Sunday 25 February 2018

Education is key to digital future

While schoolgirls are keen on tech at a younger age, they begin to lose interest in STEM subjects in their mid-teens
While schoolgirls are keen on tech at a younger age, they begin to lose interest in STEM subjects in their mid-teens

Cathriona Hallahan

Ireland's education sector is at a turning point. Advances in technology have opened up an ever increasing range of opportunities for our young people with a resulting shift in skills profile required to support the jobs of the future.

With the European Commission estimating that 90pc of tomorrow's jobs will require digital skills, Ireland's talent pool must have them. Regardless of the sector our young people choose to work in, one thing is clear: digital technology is the new reality.

The responsibility is now on policy makers, industry and the education sector, to work together to ensure that we educate our students to future proof them for the new world. We need to ensure they develop skills such as computational thinking, the ability to work in a collaborative manner and to have strong problem solving skills.

In recent years, there has been some modernisation of the school curriculum. The Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020 outlines a clear vision to embed information and communication technologies (ICT) in schools, acknowledging the potential of digital technologies to enhance teaching, learning and assessment so that Ireland's youth can become engaged thinkers, active learners and global citizens.

To support this strategy, the Government has made €30m available to schools for ICT infrastructure in both primary and secondary schools.

Computer coding was introduced in the Junior Cycle curriculum in 2014 and, importantly, we will see the introduction of computer science as a Leaving Certificate subject from 2018. Critical too is the commitment to bring coding to primary schools as part of the maths curriculum.

The recent progress is to be welcomed, however, there remain a significant number of schools yet to embrace the move towards digital.

Reasons include anything from a lack of funding, a lack of understanding of the importance of technology in learning, insufficient skill levels within the teaching community and simply a lack of prioritisation at a time when there are many competing issues in a busy school environment.

The societal impact of the delay by some schools is that there are children coming through the system ill-equipped to participate fully in a changing society and an evolving economy.

Our ambition at Microsoft is to support the Government in making sure that every student in the country gets the opportunity to have the same educational experience. Working with some inspiring schools we're seeing first hand the impact of embracing a digital learning environment.

Claregalway College in Galway is an exemplar school in this regard. Microsoft has been working with the school for the past five years. In Claregalway College, teachers use technology to create their own unique teaching resources including digital textbooks, animation, video, games and digital magazines.

The students in return participate in classes through a digitally focused curriculum. Having digital coursework means that lessons become increasingly collaborative and students can shape the flow of information by adding their own research, pictures and annotations.

The outcome is a fully digitally integrated student and teacher group.

The approach taken by Claregalway is being replicated in other schools.

As an industry, we need to ensure this continues so that all children can reap the benefits. Technology companies can play an important advisory role to develop digital-savvy teaching communities - 21st century learning design is a key feature of our commitment to teacher professional learning.

We've partnered with third-level institutions including St Patrick's College, Dublin City University (DCU) and H2 Learning to develop an online course aimed at equipping teachers with the right skills.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. If that's the case it will take the entire country to transform the system.

As part of these efforts we believe there needs to be a further spotlight on how we can encourage more girls to become interested in STEM subjects and technology-related careers.

Research commissioned by Microsoft shows that despite becoming interested in technology around the age of 11, girls start to lose interest in the STEM subjects around the age of 15.

This fall-off is limiting the career and life choices of some of this country's brightest young people and is having a negative impact on Ireland's ability to grow its economy as it further aggravates the growing IT skills shortage.

When they picture a scientist, engineer or mathematician, 44pc of Irish girls polled said they still picture a man first and 30pc said they don't understand how STEM subjects are relevant to their lives.

To tackle this perception barrier, we want to reimagine how we communicate the benefits of technology to girls and young women. Earlier this year we set an ambitious target to showcase the possibilities of technology to 10,000 females through a number of initiatives in partnership with CoderDojo, GirlCrew, FIT and Junior Achievement.

Fundamentally, we believe that the movement to create a digitally centric education system will have a positive impact on the ambition to engage more girls in STEM subjects. If the technology is core to their everyday thinking, their perceptions will be transformed and this should have an impact on their choices.

As the fifth-most innovative nation in terms of knowledge and technology output (Global Innovation Index 2017), we have the tools and talent at our disposal to fuel future growth. To maintain and improve this position, we need to address the issue of digital skills.

The technology industry can play a key role in sharing its skills, expertise and resources to make this a reality.

At Microsoft, we're committed to reducing inequality of access and through our long-term partnerships, we aim to empower our young people through technology.

If we can do this, then our young people can do more, and achieve more.

Cathriona Hallahan is managing director of Microsoft Ireland. Adrian Weckler is away

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