A committee to save ICT in schools

The Irish Independent featured an article about how Ireland is languishing near the bottom of league tables for computer usage. Everyone is pointing their finger at the government. So, a nice big committee full of Department of Education officials, a couple of quangos and the heads of Ireland’s major IT companies have got together to make some recommendations because they believe that our education system is not going to supply smart-economy employees.
Aside from the fact that the group contains no practitioners, e.g. CESI members, the blame is being laid squarely on underfunding of hardware and software:

IT companies have been complaining that too few students are studying electronics and computing and they blame years of under-investment in hardware and software in schools. Surveys have already shown that much of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) equipment in Irish schools is years old.

I disagree. While I’m very happy to carry on pointing my finger at the government, I also feel I should be pointing my finger at myself; and while I’m pointing, let’s point at technology itself (I’ll explain later). And just in case the government feel they’re getting away with it, my finger will firmly still be pointing at them at the end of this article but for different reasons to the members of the Paul Relis committee.
So, firstly, why do I disagree with the IT companies’ assessment that underfunding in hardware and software is to blame for our feeble rating in the report? The answer is: Interactive Whiteboards…well sort of. Somehow, in the last few years, schools who were not able to buy a PC for €500 could suddenly buy 3 or 4 IWBs (at €3,000 – €5,000 each) every year, even though we have had the same amount of funding (zero)? Somehow, as soon as IWBs came on the scene, thousands of teachers decided they needed technology in the classroom. In 2003, a report revealed an estimate that between 4 and 6% of teachers used technology in their classroom. Now, in 2009, with almost 60% of schools (estimate from cbiproject.net) having at least one IWB, that figure must be a lot higher and 60% of schools were able to raise thousands of euro for technology. Now obviously, the Interactive Whiteboard itself is not to blame. It’s our own attitude to technology.
I remember sitting in a pub with two other practitioners in 2004, lamenting that there was nothing we could do anymore to save IT in education. We all agreed that despite what officials were saying, there were computers sitting in the back of classrooms untouched from year to year unless there was a teacher with an interest in ICT in the room. All of us taught in schools that would be considered techie-schools. Our lack of hope has completely changed with the advent of the IWB and now every teacher wants one, whether or not they are the best technology investment. I would say that the vast majority of emails I receive on this site refer to IWBs. In fact, I would go as far as saying that very few people would read this web site if there were no mention of IWBs. Despite all the underfunding from the government, schools still manage to get resources if they want them enough. I don’t think schools wanted technology.
This group of experts have listed recommendations for us all.

  • At least one laptop in every classroom, starting in infant and first-year primary school classes from this year.
  • Five desktop computers in every classroom, starting in 2010.
  • A Virtual Learning Environment network set up in the coming academic year at a cost of €5m.
  • Teacher training at the core of an investment plan for ICT integration in schools.

