Saturday 25 May 2019

The perfect Space for tech learning

Microsoft's futuristic 'classroom' provides students with an interactive hub for computer-based problem solving, writes Kim Bielenberg

Pupils from St Laurence’s Boys National School, Stillorgan, built and coded a wearable device at DreamSpace Photo: Naoise Culhane
Pupils from St Laurence’s Boys National School, Stillorgan, built and coded a wearable device at DreamSpace Photo: Naoise Culhane
David Walsh (10) and Cian O’Beirne. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Up to 5,000 school pupils have already visited Microsoft's headquarters in Dublin to take part in its futuristic new Dreamspace learning initiative. DreamSpace, an educational activity space pioneered in Dublin at a cost of €5m, opened earlier this year at the Microsoft complex in Leopardstown.

Microsoft runs a three-hour programme in DreamSpace for primary and Transition Year students, where they are immersed in new technology, and work in teams to solve problems.

The computer giant is committed to bringing 100,000 primary and Transition Year students and their teachers to One Microsoft Place over the next four years to take part in the experience.

Kevin Marshall, Head of Education at Microsoft in Ireland, said the programme was developed in Dublin, and is already booked out until next June. Working with primary school pupils from fourth to sixth class, and second-level pupils in TY, Marshall says the sessions are tailored towards the skill levels of the class.

"Some groups coming in may already have experience of coding, and we can make it more advanced. Others may have no experience of it at all."

The instructors in DreamSpace are trained teachers, and Microsoft is in the process of recruiting more. When I visited, instructor Amanda Jolliffe had given teams from a Transition Year class a problem-solving exercise. Each team was given a package with the same simple equipment - such as paper, cardboard and straws - and asked to design a track where a marble runs.

The marble has to start moving by itself along a track and must finish in a specific endzone. Teams designed their courses in different innovative ways.

Jolliffe said: "As well as being a STEM task, a task such as this uses 21st century skills - creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication."

DreamSpace does not look like a conventional classroom. It is colourfully decorated and groups are clustered at team benches, where students sit at different levels. During the session, students were also taught to program a Micro Bit, a tiny pocket-sized computer, to perform certain tasks. When I visited, the Micro Bit was being programmed to act like a dice. Jane Doohan, a teacher at St Laurence's Boys National School in Stillorgan, Dublin, took a group of 26 pupils to DreamSpace recently.

"The boys learned how to program wearable technology using Micro Bits in DreamSpace," she said. "It was amazing to see the collaborative learning that took place, with groups of five working as a team on Micro Bit.

"The device could be coded in such a way that it could give feedback to someone with hearing difficulties."

Mark Moran, a sixth class pupil from St Laurence's, said: "I enjoyed going up to Microsoft and the fact that we collaborated on the task to program a Micro Bit. It was futuristic."

Kevin Marshall said one of the aims of DreamSpace was to encourage computational thinking.

"The good thing is that kids in primary school are used to working in teams - and a growing number are coding in school - and they love it because it is interactive. Computational thinking is becoming important at all levels in education and across disciplines - UCD has recently introduced a course of Computational Social Science."

The Microsoft complex in Leopardstown also has an Education Suite, where qualified and student teachers update their skills.

When I visited, a group of student teachers from UCD were learning about the use of e-portfolios.

Microsoft learning consultant Brendan Cawley said: "We focused on how we can enhance teaching and learning through technology."

Increasingly, teachers are able to share notes with students directly through their devices, and all this information can be stored in one place. When teaching languages and other subjects, they can share voice recordings and videos that are easily accessible.

"There is a vast array of content that can be shared digitally with students so that classes are no longer just chalk and talk," added Cawley.

Microsoft has recently been carrying out international research with the consultancy firm McKinsey on the 'Class of 2030'. The research looked into the key skills the current generation of pre-school students will need when they graduate, and the role technology will play.

According to the company's findings:

n up to 58pc of employers believe new graduates are not adequately prepared for the workforce;

n 30-40pc of jobs of the future require soft skills like collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity;

n 70pc of teachers say time is a barrier to delivering personalised learning experiences.

Irish Independent

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