Time to transform school into a place where kids go to learn, not to power down

10 Dec 2009

Remember, the €150m investment in schools’ IT is really just the first step on a longer journey.

It was the flamboyant New York publisher Malcolm Forbes who once said that education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.

It is clear to anyone who appreciates the impact of today’s digital revolution that the days of kids learning by rote are over. The textbook as we know it has a limited future. Today’s kids are digital natives who converse on mobile phones, social networks and video games and go to school to power down. The responsibility of educators is keeping their young minds engaged, challenged … and open.

Great expectations

The kids who will be tomorrow’s workforce are expected to be digitally literate, adept at sciences and maths, equipped with critical-thinking skills and with the ability to cut their way through oceans of data. Failing to equip our young with these abilities is effectively failing the economy of tomorrow.

While this country flourished in the good times, barely a dime went into putting 21st-century IT resources into Irish schools. A €254m investment unveiled two years ago never materialised.

The €150m announced by the Taoiseach in recent weeks to put a laptop into the hands of every teacher as well as a digital projector in every classroom is the very foundation that is required and a brave decision in these difficult times. But it must also be remembered that this is just the start.

The content and technology must get into the hands of students in the classroom to unlock young minds, better equip teachers facing crowded classrooms and ensure that struggling students aren’t left behind.

Irish development

It is ironic therefore that while Irish classrooms lack digital tools, the very technologies that are changing the educational experience among millions of students in leading economies such as the US are being developed here in Ireland.

As icy winds whip passers-by below on Dublin’s Tara St, upstairs in the warm offices of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) an example of how technology is changing the classroom experience forever is being ably demonstrated by Chris Stevens, director of education, and Teresa Hagan, vice-president of digital content development at the company.

From simple mathematics to the intricacies of the Pythagoras’ Theorem, Stevens shows how through the use of laptops in the classroom, as well as at home in their own time via social networking, kids can absorb vital knowledge at a critical stage in their development. The lessons appear as visual quizzes, puzzles and games to keep young minds engaged.

Teachers can monitor their progress and ensure that struggling students are supported. Entire education clouds where teachers can share knowledge, arrange lesson plans and file reports are now being used to manage millions of students in the US.

“These platforms are not just delivering content,” explains Fiona O’Carroll, executive vice-president at HMH in Dublin. “They instruct their young minds and also allow teachers to assess the children and provide them with individualised learning paths. Kids with particular needs can be ushered in the direction of individualised lessons.”

Job-creation plans

In September of last year, HMH – formerly the Irish company Riverdeep – revealed plans to create 450 new jobs at its new R&D headquarters in Dublin via a €350m investment supported by Enterprise Ireland. O’Carroll says that Dublin beat off competition from Singapore and the Gulf states to secure the investment, which at 200 people is already a year ahead of target.

Riverdeep had its origins in Dublin in 1995 and under the leadership of businessman Barry O’Callaghan became a global brand name in the e-learning business. In 2006, Riverdeep merged with Houghton Mifflin to bring together expertise in education textbooks and interactive digital curriculum.

Founded in 1832, Houghton Mifflin has a long tradition of excellence in publishing authors such as Mark Twain, JRR Tolkien and Philip Roth. In 2007, the firm acquired Reed Elsevier’s US education arm, Harcourt Education Publishing.

HRH is effectively the world’s largest and oldest educational publisher, with over 100,000 customers, generating approximately $2.5bn in annual revenues, profits in the region of $1bn and a 50pc market share of the US preK-12 market.

HMH contract

In recent weeks HMH scored a $27m contract to supply software and textbooks to 172 schools in Detroit. This is just one of 16,000 school districts being targeted by the company, which has also deployed an education cloud to enable teachers in Florida manage over 500,000 students, for example.

“The digital medium facilitates students and teachers to do more and make the learning experience more engaging,” says O’Carroll.

“Everything we do in print we match in digitally. When you look at devices such as the Kindle and the array of netbooks out there, you realise that collaboration and user contribution is going to be fascinating in the education world.”

She believes we are reaching a tipping point in terms of the cost of digital tools such as netbooks and Kindle e-readers versus the cost of buying new books every year of a student’s school life. “If much of this content becomes stored in the internet cloud, then the devices don’t have to have major processing power.”

O’Carroll says the missing piece of the puzzle in Ireland is digital content. “If you are five or six years old, you were born into the world of the iPod. You are part of a digital generation and you’re used to everything being interactive and in colour. We need to look at primary and secondary schools and realise that the 21st-century skills are vastly different to what we would have grown up with.”

Tech investment’s backbone

The backbone of technology investment in Irish schools until now has been parents. According to Graham Byrne of Promethean, a distributor of whiteboards and digital content for schools, as many as 90pc of the whiteboards in use in Irish schools right now have been bought and paid for by parents.

“Many of the content providers and designers are creating content that allows children to be genuinely creative. These kids live and breathe technology and instead of learning by rote they will learn by doing.”

Byrne says that the €150m investment is long overdue, but signals a realisation and commitment from the Government that this is the way forward. “It will allow our children to compete on a level playing field. It’s an essential investment in the future, but we must also be prepared for the next step.”

Greg Tierney of Smartboard, a company that also provides whiteboards and digital tabletops for schools, says that while the investment is overdue, it must be taken in the context of today’s economy.

“You need to realise where Ireland is on the journey and then recognise that to be fair, a €150m investment in the current economic climate isn’t insignificant.

“The laptops and digital projectors will enable the basic learning structures for the 21st century. Without them, we can’t even start on the journey.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Driving the future of education: Greg Tierney from Smartboard; Fiona O’Carroll, executive vice-president at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; and Graham Byrne of Promethean.

www.digital21.ie – Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years