The only thing I agree with in the above points is the final one – teacher training. I’ll come back to this after I’ve torn the other points to pieces 🙂
Why should we have one laptop and 5 desktop computers in every classroom? Who thought of these arbitary figures? Who decided that schools would even want desktop computers? What 5 network points will magically appear for these 5 desktop computers in our classrooms? I really hate these silly arbitary figures. My school aims to have 3 desktop dumb terminals in each classroom running off a server using a thin-client model and one normal desktop running both Windows and Linux. Each classroom will hopefully have access to a trolley full of laptops at least once per week and every teacher will have their own laptop which will run both Windows and, when in school, access to our server. The reason we want 4 desktops in our classroom is because we have space for 4 desktop PCs and 4 network points. I think my model is brilliant and I think every school should run with a thin-client model but I’m absolutely sure that very few schools will agree with me 100%. Every school will have a different vision and placing arbitary numbers on them puts unnecessary pressure on schools to invest unwisely.
Next the VLE. At second level, I can see this working really well. At primary level, I don’t feel that there is an affordable model available yet. I’m pretty sure that the head of Microsoft Ireland isn’t going to give his company’s proposed VLE free to schools and even if he does, I’m sure that Mac and Linux users in Ireland will not be very happy. The only affordable VLE available is Moodle and Moodle is completely innappropriate for primary schools. I know of one primary school who are using it and saw a demonstration of it but I really didn’t like it. Moodle is blocky, chunky and unattractive. Nobody in the room was “blown away”. Perhaps, I’m wrong, but if something isn’t attractive, people generally won’t like it or use it (cf Interactive Whiteboard software). I also saw the VLE that was being used by the scrapped thin-client project in North Dublin and, again, I wasn’t really impressed – no offence meant to the content, which was fine. I think a lot more thought has to go into a VLE at primary level because this is the area, I believe, where it must look right visually. Bigger, bolder and brighter are the three keywords I’d recommend.
Training, I believe, is the number one key to any ICT proposal working. However, before traning commences, a lot of ground work in “convincing” must go ahead. Teachers were convinced by Interactive Whiteboards because they weren’t a big step away from what they were doing already, i.e. drawing on a blackboard (or whiteboard.) Furthermore, we have to figure out what we’re actually going to train the teachers in. Back in the late 90’s, when there was a lot more goodwill towards computers in schools, the powers that be made a balls of training. They decided to teach groups of willing teachers how to type and fill numbers in a spreadsheet. They completely forgot how to help teachers use a computer to help children learn. No inservice days were established to train every teacher in the country and only the enthusiastic teachers went along to learn stuff they probably already knew. The digital divide remained with 6% of teachers using IT by 2003 and 94% not.
Training is going to have to be well targeted and tiered. We need to remember that there is a natural digital divide when it comes to technology. People of a certain age are more likely to be scared of technology than those who have grown up with it. These people need intensive training. Then there’s the people who do know how to use a computer to book a holiday to Malaga and to type a letter of complaint to their bank manager but cannot transfer these excellent skills to pedagogy.
Next, we need to train people in leadership and management. We need to change attitudes to ICT, especially at management level in schools. How many Board of Managements have a representative whose role is in ICT management? How many Boards of Management have received any ICT training at all? How many principals have received ICT training? How many principals know how much money they should spend on equipment, service and training? We’re simply floundering.
Furthermore, how do we encourage teachers to share? This is the real power of ICT in education, in my opinion. There are only a handful of teachers willing to share their lesson plans and resources, most notably Damien Quinn of Seomra Ranga and David Kearney of CBI project.
This is where I’m pointing the finger at myself, becuase I don’t share a lot of my stuff. I try – all my school’s policies and plans are available for download, I’ve shared some resources I’ve created on this site and others, but generally, I don’t automatically think to share something I’ve created with the general teaching population. I’ve done a little bit of analysis too. I have asked teachers to share their resources on Anseo.net several times this year and last year. I received two responses so far, which went online immediately. Another poster set up a shared email account about 8 months ago for lesson plans. Last time I checked there was only 7 emails on this account. Twitter seems to have opened up the sharing world a little more but it’s the same handful of people sharing with each other. I suppose the questions I might have for this is:

Do teachers not want to share their resources or do teachers not create any resources to share? If not, what could help teachers to share their material?

I have a slight suspision that resources are not being created. This leads me to my next point.
We are part of a denial system. The INTO are only now admitting there may be one or two bad eggs in the education system whereas before there were none. Politicians claim we have one of the most effective education systems in the world. We are constantly being congratulated for being brilliant people leading the next generation of adults.
Potentially, we do have a high calibre of teacher for the next generation but we lack the 21st century teaching skills for a smart economy. Check out a school 100 years ago and you’ll see little difference in teaching methodologies today. We’re using a 20th century curriculum that is static. Basically, we’re trying to use computers to supplement a 20th century education system (a behaviourist system) and to use computers effectively, we need a 21st century curriulum – something fluid, something extendible, something constructivist. Until we’re at this point, no amount of training is going to work.
So has ICT pointed out something we don’t want to admit? While we were possibly the envy of the world for our education system 15-20 years ago, when we churned out people who had nothing except knowledge which they regurgitated, today being able to regurgitate information is not important anymore…Google has seen to that. 21st century learning is less about knowing facts. Now it’s more about how do you get facts? How can one manipulate someone or somthing to get these facts? How do we create our own facts? How do we disprove established “facts”?
Computers can only help us achieve behaviourist learning more efficiently but not better quality. Computers with true constructivism allows more effective learning. 5 years ago if you asked a child in your class to design and build a dream house, the only things they could do were either draw something on a piece of paper, (the piece of paper would not help them in any way) or better would be the teacher who offered Lego bricks, (but sadly a lack of infinite bricks and interesting shaped lego blocks could hamper a truly creative architectural masterpiece). Now, a child can enter a virtual world and manipulate 3D shapes that look like real bricks and mortar, e.g. Google Sketchup. They can also create their own shaped bricks and use weird and wonderful materials. Some of the bricks will not allow themselves to be placed on top of each other due to their shape or material and some very interesting and realistic designs can be made.
I now withdraw my finger from pointing at everybody else and bring it back to the very people who are to blame for this country’s problems. The country is almost bankrupt because of politics. The Health system is on its knees becuase of politics. Both of these can be seen very clearly as they can be measured very quickly – i.e. people losing jobs, banks being baled out and sick people dying on trolleys. Our education system has been allowed to go stale by politicians. There is no quick fix despite the best efforts of Paul Relis and his friends. They have a much bigger task on their hands than simply placing computers in classrooms and training teachers in using them. They must reverse the damage that the government caused by allowing our education system to grow stagnant. While other countries’ governments have been busy spending time exploring effective pedagogies, we squandered our good times on shiny brochures and quangos.
Rather than technology showing us the way forward, I believe technology is the thing that will point its finger at all of us and show our education system up in the end.

