Opinion: ‘There’s a quiet revolution in Irish education’ says David Puttnam

We’re watching a massively disruptive evolution impacting every sphere of education, possibly for the first time in 100 years, writes David Puttnam

 David Puttnam. Photograph Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

David Puttnam. Photograph Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Tue, May 20, 2014, 02:00

There is a quiet revolution taking place in education. One day in early January, a million teachers downloaded lesson plans and ideas from other teachers, principally through the TES Connect website (full disclosure: I am chairman of the company’s advisory board). Of those downloads, something over 70 per cent were user generated , created by teachers for teachers.

People used to think of teaching as a somewhat solitary affair, that teachers protected the best of their lesson plans, and once the classroom door closed they were very much on their own.

Recently we’ve discovered that this simply isn’t true.

There have always been subject specific groups who generously shared best practice, but the recent phenomenon of sharing online has, over the past five years, really taken off.

We are also witnessing another transformation, one in which for those entering the profession, the skilled use of technology is an entirely natural way of life.

These are precisely the sort of confident and skilled teachers every country in the world needs, and Ireland just happens to have struck a rich vein. And not a moment too soon because it coincides with welcome developments in the creation of an educational infrastructure which dignifies both this new generation of teachers and their students.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has worked extensively with the Department of Education and Skills and HEAnet on the provision of a 100MB broadband connection to every second-level school. This programme has been successful in providing high-quality broadband connection right to the school door. The next step is for similar internal connectivity to become available to every part of each school.

It is crucial that teachers and learners have genuinely pervasive access, and that a range of mobile devices are properly supported as part of the process.

As we now know, the advent of high-speed broadband opens the door to a faster, richer, more interactive and more informative internet experience than has ever previously been possible.

Within education, the streaming of videos, plays, movies, animation, documentaries, concerts and so forth can now be seamlessly and vividly incorporated into day-to-day teaching practice.

But despite the opportunities that are opening up I worry that many of these recent and valuable developments in technology will be held back by a natural, and in some cases understandable, educational conservatism. It’s quite possible these fears will get in the way of the type of ambitions that could allow Ireland to become an educational exemplar to the rest of the world.

Disruptive evolution
What’s certain is that we’re watching a massively disruptive evolution that’s impacting every sphere of education, possibly for the first time in 100 years.

A fair number of people are finding much of this very uncomfortable; on balance it’s not only remarkable but it chimes perfectly with a nation that has always given the process of teaching and learning the respect it deserves.

What we now need is renewed support and encouragement for our teachers, to help them integrate the very best of the new technologies into every classroom setting.

Somewhat surprisingly, the most adventurous professionals I’ve met have tended to be found in our primary schools. They seem to share a wonderful sense of hope and an equally impressive sense of how to make the learning experience more engaging.

Are these changes disruptive? Yes.

Do some in the profession find themselves lacking the support they need, and somewhat lost? Yes.

But that’s always the way with change, it jolts all of us out of our comfort zone.

As a nation, we’ve never more badly needed people who are prepared to use the full range of these new resources, people who are stimulated, rather than intimidated, by the opportunities they offer.

Thanks to the courage and foresight of an education minister, Donogh O’Malley, Ireland enjoyed an early and inspired start in taking on new approaches to teaching and learning. Fifty years ago, when it was thoroughly unfashionable, O’Malley laid the foundations for a strong public focus on education. His tragic early death was another in Ireland’s history of all too often losing the best of its leaders before they’re able to complete the goals they’ve set themselves.

But it was largely thanks to his imagination that Ireland was able to take an early lead in encouraging its young people to embrace what was at the time, not just new, but largely untried technology.

The gamble paid off, and a well-educated returning diaspora had a great deal to do with encouraging many, if not most of the global ICT world to set up shop here, and their continued presence remains something of a testament to his vision.

A report published last week by Pearson Education suggests that, based on a variety of data, the Irish education system is currently the ninth best in the world.

This in a table whose top positions are dominated by the countries of South East Asia. Good as it is, I happen to think it’s a position Ireland can significantly improve upon if only we are prepared to harness our energy and creativity to capitalise on the benefits of digital learning and the technology that drives it.

David Puttnam is a speaker at Excited: The Digital Learning Festival in Dublin Castle, May 30th-31st, which focuses on digital learning in education. Other speakers include Marty Cooper and Mike Feerick. Two-day tickets, €25, students free. excited.ie.

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