Many parents of secondary school students are being forced to pay up to €1,000 for digital devices even though they may not always be the best option for teaching and learning, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Dr Ann Marcus Quinn, a lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at University of Limerick, said a wider debate is needed about how technology is embedded in our schools when the country is in the grip of a “cost of living crisis”.
She was speaking during an Oireachtas education committee discussion on the future of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) in education.
Dr Marcus Quinn said a report from the European Commission’s expert group on quality investment in education and training recommended that significant attention and investment should be made to improve the digital infrastructure in schools such as hardware, technical support and software.
While Government funding has increased for ICT in schools, she said in many cases, it was being left to parents to invest in high-end digital devices for their children. Despite the financial burden, she said not all schools were using the same quality of digital content, with teachers and students unable to access textbooks or ebooks in many cases.
She said this was leading to several problems including copyright concerns and an undue burden being placed on teachers to become instructional designers.
Other schools, she said, had a “bring your own device” policy. She said, however, that the range of devices used varied hugely and schools had little control over what social media was accessed during the school day.
“This scenario essentially forces some families to buy their 12-year-olds a smartphone. Research, including that carried out by the ESRI, provides evidence that children under 13 with a smartphone are negatively impacted,” she said,
Another model for the roll-out of technology was where a school had computer labs or a trolley system in place for the use of technology in class. Under this approach, she said, everything was monitored and safer and no personal devices are used. This required significant funding, however.
Dr Marcus Quinn said the Department of Education should consider a centralised approach to the procurement and provision of digital devices and the necessary ICT systems in order to support well-informed digital school policies and investment.
She said the department should also recommend a common minimum standard for digital devices in a similar manner to a circular it published in 2017 providing recommendations on uniform purchases.
Dr Sarah McCormack, professor of sustainable energy at Trinity College Dublin, highlighted some of the obstacles facing female students studying Stem subjects at the committee meeting.
She said females, just like their male counterparts, have the aptitude and potential to excel in Stem fields but often face societal and cultural barriers that discourage them from pursuing these subjects.
“Stereotypes and biases that suggest Stem is ‘for boys’ or that girls are not as capable in these areas can limit their interest and participation,” she said.
While women make up about 20-30 per cent of students in Trinity’s undergraduate engineering courses, they tend to do better, achieving higher degree results and higher completion rates. For example, while 64 per cent of men completed their engineering courses in 2017-18, it was more than 90 per cent for women.
“By actively encouraging girls to pursue Stem subjects in secondary schools, we can create a strong pipeline of female students who are prepared to pursue Stem careers, thus closing the gender gap and ensuring that girls have the same opportunities as boys to explore, learn and excel in these fields,” she said.
Dr Cornelia Connolly, associate professor at University of Galway, told the committee that staff shortages were a key issue in providing more students with access to subjects such as computer science.
While coding is available at Junior Cycle, latest figures indicate it was available in just 117 schools. Similarly, while computer science is now a Leaving Cert subject, it was available in just 114 schools.
“We are a long way off making this important subject available to all students. Equity of access is a matter of concern,” she said.