How can I use the latest Digital Learning Planning Guidelines to make an ICT Policy?

This article is in two parts. The first part summarises/critiques the Digital Learning Planning Guidelines and the second part offers a different solution.

The Department of Education released its latest plan, the Digital Learning Planning Guidelines, a few days ago, and I thought I’d go through it to see what they possibly could have forgotten to do since the last Digital Learning Plan, which was called the Digital Learning Strategy on Knowledge Management System and was released less than 2 years ago. Perhaps, it was because that strategy was completely forgettable and contained almost nothing concrete in terms of how the government were going to support primary schools on their digital journey.

This document is about half the size of its predecessor at 54 pages so I will attempt to go through it and summarise it into a more manageable size for busy schools. To help you along, you can skip the first 7 pages except just note that you have a new acronym to learn: DL stands for Digital Learning, (not decilitre, nor Distance Learning, nor an envelope size, nor Donegal.)

Once you hit page 8, you get your first diagram to help you plan for DL.

Honestly, this is the plan for Digital Learning. You can check it if you think I am joking. Yes, I know this plan could be used for almost anything. For example:

  • I want to buy a dog. (Identify focus)
  • I have the money. I have space in my house and garden. I like dogs. I want a dog. (Gather evidence)
  • The above criteria seems good. (Analyse and make judgements)
  • I have written a report outlining why I should buy a dog and how it would improve my life. (Trust me and trust that I shared it) (Write and share report and improvement plan)
  • I bought the dog. (Put improvement into action)
  • My dog seems to be weeing all over the house. He also keeps growling at me. (Monitor actions)
  • I have given him CPD. (Still monitoring actions)
  • My dog is no longer weeing or growling. This is good. (Monitor actions and evaluate impact)
  • I think I will buy another dog. (Identify focus)

Joking aside, I think the plan is a good plan but it’s a good plan for absolutely anything. Of course, the Department want us to focus on the 32 key areas they identified in the Digital Learning Framework! (You remember them, right?) They had snappy targets such as “Pupils enjoy their learning, are motivated to learn and expect to achieve as learners” and “Pupils reflect on their progress as learners and develop a sense of ownership of and responsibility for their learning.”

The targets in the DLF (I’m making up acronyms now) are as fluffy and unusable as the ones in the new Primary Language Curriculum, and, of course, 32 key areas is ridiculous. While schools aren’t being asked to cover all 32 areas, a school still has to identify targets from them. I’m pretty sure if I worked hard enough, I could set “buying a dog” as a target and it would be covered somewhere in the 32 areas.

Anyway, skipping down to page 11, a school needs to get a digital learning team together and come up with a whole school plan. Yes, that would be the same as you were probably doing before the moratorium on posts of responsibility when you had someone covering ICT as part of their post. And, yes, that would be the same plan you’ve been working off and updating since the mid-1990s while the Department of Education tried and failed constantly to come up with a Digital Learning Strategy. (Who remembers the Digital Roadmap a few years ago?)

You’ll need to develop a vision. I’d suggest using Richard Bruton’s vision for education and tweaking it for digital learning: “Our school will have the best Digital Learning system in Europe by 2026.”

The rest of the guidelines expand on the above with examples of what a school can do. Unless you are one of the schools, it’s very difficult to see their relevance.

Moving onto the appendices: Amazingly, there is nothing concrete whatsoever. My absolute favourite part of it is on page 46 where they describe Broadband and Technical Support, which have been consistently highlighted as the two most important things lacking in primary schools for the last decade.

The guidelines state that all post primary schools have fast broadband. There is no mention of primary schools but the inference is that primary schools don’t and won’t. For technical support, the Department describes exactly what schools need without offering any of it.

The most useful part of the plan is the template given in Appendix B for a DL plan, if a school doesn’t already have one or is thinking of updating theirs. The big mystery is why the template goes from Section 2.3 to 2.5 but the general gist is ok if you ignore the 32 key areas.

Appendix C lists the people who were involved in this, many of whom I have huge respect for, so I really can’t understand how this set of guidelines has ended up in the manner it has. However, from being asked to attend the initial meeting around the development of Digital Learning guidelines, a few years ago, I am sympathetic to the fact that just because one might be part of a consultation group doesn’t mean that anything you say has any consequence. For example, the “working group” that I was part of was supposed to meet every six months and address the issues being raised by all parties. We met once and the Digital Learning Strategy was published a couple of months later with none of the issues raised in it. We never met again.

