In my opinion... Steven Daly
Think 'technology in education'. What pops into your head? Laptops, tablets, desktops, smartphones and interactive whiteboards. That association is very clear, and very logical. But it is limited and flawed.
The problem is thinking that 'technology in education' is the same thing as computer hardware, the same as a row of shiny iPads sitting neatly on school desks. The reality is, like all aspects of good education, successful use of technology in the classroom is complicated and multifaceted.
For a student to benefit from the presence of a computer or tablet in their classroom a huge number of factors, other than the physical device, are key. The teacher has to be comfortable using the hardware, and be supported by a principal leading information and communications technology (ICT) use across the whole school. The content on the device needs to be curriculum-aligned, relevant, appropriate, and engaging. The hardware needs to be supported with good infrastructure. Technical problems need to be minimised, and solved quickly when they occur.
Computers are not a substitute for any of the multitude of factors that are at play in a good learning environment. A curriculum with clear educational goals, engaging and challenging content, timely assessment, a healthy discipline, opportunities for discussion, debate and teamwork - all of these elements mean the teacher is still the lynch-pin of the class. The computer is a powerful tool - but is useless if not used correctly.
The international evidence on hardware-led initiatives is clear. When the focus is solely around getting more hardware into schools, the positive results are non-existent, and sometimes negative. Despite this, Ireland has a historical obsession with deploying hardware in classrooms. Much of the discourse around technology in education has centred around funding for hardware.
In 1997, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern launched a national policy called 'Schools IT 2000'. Since then, about €550m in State grants has been announced for ICT. Although many of these grants have been wrapped up in policies that have tipped their hat to teacher-training, ongoing support and content development, the reality has been a relentless focus on getting computers into schools.
But we do know that when deployed well, ICT in education can be hugely beneficial. In a 2007 evaluation of a project run by Pratham, a large NGO in India, students using computerised maths games showed significantly improved capacities relative to their peers. In Camara Education's iMlango project in Kenya we know that students who get more than 90 minutes access per week to the gamified numeracy platform, achieve nearly two years' international progress in only one year, accelerated learning for students who on average are three years behind their international peers by age 11.
Closer to home, the Digital Strategy for Schools, launched last year, seems to have learned the lessons of the past. Of the four main themes of the strategy, hardware only comprises one. The other three prioritise teaching practice, leadership, policy, teacher professional development and research.
While this change is welcome, the recently released €30m ICT grant to schools has been a huge disappointment. By not explicitly tying the release of funds to certain conditions, the Department of Education and Skills has missed a huge opportunity. Spending on software and content is allowed, but the grant is focused on hardware purchases. Advice has been offered to schools to develop technology plans, focus on content, and free up teachers and principals to undertake additional technical and leadership training, but undertaking these activities is not a prerequisite for receiving grant money.
The Department of Education and Skills expects to make more grants of this nature over the following four years. In order to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past we need to stop obsessing about the shiny new device that we want to see sitting in classrooms all over the country. We need to focus on the student, and the education outcomes for that student. We need to support our teachers and principals to get the best from technology, and they in turn will achieve the best for our young people.
Steven Daly runs the Irish education hub of the international social enterprise, Camara Education, a charity
dedicated to deliver real impact through technology