Ireland well behind the curve in information technology teaching

Primary teachers should be rewarded for IT skills

24/10/11Mr.Malone the Principal for Colaiste Chiarain, a smart school where students use laptop computers and e-books for learning in Croom County Limerick.Pic Press 22.

24/10/11Mr.Malone the Principal for Colaiste Chiarain, a smart school where students use laptop computers and e-books for learning in Croom County Limerick.Pic Press 22.


International comparisons are making the Government’s boasts about Ireland ’s highly educated workforce hard to swallow when the evidence shows only average performance and a downward trajectory.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2010 Pisa report on Irish education, for example, showed steep declines in performance in reading and maths. This is at a time when the education system needs to equip youngsters for the challenges ahead in a country that has 27 per cent youth unemployment.

Solving big problems requires big ideas, and nowhere are big ideas more needed at the moment than in our education system. It does not take a great deal of foresight to see that the next innovation in teaching will be digital.

However, current policies are not only keeping education behind the curve, they’re pushing our schools further back.

While infrastructure has improved in many schools, many teachers are not sufficiently well trained to make use of the technology in their classrooms. Investing time and effort into preparing classes digitally not only requires the confidence of good training, it also means risk.

In the face of a potentially wasted afternoon when their computer misbehaves or the projector refuses to start, many teachers prefer to stick to the simplicity of the whiteboard. Too often, ICT in primary schools has been about new ways to display class materials. Instead, we should be looking at teaching children to be advanced computer users.

Budget cuts and the Croke Park I & II public service pay deals cement the status quo. One of the most self- defeating policies enacted in response to the crisis was the withdrawal of any additional payments for the most qualified new teachers. No matter how high the demand, a new teacher employed with a master’s degree in, say, computer science, in addition to their teaching qualifications, will receive no additional salary.

Rewarding teachers
There’s a moratorium on any new “

posts of responsibility” for information technology. And even when they were open, they were almost always awarded to the most senior teacher as opposed to the one with knowledge or interest in the area.

Putting off teachers’ increments for a few years as Croke Park II demands will save some money, but replacing increments with incentives would go much further. Last month Harvard University announced that it is offering its full introduction to programming class free online. Courses like this can even include online testing and certification.

Rewarding teachers who are willing to get meaningful qualifications and putting them to work should be the first principle for pay rises – not the time spent on the job. Without a reward for going “above and beyond”, it’s too easy to stick to the safe options.

Finland, frequently referenced in Ireland and globally as the model education country, demands that all teachers have at least a master’s degree and remunerates them commensurately.

Further afield, even bigger ideas abound.

The India n government has announced a major programme in partnership with a British company to produce a tablet computer available to students for only ¤21. By the end of March, 100,000 of these tablets will be in the hands of students with a further order of about five million expected shortly afterwards. The tablet runs a simple version of Google ’s android operating system but students can browse the web, send and receive emails, and read digital textbooks.

As part of an EU-funded Tigerleap programme, Estonia n schools are piloting a new project where primary school students aged just six will learn the basics of computer programming and creating web and mobile apps. Teachers delivering this programme will be trained online.

Looking further ahead, the South Korea n government is to introduce a new curriculum this year that includes basic algorithms and programming for all students. By 2015 it plans to be able to deliver all of its curriculum materials online in a digital form.

Ireland’s gross domestic product per capita is 10 per cent higher than Finland’s, 25 per cent higher than South Korea’s, nearly double that of Estonia and more than 10 times that of India. Beyond cash, what we lack is vision, ambition and flexibility.

There’s one piece of good news: there’s time in the school day. We top the OECD league table in one area: time devoted to religious education. In fact, on average, seven- or eight-year-olds in Ireland spend twice as much time as the EU average on religion, while spending much less than the average amount of time on maths.

This is not a smart allocation of time. And we are not talking here about the reformed Leaving Certificate curriculum that looks at different world religions.

‘Patron bodies’

The Department of Education’s primary curriculum web page for religious education contains a single sentence: “The development and implementation of the curriculum in religious education in primary schools remains the responsibility of the relevant patron bodies.”

Or, translated from jargon: “whatever”. In the past five years, investing in education has meant sharper focus on literacy and numeracy. But it pays to be bold. Speaking English has been a boon for Irish workers in the past 50 years. Knowing computer programming languages such as C++, Java and Python will be the competitive advantage of tomorrow.

Dan Hayden is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland PhD Scholar at the UCD Centre for Regulation and Governance. @danjhayden

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