Rather than simply giving out about the plan, I feel it’s only fair to come up with a different solution. We need to identify a few variables and then plan from there.

  1. The Department of Education have failed to fund primary schools properly from 1999 to 2017 in terms of technology in education.
  2. The Department of Education failed to provide adequate training to primary schools from 1997 to 2000, focusing on computer skills rather than integration into the curriculum.
  3. All Teacher Training Colleges teach ICT as a separate subject and, thus, all subjects are taught without technology integrated into them. Therefore, teachers are ill-equipped to integrate technology into their teaching in a meaningful way.
  4. The Department of Education failed to implement any of its Digital Strategies in a widespread manner as a result of the above so schools are now like snowflakes. There are no two schools that have the same equipment, the same plan, the same level of interest, the same level of expertise, the same level of support, the same level of infrastructure, etc.

Knowing the above, we need to plan with the following knowledge:

  1. While there is money coming for technology until 2020, there is little likelihood that investment will continue so schools will have to work from a budget of zero.
  2. Training is unlikely to change. Teachers will still come into the profession with a good knowledge of technology but a poor knowledge of how to integrate it into learning.

Thus, every school is going to have to have a completely different plan. If I were a school, I would probably do the following:

  1. Build a foundation. Every school needs to have a basic foundation before they even think about what they want to do with their technology.
    • Every school needs good wifi. It costs loads but get it.
    • Get the best broadband you can afford or shout at the PDSTTiE until they upgrade yours. Schools cannot exist on paltry broadband.
    • Every classroom needs a projector. Not every classroom needs an Interactive Whiteboard. There are arguments that Special Classes and Infant Classes may benefit from an IWB, but consider them a bonus rather than a foundation.
    • Every teacher needs a laptop. It doesn’t need to be fancy. It just needs to work.
    • Get some sort of technical support in place. Whether it’s paying a local company €90 an hour or doing something bigger, make sure to plan your budget with this in mind.
  2. See what you already have and whether it’s worth keeping.
    • Count your laptops, iPads, iPods, etc. Label them if they’re good, recycle them out if they’re bad.
  3. Now decide what you want to do.
    • Given that you have a foundation, you really need to decide what you want your children to be able to do. This is hard because no two schools are the same and it will depend how far you are down the line in terms of technology integration.
    • The main thing is don’t buy a bunch of equipment then decide what you’re going to do with them. If you’re at the very beginning of your journey, why not pick an area you are generally poor at (check your WSE) and hit that hard.
    • For example, let’s say Gaeilge isn’t going so well at your school, identify things you’d like the children to be able to do. Perhaps, oral language is an issue? How about starting up a Gaeilge radio station where children have the ability to record themselves speaking in Irish? How about getting children to make Gaeilge soundboards? How about getting children to perform or write a short play and show it on a YouTube channel? Now, what equipment do you need to do this? Have you already got some of it?
    • Identify how long you’re going to take to do this and then do it.
    • Once you’ve done it, pick something else and start from point 2.
    • If you have no idea where to start with this, contact your local education centre and book in a free seminar with an ICT advisor. They should easily be able to start you off.
  4. This is an optional point but I think it is necessary for schools to share what they have done in a brief summary and uploaded to a shared space (maybe Scoilnet?) If one school did this every month, we would have 10 simple ideas per year as to how to integrate technology into our schools. The summary would simply include: Curriculum Focus, Class Level(s), Technology Needed, What We Did with a few lines under each. Done! (This can only be done with the support of the DES)

I’m aware that the above is fairly similar to the 6-point plan that I tore apart earlier but I think it’s slightly more relevant to technology than buying a dog, for example. There’s no need to have 32 key areas for an ICT plan. ICT should integrate with the curriculum so these are the key areas you need to focus on. The technology should basically do it.

Ultimately, I think everyone is over-complicating technology in education. This is understandable because the government have put in so many obstacles. For example, we have poor broadband, almost zero technical support, almost no financial investment, and so on. This has been going on for 20 years so all schools are on completely different areas on the spectrum of technology use. The government have decided to counteract this by coming up with a 32-point rubric which covers nothing. Schools really need to take back the leadership on technology and use it for what we are good at: helping children learn. If every school tried one thing before the end of the year using my 4-step plan, we would have nearly 4,000 ways to show how technology can improve learning. I think that’s worth trying.


Last Update: September 15, 2020  

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