Technology in classroom still in the Dark Ages


The lack of computer training in schools is a major failing of the curriculum

IN 1985, when I was in fourth class in the CBS primary school in Ennis, Co Clare, a computer arrived into our classroom.

We must have been one of the first schools in the area to get a computer and our teacher, Mr Carmody, recognised the manner in which this piece of machinery could be of benefit to class learning.

He began to organise geography and other learning to be taken on the computer, and once a week we’d take our turn identifying the Twelve Pins or the Three Sisters on a map of Ireland on the screen.

When not in use, the computer was kept under a dust sheet and it maintained a sort of mystical quality and was not to be interfered with. By the time I started secondary school in the early 1990s, a computer laboratory was developed and we did take some additional computer classes, learning for example how computers worked and also some basic programme applications.

It wasn’t until third level when I did the European Computer Driving Licence, almost a decade after first interacting with a computer in fourth class, that I finally began to get a solid foundation in computer and IT learning.

The lack of ICT (information and computer technology) learning and tuition in our education system in the 1980s and 1990s can be excused by the fact that computer technology had yet to become such an integral part of everyday life.

Emails were yet to overtake letters as the preferred form of written communication and mobile phone and internet technology was in its infancy.

In the coming weeks, my son will finish his primary education in a very dedicated and conscientious rural school. He too has access to a computer in his classroom, and there is the added benefit of whiteboard interactive technology. But I would argue that he has had roughly the same amount of individual ICT learning as I had almost a quarter of a century ago. That, to my mind, is a major failing of the Irish schools curriculum. Movements such

as Coder Dojo, a voluntary peer-to-peer children’s computer club, are having to fill the gap in children’s ICT learning.

Many schools at both primary and second level have IT facilities, including dedicated computer labs, classroom computers and interactive whiteboard technology. But the fact remains that digital literacy in Ireland

is not seen as important enough to teach as a standalone subject and more often than not is taught only when it can enhance or complement the current curriculum.

Some students who are fortunate enough to be in a school where fundraising activities allow for the most up-to-date IT infrastructure will get a better ICT education than others.

Schools in disadvantaged areas may have been able to access capital grants for IT equipment, but the maintenance of these facilities can cost anything up to €3,000 a year. For schools already struggling under existing budgetary constraints, inevitably it will fall on an ICT-savvy member of staff to try to fit in maintaining the equipment around their other duties.

And how many teachers in Irish classrooms have computer science or computer networking qualifications? In many other countries in Europe, dedicated technicians are available to schools to help maintain IT systems, and computer science graduates are being sought out for class teaching.

There is also the issue of the use of computers under the current curriculum. Digital literacy is being recognised as integral to education and curriculums around Europe, from Sweden to the UK, are being reorganised to reflect this.

We are still in the Dark Ages

in Ireland regarding the approach to and understanding of the importance of digital literacy and how it should be imparted.

Typing is not taught to students. We force them to power down their powerful mobile phone technologies as they enter schools in the morning and prefer that they carry around bags with up to a dozen heavy books from a young age. How many students leave the Irish education system with the ability to do some basic coding? Build a website?

Know their way around applications such as Powerpoint, Excel and Word? How many language students in primary or secondary school have skyped native speakers of their new language in class?

Some changes are being planned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, including a short, 100-hour on coding that will be available for schools from 2014 for the junior cycle curriculum.

The new Junior Certificate examination will also feature 40 per cent portfolio work and the intention is for this to be produced or submitted on a digital platform.

At present, the council is working with industry partners on how best to do this for schools, and the recent Government commitments with regards to provision of 100MG broadband for all post-primary schools is a welcome step forward.

When I’ve had this debate with individual teachers, many of them recognise that ICT learning is ad hoc and not in keeping with the vast societal changes. Some schools are doing great work.

But Teachers’ Union of Ireland president Bernie Ruane is correct when she says there has been a “lack of real engagement on best national practice for the use of new technology in the classroom . . . ”

Teachers are already trying to cope with an unnecessarily broad curriculum – often the argument centres around what subjects should be dropped to develop computer learning. The question we should be asking is why teaching joined-up handwriting is seen as more important than learning to type or code in our current schools system.