Pack your tablets: Irish schools ditch the textbooks to go digital

A handful of schools are using technology to attempt to harness students’ digital literacy and better engage them in the classroom. Is it working out?

First year students with Surface Pro devices using Microsoft One Note as a learning resource during their Spanish class at Coláiste Bhaile Chláir. Photographs: Joe O’Shaughnessy

First year students with Surface Pro devices using Microsoft One Note as a learning resource during their Spanish class at Coláiste Bhaile Chláir. Photographs: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

There are no textbooks at Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, a post-primary school in Claregalway, Co Galway. Having digital coursework means that lessons become something of a collaboration. Students can shape the flow of information by adding their own research, pictures and annotations. They can replay instructional videos (like a maths problem, for example) at home if they didn’t quite grasp something during class. Their notes are kept in one digital binder, accessible from anywhere, and their homework is synced with teachers’ devices the moment it’s done.

In 2012, Coláiste Bhaile Chláir was founded with a simple idea behind it. If students are comfortable using smartphones, tablets and laptops at home, then why not harness that digital literacy to engage them in the classroom?

“The technology itself doesn’t necessarily improve students’ grades,” says Alan Mongey, the school’s principal.

“It’s about the process they’re going through, and a lot of factors impact on that: excellent teaching, good resources, highly motivated students. But they’re more active in their learning, rather than sitting there passively, and the technology standardises a level of organisation across the classroom. That makes it easier for everyone to better achieve.”

The response from parents, students and teachers has been such that Coláiste Bhaile Chláir is oversubscribed both in terms of enrolment and job applications. (The devices are paid for by parents, which Mongey says is comparable to the cost of textbooks across the junior cycle.)

About 100 of Ireland’s 700 post-primary schools are going digital this year, Mongey adds, but the number that are textbook-free could be counted on one hand. He understands why many schools are hesitant to follow suit.

“From a teachers’ perspective, obviously there’s a learning curve in terms of getting up to speed with a new approach, and there’s an initial increase in workload. But every year after that, it drops off. Yes, it is costly initially, but I would think that the benefits – students coming from second-level with all the 21st-century skills essential for the workplace and further study – would provide a huge, long-term boost for the economy. It may be that politicians or even some teachers just want to see better grades as the return on the investment. But it’s not as simple as that.”

In fact, it’s quite complicated. There are obvious positives to educational technology, such as aiding the likes of dyslexia and autism-spectrum disorders. But comprehensive integration can raise some difficult questions. How will a school determine what equipment is appropriate? What kind of technical support will be available? How will it affect children’s attention spans and general wellbeing? What will it mean for teachers who know less about technology than their students?

The Department of Education says a new digital strategy for teaching and learning in schools is under development and “the use of new technologies is being considered again in this context”. A spokeswoman points out that an advice sheet on adopting tablets in schools is on the PDST-Technology in Education site, which supports the integration of ICT into teaching and learning in schools.

In the meantime, some schools are already figuring out answers for themselves. At Coláiste Bríde in Clondalkin, Co Dublin, digital technology has been introduced bit by bit. Staff use ePortal to keep track of students’ attendance and performance, while some teachers use a device called Smartpen to record their notes and accompanying audio for absent pupils. As with Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, students can use tablets and contribute online, but it’s part of a blended approach.

 

Managing expectations

Starting small is key, says teacher Sarah-Jayne Carey, who is also the school’s information and communication technology (ICT) co-ordinator. When Coláiste Bríde moved into a new building in 2008, they were careful to manage expectations. Teachers knew there would be a computer in every classroom and that the educational landscape was changing. Six years on, Carey says one of the biggest challenges is finding enough time, not just to keep up, but to get the balance right.

“The problem is that teachers need to know how to integrate [technology] so it doesn’t just become a replacement for the books and it isn’t just used to look things up on the internet,” she says.

