build models of their school and local landmarks such as St James’s Hospital and the Guinness Brewery. In another project entitled Digital Storytelling, pupils used digital camcorders, Apple Macs and video-editing software to bring their own essays to life.

Summing up the approach being taken, Hurley notes, “It is very much our ethos that digital media technology facilitates learning in a whole range of things but the technology itself is almost incidental.”

The children obviously loved the projects, all the more so I’d imagine because they were not being billed as computer studies classes. The other striking thing was that the two teachers to whom I spoke expressed their keen desire to enhance their own skills as well as the children’s. Before the projects began, they had undertaken a number of training sessions at the Liberties Learning Initiative’s Learning Centre and felt they had benefited from it.

Proper training for teachers is the final piece of the jigsaw that needs to be put in place. For the school kids, the technology is a piece of cake — it is what they have grown up with. The teachers are different though. There are still far too many of them who lack the capability or the confidence to embrace it. Until this changes, the promise of technology in education will remain largely unfulfilled.

By Brian Skelly