'The old style of learning by rote will not suit the smart workforce of tomorrow'
Investment in the future of the classroom is the right call, says Promethean's Graham Byrne
THERE are few Irish adults today who don't feel a shudder run up their spine or who don't have nightmares of turning up at exams with the dreaded fear they hadn't done the study.
Who doesn't remember having to memorise vast tracts of Macbeth as well as specific theorems and formulae?
The funny thing is as you get older you actually enjoy and respect these things; my native curiosity was even aroused by Pythagoras' Theorem recently. But back then nobody said "enjoy and engage". Nope, they wanted you to pound as much of the stuff into your memory and then regurgitate it back onto a page in the exam hall.
While few things have changed, hopefully the Irish kids of the 21st century, aided and abetted by the internet and digital media, will be encouraged to enjoy their education, engage with the subject and develop critical thinking skills. Instead of learning by rote, kids can mine data, tell truth from lie and even be encouraged to give their points of view.
In the boom years, despite promises to invest in computers in the classroom, nothing happened and since then deficiencies in the teaching of core subjects such as maths are emerging. That's why, for Graham Byrne, managing director of the Irish division of global learning company Promethean, the €150m Smart Schools= Smart Economy investment couldn't have come at a better time.
"It's an interesting point to make that we didn't see a huge amount of investment during the boom times, but to the country's credit one of the first reactions post-downturn has been exactly what you describe - the €150m investment in schools - and it's a phenomenal start," explains Byrne.
"What it effectively does is it creates an environment and baseline infrastructure that we can start building on within schools. Is €150m enough over the three-year period? It's a question of what is enough, but it is an incredible start. On the back of that, we have to realise that schools are operating on a fundraising basis to get as much equipment as they need."
Promethean produces education technology for a global market, covering 150 countries. Headquartered in the UK, the privately held company includes Lord Puttnam, the BAFTA-award winning producer, on its board and has over 500,000 teachers worldwide subscribing to its Promethean Planet educational portal, which includes content from National Geographic.
In Ireland, uptake of Promethean Planet by Irish teachers has surged 150pc to 5,000 members. The firm's technology - a combination of whiteboards, laptops and strong digital content - allows teachers to breathe life into lessons, monitor student progress and ensure no one gets left behind.
Byrne says the €150m investment has been a striking response to the downturn.
"It's been an extraordinary investment. It will effectively provide a laptop, software and a projector in each and every classroom, which is a phenomenal baseline activity to get schools going. It's a great start to the process of getting ICT in the classroom and giving students access to that digital future in the classroom environment."
I put it to Byrne - who has in the past pointed out that 90pc of whiteboards in Irish schools have been provided by parents - that some schools may not fare as well as others and a digital divide may emerge where schools in affluent areas are better equipped than other schools.
"There's a risk, not so much a danger of a digital divide. What reassures me is how the parents are reacting to that because, in terms of actual desire and need for equipment in the classroom, it's very well understood from their point of view.
"If you throw your mind back to when this funding wasn't available, schools were going around using cake sales, fundraisers, trying to get this equipment for the classroom. I think there's an absolute acceptance that parents do support this process within the classroom environment.
"A wonderful example of that was in association with the Jack & Jill Foundation whereby Promethean went out to schools with the charity and gave them an opportunity to collect all their old mobile phones. If they collected 300 to 500, they got a free interactive whiteboard for their classroom.
"We had one in every four Irish schools signing up for that particular campaign, which was an enormous success. It raised a huge amount of money for a wonderful charity and got a lot of equipment into Irish classrooms that were not in a position to be able to procure them by standard means."
Byrne is adamant that if Ireland is to become the innovation-led economy that policy-makers are calling for, it means innovation must begin early in life.
"An innovation-led economy means innovative thinkers and going back to your comment about how you learnt your tables by rote, that's the other end of the spectrum for what we effectively need in a classroom. We need to give kids the tools to start thinking creatively, innovatively and as self-directed learners as well.
"It's a two-way street; it's not just about the teacher dictating to the classroom what they need to learn. We need to get the students engaged, with a willingness, want and desire to learn within the classroom, and the technology is an incredible adaptive tool to be able to use in that environment."
He says every student is different, but with digital technology no one gets left behind.
"You might be a very visual individual who needs to take data in that capacity. Maths as a subject mightn't necessarily suit you, or science for that matter, but you could look at some of the 3D content that exists out there within the environment or you could get a visual view of the heart and how it's beating within the classroom or you could look at maths, numeracy and subjects from a visual perspective as well.
"Technology can fill lots of those gaps within the education environment to help kids maximise their ability within the classroom and stop thinking in 2+2=4 format and start thinking more creatively."
Byrne says the €150m is a powerful first step - the first of many that will be needed - and very rapidly Ireland should close the gap.
"I think the statistics are a little bit unkind to Ireland at the moment in terms of where we sit on that particular ladder. But what gives me a lot of comfort is the direction it is moving in.
"We have to be realistic about the amount of capital available to invest in this area and make sure that we are investing in this so that we're getting that maximum return on investment, not just from a financial perspective but also in terms of students' ability within the classroom."
To watch a video interview with Graham Byrne, go to www.digital21.ie.
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