“Training in CPD [continuing professional development] is a huge issue because it’s like teaching any class: people are at different levels. I think due to the lack of funding and time, some schools will have to look to outside groups, like the Computer Education Society of Ireland, or events where teachers can share knowledge. There aren’t really in-services, as such, for using technology in classes. That’s why there is a danger that some schools, teachers or areas could get left behind.”

There is an imperative for change, Carey acknowledges, but digital literacy among teachers is being outpaced by students. When first years at Coláiste Bríde are taught coding or Scratch (a visual programming language), many of them have already done it before.

“What you don’t want is a situation where they’re coming into secondary school and the resources aren’t there for them to build on what they’ve learned.”

One primary school starting early is Scoil na gCeithre Máistrí in Lissywollen, Athlone, where there is roughly one computer for every four children. Gearóid Ó Duibhir, the school’s ICT co-ordinator, is passionate about the need for a digital learning strategy to provide better support. But he’s also conscious that teachers may have misconceptions about integrating technology and that terms such as ICT can sound off-putting.

“There’s this idea of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that using technology means stopping the way we normally teach. Some might say, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about computers.’ But you know an awful lot about teaching and learning. This is another tool to enhance that whenever necessary.”

 

Facilitating engagement

It’s not about getting in 30 iPads and hoping for the best, says Ó Duibhir, or letting students get lost in their own devices. It’s about facilitating engagement with the subject and ensuring students reflect on what they’ve learned. If the class is carefully planned and the technology is integrated properly, then distraction isn’t an issue.

The school can’t control students’ device usage outside school beyond setting guidelines, Ó Duibhir adds, but the next logical step is to create a parents’ council as an adjunct to the school’s ICT committee so that there’s a shared understanding.

But what do the parents of plugged-in children think?

Andrew Dicker is a 32-year-old estate agent from Greystones in Co Wicklow who lives with his wife and two children in Nashville, Tennessee. His four-year-old daughter has been using a tablet since she was two. Although his seven-year-old son is still learning to read and write in first grade, computers are part of his classwork and he has no problem finding whatever he wants on YouTube.

“They can both do things their grandparents wouldn’t be able to,” says Dicker. “They’re growing up in a culture where information is so readily available that, if you can’t answer their question, they want you to look it up on the spot.”

Dicker and his wife are sensible about their children’s device usage at home (no tablet access until homework is finished, for example) and try to engage them in outdoor activities whenever possible. Technology has made no notable difference to the children’s attention spans, says Dicker, and while it disconcerts him that they would be constantly on tablets if they had their way, he values the convenience technology can bring.

“We have an app that tracks my son’s progress at school throughout the day. It tells us how he’s getting on with his homework. If he’s misbehaving, we’ll be notified immediately. There’s always going to be debate around the pros and cons of emerging technology, but when something simple can make a big difference to your life, it’s hard to argue against.”

 

 

NO DEFINITIVE EVIDENCE: PSYCHOLOGIST UNSURE OF BENEFITS

Consulting psychologist Dr David Carey feels that too many unsubstantiated claims are being made about the use of technology in educational settings.

“I don’t think we have a definitive body of evidence yet that indicates that the use of technology in schools has a significant impact on increasing academic achievement as opposed to modern teaching methods,” says Carey, who has more than 25 years’ experience working with both children and teachers.

On the plus side, he says, there is some indication that technology (particularly computer games) can actually enhance children’s attention spans as it involves multitasking and short-term memory. It can also augment socialisation, as kids with access to technology have a common vocabulary and interest with others. But Carey points out that children, particularly those under the age of four, need an opportunity to have the language centres of the brain stimulated, which cannot be done through tablets and smartphones.

“Now that children are technology-literate, we do have to bring some of that into our schools. But for the average student, I think it’s being pumped up far too much and placed in an area of importance that it really doesn’t deserve. There’s nothing technology can do that a highly skilled teacher who can make the curriculum interesting and accessible can’t do.”

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