‘All-in’ approach vital if tech is to reach its educational potential

Digital Economy

As we move on to a new phase of living with Covid, Ireland has a unique opportunity to address the ongoing digital divide and bridge the access gap.

Anne Sheehan

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Irish education has seen real digital transformation gains in the past two years. Schools must be praised for how they embraced technology throughout the pandemic. In the early stages, it was extraordinarily impressive to watch their rapid pivot to online learning and later their shift to hybrid learning.

As we move on to a new phase of living with Covid, Ireland has a unique opportunity to address the ongoing digital divide and bridge the access gap.

In fact, during a recent policy workshop run by the ESRI in association with Microsoft Ireland, leading educators, industry representatives, social changemakers and policymakers agreed Ireland can seize this moment to truly embed technology in our national education system.

Those who took part welcomed both the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and the new National Digital Strategy, but also agreed on the need for an updated national digital strategy for schools. Children and parents, particularly from disadvantaged areas, need improved digital skills.

Disadvantaged schools should be the first port of call for digital education transformation. A useful model here is the Digital Wealth Project, a collaboration between Maynooth University and Microsoft Ireland, which is addressing digital poverty by increasing the digital capacity of 135 schools across Ireland.

The project also saw the introduction of the Stem Passport for Inclusion initiative, which aims to help 1,000 girls between fourth and sixth year from disadvantaged communities to progress into Stem courses and pursue careers in the digital economy.

Microsoft has also invested €5m in Dream Space, which has engaged more than 80,000 primary and secondary school students across the island of Ireland in immersive, research-based Stem experiences since 2018. This work has real impact – Maynooth University researchers found in 2019 that girls who had visited Dream Space were 42pc more likely to pursue a Stem path.

Ireland could create clusters to share knowledge and drive change, by grouping leading schools with schools that feel they are on weaker footing. The EU Digital Competence Framework offers an excellent guide on the skills citizens need, from data literacy to safety and much more, but it’s vital we shift student perspectives and CAO course choices to equip them for future needs.

With the new primary school curriculum out for consultation, the shift towards more co-operative policy development is a positive step, as it’s vital to give agency to teachers, parents, and students. Ireland also needs dynamic change management for education, with effective prioritisation of resources and a hard focus on implementation.

Furthermore, tech provision needs to suit each student’s age, learning scenarios and wider life circumstances. During the pandemic, while some schools provided tablets to their students, not all had adequate wi-fi access or the support they required in their home environment. We also need to consider digital skills education for parents and guardians.

Equity of access through open and accessible content and systems is also vital. For example, assistive technology used by many students, can’t read PDFs or other aspects of proprietary systems.

Similarly, use of streaming media may penalise students without bandwidth.

Schools also need to harness online education to support personalised coaching and feedback for students, rather than seeing it as teaching via video. Where there is a learning gap due to health or disadvantage, teachers could use tools such as a reading progress app to give students personalised support.

The education system needs absorptive capacity to make effective pedagogic use of the huge extent of new technology for schools. Success doesn’t follow on from only offering more resources, but also from making sure schools, teachers and students have the capacity to understand what is available.

Teachers also need appropriate continuing professional development (CPD) and to be fully aware of the range of excellent accredited content available.

Tech procurement and ICT staffing and support for schools must also be addressed. It’s startlingly clear that having one or fewer ICT posts per school is not sufficient to run a 1:1 device system (in which each student has access to a specific device).

Up to now, schools have been encouraged to work autonomously, with each school seen as best placed to meet its students’ needs. While that approach has its merits, it has also led to marked differences in how students get to experience technology in learning, while school managers and principals are swamped in unnecessarily time-consuming administrative tasks.The system also needs a joined-up approach when it comes to data analysis to get a nationwide view of what works.

Digital platforms generate an unprecedented amount of data, which offers far more insight into classrooms and can improve decision-making. This data analysis can’t focus solely on technology use, however. We need to get a picture of digital learning and understand how our education system is embracing and benefiting from digital culture.

The crux of the issue is building population-wide digital literacy, including the capacity to filter misinformation and to engage with the accelerating pace of change driven by emerging technologies such as augmented reality.

While we have seen more of a move towards frameworks that gives agency and voice to teachers, parents, and students, we must continue to engage and pursue a strategy of co-operative policy formation. As we saw during recent policy workshops, the will and energy to drive further change is clearly present across the world of education in Ireland.

Anne Sheehan, GM Microsoft Ireland and Alan Barrett, CEO ESRI