Content of substance

2 Feb 2011

Before everyone gets hung up on the hardware, the real gift of technology is the kaleidoscope of content that can be brought into the classroom and the home and usher in a future of blended learning.

To a teacher or student from a previous age, it would seem that the world has been turned on its head. Firstly, learning is no longer confined to the classroom – it can take place across continents. Secondly, learning is no longer confined to the hours dedicated to classwork and homework – learning is continuous, it can come to life. And it is digital.

The concept of blended learning

“The big leap forward I have seen in pockets around the world is the concept of what we today would call blended learning,” said Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s (HMH) senior vice-president Fiona O’Carroll. “That’s where the student is experiencing both direct instruction from a teacher directly to them in the day, experiencing a virtually delivered learning experience at night, and that’s all paced to where a student is at and their learning style.

“That’s a very different experience – today where the student enters there’s a set curriculum for the whole class from 9 to 4 and each of them receives the same experience regardless of where they are at in their own learning.

“It’s a big advancement and in all those cases we’re seeing improved outcomes for students, not just when inside the classroom, but outside the classroom, too.”

In approaching the subject of a digital curriculum, O’Carroll believes it’s important to start on familiar territory. “I think the initial digital content to focus on is the content that aligns with the existing curriculum. The teacher’s day today is structured around the delivery of that curriculum; the logical step is to integrate the digital content that aligns with that curriculum.”

The chief executive of The Educational Company of Ireland (Edco), Martina Harford, agrees with O’Carroll’s views on approaching blended learning and starting with today’s curriculum. “We wouldn’t dream of producing any text book now without asking ourselves how we could add value to the learning and teaching experience through the use of ICT, whether it’s through a CD-Rom, a podcast or additional online resources.

“Blended learning is where we see the market heading. Our expertise is providing the content. We interpret the curriculum as set out by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and recruit the best of authors and produce resources in line with curriculum.

“Going forward content is absolutely king, but if you don’t have good quality content the equation just does not balance. Whether the content is in print form, digital form or combination of both through blended learning, it has to be right.”

Digital work in publishing firm

It would come as a surprise to many teachers and principals just how advanced into the digital world traditional publishers already are. Caroline Kennard, international business development director – education, Encyclopaedia Britannica, explained that 90pc of the publishing firm’s activities are digital.

“We went digital in 1991 and while printed material is still at the heart of the company, we generate new printed material from electronic material now. All our content is in a digital format and we work with technology partners to integrate it onto different formats, from PCs to Macs and iPads.

“We also believe it is important to cater for offline access. Not everyone, unfortunately, is broadband-enabled. So we work with governments and rural schools to enable people to use the content. The reality is digital content comes alive in a broadband environment.”

Kennard said their partnership with Eircom has enabled 4,000 schools across Ireland to access Britannica’s content. David McNamara from Eircom explained that the idea behind the alliance with Britannica is to make the content accessible via the Scoilnet portal on internet connection.

“Education, in our view, is Ireland’s only route out of the current economic environment. We facilitated the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) with the ability to purchase Britannica online and deliver it securely and safely to pre- and post-primary schools.”

The content questions

Education technology company Promethean provides not only the hardware for schools in the form of whiteboards and digital projectors, but also online teaching resources via its portal Promethean Planet. The head of Promethean’s Ireland and Scotland businesses Graham Byrne explained: “We genuinely believe the equipment in the classroom is only as good as the content being used with it.

“It’s an interesting area because it opens up a lot of other questions – how closely departments here are working with content providers? How is that content provided, is it chargeable, is it free and how is it distributed and shared?”

Byrne said that 20pc of Ireland’s teaching community is already accessing Promethean Planet and is uploading and downloading content on a regular basis. “We are seeing teachers creating content themselves rather than relying on traditional providers, putting it online and other teachers sharing that content and making changes to suit classroom and curriculum and at the same time.

“This is having a huge impact in terms of teachers and how they interact and get the content, as well. That will create a mindset amongst teachers that when they do look to the internet for content they understand what content is out there and appreciate quality.”

Business-oriented technology companies like Sage are also working to bring Irish schools up to an international standard in digital learning.

Sage Ireland is providing secondary school business, accounting and economics teachers with an opportunity to become Certified Trainers in Sage Instant Accounts. The programme, called Sage@School, endeavours to facilitate the development and skills of secondary school teachers by delivering an accredited programme that provides students with experience using accounts software.

Sage sees the role of computerised accounts as essential in developing skills for young people in Ireland.

“Sage@School was created to give all those students with an interest in accounting and business an insight into Irish companies and the daily challenges they face, by outlining how business decisions are taken based on accounting information,” explained Robin Johnston, Sage@School programme manager at Sage Ireland.

The Sage@School project team provides the software, course notes, online learning portal, training and all student materials, as well as the support and knowledge base for the teachers to create the course.

The course is already planned and supported through 80 schools in Ireland and is now extending its reach to the next 300 secondary schools.

“The programme gives students the opportunity to learn accounting skills, prepare business accounts and develop life skills that will greatly enhance their employment opportunities,” Johnston said.

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