New institute aims to boost digital learning

Ireland is caught behind the curve in digital learning, so can a new centre remedy the situation?

“The area of digital learning is one which is exploding, literally exploding with potential,” says Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn

“The area of digital learning is one which is exploding, literally exploding with potential,” says Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn


Back in the old days – or maybe even not so old – getting a college education often meant dragging yourself out of bed to make it to lectures. Today though, the mushrooming field of digital learning means that you can learn pretty much anywhere. Armed with just a smartphone, tablet or laptop you could, if you wanted to, swot up on genetics on the bus or get to grips with philosophy lectures in your living room.

Of course, distance learning is nothing new, but online technologies have made access far easier, and one of the buzzwords in recent years has been the MOOC, or massive open online course, which lets anyone with an internet connection access lectures and other educational material and even earn credits for it.

Behind the curve
So where does Ireland stand in the digital learning revolution? We are somewhat on the back foot here, according to the Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn, who launched the new National Institute for Digital Learning recently at Dublin City University.

“The area of digital learning is one which is exploding, literally exploding with potential at the moment,” he said at the launch. “In truth from primary school to third level Ireland has been caught behind the curve on the digital [learning] revolution which is transforming society.”

He described how in many primary schools there has been “limited exploration” of how new technology can be harnessed to improve teaching and learning, how at second level we remain “a considerable distance away” from truly embedding technology in our delivery of all subjects and that while there are some online options for students at third level, “few distance learning or flexible learning options” remain for those who want to continue learning throughout their lives. He hopes that the new institute will begin to change the landscape.

New institute
Digital learning initiatives, courses, companies and organisations already exist in Ireland so what does NIDL expect to add? It will see 22 staff based at DCU develop online, “blended” (a mix of online and face-to-face) and distance learning courses for second and third level education, train staff and carry out research into how learning can be delivered and personalised, explains DCU’s president Prof Brian MacCraith.

“So far Ireland has been sleepwalking through this digital learning revolution but we believe that setting up a centre of scale with internationally recognised leadership [the new director Prof Mark Brown is moving to DCU from Massey University in New Zealand] will deliver a step change in this area,” he says.

DCU has been involved in remote learning for some time – the Oscail distance education centre has been based in Glasnevin since the early 1980s – and now NIDL will not only replace it but will extend its activities. Initial projects include developing a short history course for use in the new Junior Cert curriculum and an online masters programme on Irish studies for international students.

“Our main motivation is to enhance the learning of all our students and also to provide insight for future developments in digital learning and technology-enhanced learning – not only in DCU but also nationally and internationally,” says MacCraith. “The institute will be active in carrying out research and in policy development in the area of digital learning, learning analytics and personalised learning – there’s an exciting pathway of learning innovation ahead but it all needs detailed research and validation and this research will be a resource both for DCU and Ireland.”

Ireland could be tapping into more opportunities in the global market for digital learning, he notes. “The reach of technology means there is enormous scope here for innovation, and while the new institute is not-for-profit, we would happily engage with companies and institutions in Ireland and around the world working in the area who could collaborate on training and research.”

Potential for growth
Ireland has potential to grow in digital learning, according to Lord David Puttnam, who spoke at the launch. Puttnam is currently chancellor of the Open University and chair of online education company Atticus Education, and last year he was appointed Ireland’s Digital Champion.

“When it comes to digital, size doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s all comparative – when you look across Europe in this area you see Estonia is incredibly ambitious, Latvia is keen to make a success of it and there are interesting interventions from places like Bulgaria. It is not connected to population size or GDP, it’s about the drive from the centre.”

Ireland has the benefit of the English language and a scholarly reputation, says Puttnam, who believes that people should focus less on the technology and more on what it can allow them to do.

“A lot of people get fixated on the technology, and think the technology is somehow an end in itself,” he says.

“This is a hurdle in a sense, it looks so intimidating and it’s a convenient thing to hide behind – I hear a lot of people saying ‘I can’t be doing with that stuff, it is all too difficult’. But when you begin to show them what this technology can do, how it’s a tool that allows them to explore, change and improves their lives – they are riveted.”

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