10 thoughts on “A committee to save ICT in schools”

  1. I wonder if another option worth looking at is netbooks. Much lower cost but with all the net interactivity that I think is essential learning.

  2. ICT is a lost cause in this country; the Irish simply have no interest in technology. Many would be appalled at that statement but having lived and worked in many countries, the Irish lifestyle and philosophy is such that a massive paradigm shift in both culture and religion would be necessary before any fruitful progress could be made in terms of educating the masses. Again, “Religion? What’s dis feckin’ Brit on about, boyyyyy?”
    I’m not British but have lived here for 17 years, worked extensively in ICT education on four continents – including being one of the few PGDE-qualified teachers to actually teach ICT – and can categorically state: Ireland is so for behind other western countries in terms of progressive thinking alone, that fire and the wheel is saying a lot for these people. That’s not intended to be offensive [even though I’m certain most would say it is] but simply underlines the fact that whilst common sense dictates religion has no place in educational institutions, the Irish value it far and above science or technology. It’s impossible to argue with such an absence of logic.

  3. The next time you and your mates arrange a pub chat about ICT in education, could you ping our IWB in Tipperary Institute? It’s running on an open wifi node (our recommended practise) and easy to find. Get us into the pub chat and we’ll buy the first rounds.

  4. Afraid those pub chats are unnecessary now, Bernie. It’s great that there’s now a lot of enthusiasm for ICT these days. However, I still don’t think we’re using it properly at primary level (except in exceptional circumstances, you know where I’m talking about!) Not sure I agree with the religion vs technology analogy. I think our troubles with ICT is more to do with the government’s lack of interest rather than the church’s.

    • Very perceptive and informative article. The nub of the problem has been correctly identified as a 20th Century education system attempting to cope with 21st Century demands: preparing citizens for the information age and creative industries through inflexible industrial-model processes. It took some decades for the planning of a previous generation of far-sighted politicians, civil servants and others to come to fruition. The concern is that the current crop don’t appear to understand the paradigm shift in the global economy, beyond the rhetoric, and thus have no idea how to shift towards a more appropriate educational model. Of more concern, perhaps, is the unwillingness to acknowledge this fact and a continuing reliance on short-term ‘strategies’ that have no hope of long-term success without the appropriate infrastructural support.

  5. The notion of “pub chats” says it all, whether proposed in earnest or facetiously. Whilst other countries conduct symposiums, conferences and offer all sorts of opportunities to engage in mature, professional discourse concerning ICT in education, Ireland has yet to come up with an ICT curriculum of any sort, provisional or otherwise. It’s not hard.
    I was one of the those on the ICT curriculum panel, two years ago. The Department of Education shelved our proposals indefinitely and dissolved the group, siting “financial constraints” as the reason for not pursuing the above on a national level [in secondary schools]. From a logistical point of view, several solutions could be ratified and employed with little or no additional cost, other than teachers gaining postgraduate qualifications such that they could proactively pursue, implement and maintain standardised systems and methods of teaching. Again, it’s not hard but the impetus, interest and dedication to the topic must be fostered and encouraged. Good luck with that …
    How many schools in this country pay IT professionals to keep their systems working as a consequence of school staff not having the faintest idea what they’re doing? Answer: too many.

  6. Peter,
    I work at third level and part of the job involves trying to hook up with champions like Simon Lewis because of missing interest from the Irish Department of Education. Between sessions at our annual education conference in Tipperary Institute, an event that attracted more than 140 people on a Saturday last May, we discussed IT problems and solutions for primary and secondary schools. It is very difficult for me to understand why this open event, conducted by teachers and for teachers, cannot get approval from the Dept of Education as an in-service day. But you probably have seen worse problems.

  7. Great article Simon as usual!
    I wonder how many teachers could have achieved exactly the same in their classroom as they can now with their IWB’s with just a Digital Projector and Netbook? I think that fancy hardware is only half the battle, the critical point is its effective usage, and until we can incorporate some real ICT training in the teacher colleges and a more serious attitude to teacher CPD, this will not change.

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