Special Report

Teaching through technology – 21st-century appliance of science

Teachers say aim is to demystify technology and provide skills now required

 

The space where technology and teaching meet has become one of the most dynamic parts of education, both for students and teachers. It is a space Helen O’Kelly is comfortable in.

An IT teacher at Stratford College, a fee-paying secondary school in Rathgar, she previously worked for many years in the IT sector, including for companies such as Microsoft.

“Technology doesn’t take over from content, it’s a utility. It’s like electricity, it’s everywhere now,” she says,

At Stratford College, students learn how to use a wide range of software applications as part of the European computer driving licence classes, which is taught from first year onwards.

More importantly, though, they are also taught computational thinking, which enables them to become not just consumers of technology but makers of it.

“Our aim is to demystify technology. Students here learn the craft of designing their own software products. They are taught how to devise an algorithm, which is just a set of instructions – as a recipe is an algorithm used to bake a cake,” O’Kelly says.

“They use flow charts, pseudo codes that are half in English and coding. They see that, just as a builder doesn’t just rock up with a pile of bricks to build a house, with technology you first need a design process.”

In this way, technology projects at the school help the students learn a variety of skills applicable to other subjects, and life in general.

“It provides so many of the skills required in the 21st century, such as learning to think logically, critical thinking, programming, communications, creativity, problem solving, the resilience that comes of not giving up,” she says.

“They get the social awareness of working with a team and the experience of working to a schedule. And at the end, they have a digital product.”

As part of her continuing professional development, O’Kelly undertakes courses run by Bridge21, an education initiative based at Trinity College Dublin that helps train teachers how to teach technology.

“There is a paradigm shift taking place in education right now,” she say. It is one she believes will see technology become intrinsic to the way in which all subjects are taught.

Learning opportunities

That is something Nicola Mortimer, head of business products, marketing and innovation at Three Ireland, has seen first hand. Three provides a range of technology and telephony services to schools, including 3 Connect, a cloud-based telephony system that enables schools manage incoming calls, and Way2Pay, which allows schools to collect payments from parents via SMS text messaging.

“All these initiatives ensure teachers can teach and avoid getting bogged down in administration,” she says.

Mortimer is also seeing technology used to enhance learning opportunities for students. For example, one of Three’s customers is a Dublin school that shares its honours applied maths class with another school that does not have enough pupils to warrant a teacher in that subject. “Ways can now be found to offer such subjects virtually,” Mortimer says.

Support is available to schools looking to take advantage of technology in all sorts of ways via the Professional Development Service for Teachers. Run under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills, it provides professional development and support for teachers.

Seán Gallagher, a national school principle on secondment to the service, heads up its ICT section. “My area is that point where the art of teaching meets technology,” he says.

“It’s an exciting time. When I was in school, my access to research material was encyclopaedias such as Britannica or World Book.

“As a result, you presented your material in a way similar to what you found there. Now access to research is almost limitless but it’s not enough just to have access, you have to have critical analysis too.”

Lecturers at third level also require assistance in how best to utilise technology in their teaching. At the Dublin Institute of Technology, for example, the Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre runs short courses that staff and students to draw on.

Living documents

For Claire McDonnell, assistant head of the school of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at DIT Kevin Street, its role is invaluable.

“The centre has been there for the past 10 years or so, but at the very outset it was about virtual learning, somewhere students could, for example, talk about seeing their notes put up online. It has since evolved enormously, encompassing the use of things like social media, to make better use of technology,” she says.

Part of this has seen the emergence of digital or eportfolios, living documents that students can add to throughout their time at the DIT. Part of their portfolio is private, which might include coursework assessments by staff, while other parts are public, enabling them to showcase good work, in a manner not unlike a LinkedIn page.

The centre is also looking at the introduction of digital badges as marks of distinction for work undertaken. In some cases, lecturers at DIT already use systems that enable students to ask questions anonymously during or after a lecture via their mobile phones.

Elearning should stand not for electronic learning but for enhanced learning, McConnell adds.

“There is no point bringing in the technology if it’s not bringing anything new to the learning. It is not just about information transmission – or if it is, that is the use of technology at its lowest level. It has to add value.”

Tech tools: Helping teachers incorporate technology in the classroom environment

There is a number of supports open to teachers looking for help incorporating technology into their teaching.

The Professional Development Service for Teachers (pdst.ie) is a Department of Education and Skills initiative which provides high-quality professional development and support that for teachers across the primary and post primary curriculum, including in ICT.

The development service also manages Scoilnet.ie, an education website containing a database of 15,000+ online resources, including websites, quizzes, lesson plans, notes, video/audio, games and other multimedia, which teachers can use to enhance their classes.

Bridge21 (bridge21.ie) is an education programme based in Trinity College Dublin which offers a new model of learning that can be adapted for use in Irish secondary schools. Designed to support an innovative 21st-century learning environment within schools, it has developed a learning model for second-level education that is team-based, technology- mediated, project-based and cross-curricular.

At third level, DIT’s Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre (dit.ie/lttc/) offers a range of postgraduate course, master’s, diploma and accredited courses for continuing professional development, including such topics as trends in elearning technology.