I was not surprised to read about the results of this study regarding the decline in computer usage in schools since 2011. Back then the Interactive Whiteboard was still a novelty and teachers were spending their days playing around with software like ActivInspire and children were all excited to be touching a big magic screen with a magic pen. And, of course, like everything, the novelty runs out and the IWB becomes just another teaching tool, and a limited one at that. By 2016, what advances did we make in terms of pedagogy? I would argue almost none.
I have identified significant problems in digital technology over the last decade which can be loosely divided into two sections – money and mindset.
The government are in charge of the money bit and their investment has been pitiful especially in significant areas: broadband, technical support and hardware.
It is no secret that most people’s broadband in their house is significantly higher than the speed and reliability available in their local school. There is no excuse for this any more. Every school in the country should have at least 1Gb broadband now. The government have been messing around on this issue for far too long, trying to cut corners with only limited investment and an almost complete abandonment of primary schools. The 100Mb scheme for schools only focused on second level and is already out of date. Even their 2019 targets for primary schools were laughable – 40% of schools would have “fast” broadband, according to Cumasú (their annual target setting plan.)
There has also been zero investment in technical support at primary level. Can you imagine your own business surviving without any investment in technical support for ICT? In Irish primary schools, there is none. This means that when anything stops working in any primary school in country, there is no one to fix it in the school. Actually scratch that – there is no one to fix it in the entire country! Schools are forced to find money to pay private companies to fix their computers at a cost of €90 per hour out of government grants which should be going on educating children. I have long argued that the government should be able to create clusters of technical support teams in various areas that would not only fix computer problems within 48 hours but they would also be in charge of some sort of consistent purchasing mechanism.
Speaking of which, the biggest joke of all is the complete haphazard way funding has been given to schools and the total lack of consistency in how it works. Every school in the country has a different set up in terms of technology. It is astonishing how poorly managed technology is. Can you imagine going into a school where every classroom had different designed tables and chairs? Unlike other countries where there is some sort of central agency that manages technology, every school in Ireland is a private entity. Money is given sporadically and it is never enough. There was almost no investment in technology from the government for over a decade between 1998 and 2016, except for the grant given for establishing computer networks in the mid noughties.
Then there’s the lack of investment in pedagogical tools for teachers. If you look at Wales, for example, their government have invested heavily in online native content to support the curriculum. The Irish government created Scoilnet, which is basically a list of links to web sites, few of which have been created with Ireland in mind. None of the content has been created inside Scoilnet’s doors and this has been a huge disappointment. It is over 20 years since Scoilnet was established and it is astonishing that not once did they think to spend time creating native content to support the curriculum. Again, I have argued this for over 15 years. Indeed, I even created one of the first native pieces of software to support the curriculum in 2003 with another teacher. It was easily done by an amateur like me. An investment of less that €1m could go a long way to making content to aid teaching. However, much like every school, Scoilnet is a haphazard mess of bits and pieces from all sorts of everywhere. It is no wonder most Irish teachers look elsewhere to support the curriculum. Look at Twinkl, for example, which has dedicated sections to the Republic of Ireland.
In the meantime, teacher training has been appalling; focusing on tokenistic nods and very limited content creation. One of the more bizarre things is that ICT is a separate subject in Teacher Training College. This effectively means that all the curriculum subjects have little in the way of digital learning as it’s almost “outsourced” to the ICT module, which is outdated and too general. Every teacher training college should close their ICT modules and absorb them into every curriculum subject. However, it’s the same after Teacher Training. Look at any Education Centre’s courses – there are separate courses for technology and everything else. I don’t understand why this is. Basically, we need teacher training to focus on helping teachers use technology in a pedagogical way. By separating technology from the curriculum in terms of training gives a message that ICT is an add-on exasperating this mindset.
Speaking of which, there is a problem with teachers and our own reluctance to embrace technology in education. Despite all the obstacles I’ve discussed, there are still a significant number of teachers in the country doing wonderful things with technology despite the limitations. However, a problem that is epidemic in Irish schools is wide acceptance of the excuse “I’m not good with technology so I don’t use it” To me, this has never been good enough. No one would dare say (publicly) “I’m just not that good at Irish so I don’t use it.” We have to stop allowing people say they aren’t good at technology and accepting it and we need to demand that there is proper investment in all of the areas I’ve spoken about above.
The research on the decline of technology is embarrassing given Ireland is the centre of technology in Europe. However, no one is less surprised than me. Unfortunately, we’re easily over a decade behind where we should be in terms of pedagogy and there is a huge amount to fix. The report published suggests that some of the reasons for the decline in computer use in schools may be linked to reduced access to computers, poor internet connectivity and inadequate tech support. However, I argue it’s much more than this. I believe the the key areas we need investment in are: broadband, technical support, teacher training, digital support materials, consistent hardware acquisition, and a centralised management system for ICT. I haven’t mentioned the Digital Learning Framework because it isn’t worth mentioning. The only thing I’ll say is it needs to be scrapped and replaced with something with substance.