The big leap forward in digital education

21 Jul 2011

Ireland has an opportunity to leapfrog the rest of the world in digital education. All that is missing is a visionary State strategy for digital schools.

Ireland’s enduring failure to so far sufficiently invest in a cohesive digital education strategy might actually stand the country in good stead. It means that once the strategy rolls, out Ireland can leapfrog other nations and generate future workforces equipped to take on the jobs of the future.

It is becoming clearer that a good education strategy for the future is not solely defined by putting computers and broadband in schools – it must also march in step with changes to how kids are taught and the future shape of the curriculum.

Unless investment in technology infrastructure matches a step change from by-rote learning to critical thinking skills, creativity and collaboration – supported by teachers tooled up and skilled up in ICT – then computers will only gather chalk dust.

The ability to absorb information, critically evaluate it and collaborate will set students up for the jobs of tomorrow far more than trying to memorise a book and regurgitate it at an exam.

One good analogy I heard recently is that there is no point teaching children of today how to create iPad apps when five years from now something different will have replaced the iPad. Would it not be better to teach the kids to have the knowhow and mental agility to adapt and build new things as the landscape shifts so they can build services relevant in 20 years’ time?

ICT in schools for the future

Jim Wynn, chief education officer at education ICT provider Promethean, says every country in the world is in a race to deploy proper ICT in their schools because it will be central to their economic future.

“These are big issues and there are very few places on the planet that have got these things right.”

He notes that in the past, governments would have thrown lots of computers into classrooms but that would be it – where would the teachers’ professional development be, how would the students use the computers and broadband in conjunction with their lessons?

“Over and over again the thinking is never eclectic enough. So you put the best broadband in each school. So what? What’s it meant to be doing?

“Where Ireland is in a sense behind the rest of the world, if it takes a deep breath and goes for it and does it properly, it can leapfrog the world. The country is small enough, and with enough will and need you can do it. There is no other country in the developed world that is better placed than Ireland to leapfrog other countries.”

To succeed, Wynn believes the thinking needs to be more holistic. “People talk about digitally enabling schools solely in technology terms. But unless you ally this with curriculum development, then you’re wasting your investment.”


Ireland’s investment in ICT to date has been stop-start. It looked like things were about to change two years ago when when the Smart Schools = Smart Economy plan to invest €150m was first unveiled. The intention was for the Department of Education and Science to put a laptop and software in the hands of every teacher in the country, as well as a digital projector in every classroom.

The technology industry embraced the strategy and an estimated €92m was spent during 2010. In tandem with this, the Department of Communications pressed ahead with its plan to put 100Mbps broadband into 78 schools across Ireland by the close of 2010 as part of a €13m investment.

However, in the last Budget in December, it was revealed the capital allocation for 2011 for schools’ ICT equipment will be reduced from €63m in 2010 to just €1.5m. The Department of Education said it plans to “leverage” the €92m spent in 2010 over the course of 2011. The one bright spot is that €44m was allocated to the Department of Communications to continue the broadband rollout to an additional 300 schools.

All about infrastructure

“Infrastructure is critical,” says Fiona O’Carroll, general manager of new ventures and innovation at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).

HMH, formerly known as Riverdeep, employs 300 people in Dublin, where it is focusing its efforts on 16,000 school districts across the US. It sees technologies like the iPad and Android devices as being critical to future learning.

“Infrastructure is not a nice to have, it’s a necessity,” O’Carroll stresses. “As I think about education and the next wave of students coming through the system and I’m hugely influenced by the longer term outputs for the Irish economy, the investment in infrastructure is absolutely critical.

“I think about it like when you go into the school you expect to have electricity – that’s the way we need to think about broadband.

“If our vision as a country is that we are going to be a global player in the digital world, then it is increasingly important that our education strategies reflect that. So what does that mean? Our children outside of the classroom are living in a digital world, consuming digital media all the time, and when they enter the classroom it should be the same experience. But it’s not.”

O’Carroll warns that there’s a big disconnect between a student’s experience outside the classroom today, where they have all the digital devices and tools, and inside it, where they often go to power down.

“Digitally we can learn and engage with students in a totally different way and also drive the infrastructure that will have a transformative effect. We need to invest in the next generation of learner who is able to develop 21st-century skills and constantly learn.”

Skills for life

O’Carroll explains that the workforce of today and into the future is really going to be predicated around the notion of lifelong learning. No longer will we leave school or college with a set of skills that will last us to 65, we’ve got to be able to constantly learn and engage in the digital learning experience.

She maintains that a cohesive strategy is crucial and believes that given the size of Ireland, we have a unique opportunity to leverage a national strategy, and a cloud strategy for all our schools can be envisaged.

“Here in this facility,” O’Carroll says, referring to the R&D work happening in the background, “we are developing all the technology to do that, but we are implementing it outside Ireland because the Irish strategy is lagging behind.

“The advantages of that (cloud strategy) are not only the cohesive strategy and the standardisation and ability to share resources across all schools in the country, but there will be huge economic benefits to that over time because the cost to educate a student will go down. This could be a real win-win.

“We know this because in certain districts in the US we deliver these services to – there’s 400,000 or 500,000 kids in some and I think there are 750,000 primary and secondary school children in Ireland. So we’re already delivering in one school district to numbers close to that.

“Ireland has a huge opportunity to invest in that infrastructure and potentially leap forward by doing that on a national level.”

To see videos of Ireland’s digital leaders discussing Ireland’s digital promise, go to Digital 21.

Photo, top: Fiona O’Carroll, general manager of new ventures and innovation at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Jim Wynn, chief education officer, Promethean. Both believe that when it comes to digital education, Ireland is ideally placed to leapfrog the rest of the world

Fiona O’Carroll and Jim Wynn will be part of the panel discussion and Q&A with Lord David Puttnam at the Digital Ireland Forum – Friday, 30 September, 2011

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