Smart technology is smart learning

19th century learning styles don’t suit 21st century students


If the education system in 21st-century Ireland is to be fit for purpose, it must address how technology can support the education of all children and young people, including the one in 10 children with dyslexia.

In the past 30 years a steady stream of headlines have promised technology that would revolutionise education. Yet technology is still seen as an add-on or after-thought in many classrooms. It is a real challenge to envisage how the promise of technology can be properly realised in a way that is central to everyday teaching and learning. It is not simply a case of putting up whiteboards and buying tablets.

The recent explosion of smartphones and tablet devices, with a reduced price-tag and increased portability, means that there is now an even greater potential for their use in education. The challenge remains integrating this potential at the level of classrooms, schools and exam halls.

The reality of smart technology in school bags is well known to teachers, and in the last few years school policies have ranged from all-out prohibition to the slightly more enlightened “turn off in class”. We need to move from seeing this technology as a threat, and instead embrace the obvious opportunity for better learning that it presents.

Flexibility and creativity
The use of technology at primary and third level provides greater flexibility and creativity. Third-level institutions increasingly encourage students to bring their own device from home. Primary schools have more flexibility to consider how technology might be truly integrated into lessons. However, at second level there is seemingly less flexibility because of the exam-focused system with an over-dependence on whole-class teaching, teaching from a textbook and demonstration of ability via the medium of (hand-)written work.

Another specific challenge is the “digital divide” that exists between adults and young people. I would have great respect for our teachers who face the challenge of making classroom lessons relevant and engaging to young people, when their charges are in receipt of increasingly sophisticated and engaging technology-aided experiences outside of school.

It is interesting to note that using technology in a way that benefits children with dyslexia can actually benefit all learners. It involves less copying from blackboards; more multisensory approaches; less whole-class lessons; more individualised approaches; opportunities for overlearning and so on. This is in line with the thinking that if we taught all children as if they were dyslexic we would be unlikely to do any harm and would actually do good.

Getting it right
There is an issue here though when it comes to technology. Let’s just assume that we are getting it right for children with dyslexia and they have all have the technology they need to help them demonstrate their potential. A non-dyslexic student might reasonably point out that this type of support would help them too. So perhaps our thinking should be the other way around. If we get it right for all – we get it right for dyslexia.

To take just three grounded possible examples of technological developments: homework is posted by a teacher on an e-bulletin board accessible by the pupil from their smartphone; students deliver project work via multimedia presentation; spell checkers are turned on as the norm. While these developments would likely be welcomed by all students, they would also specifically address a lot of the difficulties that dyslexia throws up (copying homework from board in the last five minutes of a lesson; essay writing as default method of assessment; the terror of archaic whole-class spelling tests).

But “getting it right for all” cannot stop just at the integration of technology. We also need more curricular flexibility with a broader sense of what counts as achievement – not just the traditional “academic” subjects. We might look at those youngsters who thrive in transition year – where entrepreneurship, civic participation and team building are valued – and wonder why these themes are not more threaded through the whole school experience. The CAO could help drive school practice by configuring third-level course requirements as a pattern of skills, subjects and required results (rather than a single three-figure number.)

The external exam system also comes into play here, as exams are an obvious driver of practice in secondary schools. Exam halls in 2013 look eerily similar to exam halls from 1913, while the world has moved on. Currently we have an industrial, economy-of-scale system, that rewards a skillset designed in the image of a civil servant in the pre-computer age – a skillset unrepresentative of the types of skills that the third-level and employers are now asking for. Measures of assessment need to be much more sophisticated, balanced and reflective of a wider sense of what counts as success.

Exams will still have a place in any assessment framework, but there should be a clear rationale for when (and how much) this form of assessment is used in preference to others. Not just because it was always done this way, or because it is cost-effective.

Reforms around the use of technology and related reforms to curriculum and assessment offer a way forward for all pupils, including those with dyslexia. Such change will undoubtedly carry risks but we need to manage these risks, not avoid them. Especially when the risks of not acting are even bigger: that unless we adapt, our education system will increasingly become unfit for purpose.

Donald Ewing is head of psychological and educational services at Dyslexia Association of Ireland

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