Students ‘should be allowed to use computers for Leaving’

Many people are more comfortable using a tablet than a pen, says Junior Minister Ciaran Cannon

Leaving Cert students should have the option of doing their exams on computer rather than being forced to do this week's handwriting marathon, Minister of State for Training and Skills Ciaran Cannon has said.

The junior minister for education, who is developing a five-year strategy on digital teaching and learning, said many young people were more comfortable using a tablet than a pen.

“We should facilitate an assessment of their talent and their creativity in the environment they feel most comfortable, not one we impose on them, not telling them the only way we are going to assess you is get into a room and write constantly for three hours.

“Yes, there are other young people who will always like their pen and paper and they need to be facilitated too. But we don’t have that flexibility now. We are serving one cohort and doing a disservice to others, and that needs to change.”

"I would like to see that happening as part of the Junior Cycle reform," he told The Irish Times. Examination software had been developed in Ireland for overseas markets and he said there was no reason why this couldn't be applied here too.

Under the existing rules, students can apply to use a word processor in state exams if they have illegible handwriting that is “attributable to a specific learning difficulty”. Out of last year’s 55,000 Leaving Cert students, just 914 were granted the concession.

Modernising Modernising the format of state examinations was one of

the issues discussed at the Excited festival of digital learning at Dublin Castle, which was hosted by Mr Cannon at the weekend. Speaking at a fringe event, Dr Aoibheann Gibbons, director of research development at UCD, said there was a contradiction promoting digital learning and then "having all these children worrying about cramped hands" during state exams.

“It’s not natural from a physical point of view, or from a psychological point of view. You have to think from top to bottom when you’re writing with a pen but the kids today organise their knowledge in a different way; they are used to moving stuff around, and thinking in a non-linear fashion.”

The digital learning strategy will heavily emphasise new technology and teacher training, and Mr Cannon admitted the latter would require “a very, very significant investment”.

He said he believed Irish education was at an “inflection point” similar to when Donogh O’Malley decided to introduce free second level education.

“We can choose to not make that investment [in digital learning] and remain where we are, languishing somewhere mid-table in terms of our education globally or we make that investment now and give our children a real chance to succeed in the future... There are very serious decisions to be made and they need to be made very quickly.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column