We urgently need better digital content for students in case of school closures

Opinion: Pupils may end up being reliant on technology again in September. Equitable access to high quality content online is a real, but hidden, digital divide.

We do not know what September will bring and we need to prepare now for as equitable a level of access to high quality digital content as is possible. Photograph: iStock

We do not know what September will bring and we need to prepare now for as equitable a level of access to high quality digital content as is possible. Photograph: iStock

 

For schools one positive aspect in the wake of Covid-19 has been the abundance of high quality digital resources that have been made available, at no charge, to students and teachers.

In March a group of Irish publishers and the Irish Writers Union agreed to waive licence fees for selected books online. There are further initiatives from some educational publishers to allow parents access to an online home school hub from September 2020. However, this level of generosity is not sustainable.

In order to comply with European legislation passed in 2019, public sector organisations and private companies and organisations need to check the accessibility of their websites, mobile apps, and media content. The publishing sector must also adhere to these common accessibility standards ensuring that digital content can be used by all. High quality digital materials need to be designed and developed and this requires professional time and resources. We cannot expect this to happen without cost.

Digital divide

While schools physically shut last March, school activity continued and the “digital divide” between students with access to devices and broadband was never more in the spotlight. However, there is another digital divide that we are not talking about; that of the content.

There is massive uncertainty about the return to school in September and we will be relying on technology to help provide an education to all. Many students and their parents have been overwhelmed by the ocean of resources and training available online. This has been the case particularly for those who may not have engaged in this type of activity prior to the school closures.

Teachers are also facing the same challenges. Before the closures and restrictions teachers could chat to one another face to face and identify “low risk” aspects of the technology to embed into their classrooms.

ResearchEd, a global movement among teachers to share best practice, highlights how this informal activity is critical to the successful implementation of technology in Education.

Support

So, what is needed? On the 22nd of April the Minister for Education announced a special €10 million fund to support the purchase of technology and devices for disadvantaged students. There is massive uncertainty about the return to school in September and we will be relying on technology to help provide an education to all

While this initial funding will address short-term needs, we urgently need additional funding to conduct a review of the digital resources available in Scoilnet, our national education repository.

Some subjects are well populated with high quality content and some subjects are less well served. We need an inventory of what teachers need to support their new teaching environment, whatever that will look like, in the autumn.

We need resources that are quality assured and meet accessibility guidelines. Teachers should not be expected to design and develop high quality digital teaching materials.

E-learning

It’s worth looking at what other EU countries doing to support teachers and students. In France, with the support of the government, the education ministry’s National Centre for Distance Education (CNED) stepped into this space as early as March. CNED had an e-learning platform that - as of 2017 - was being used by 237,000 students around the world. The platform had a 15 million-student capacity given that France has around 13 million students from primary through post-primary school.

In the UK there was more of a kneejerk reaction with the government providing stg£4 million in funding to Oak National Academy - a State-funded online school - to provide online materials to teachers and those trying to home school children. It includes a virtual version of the entire national curriculum and gives schools the opportunity to reorder topics and lessons to match their own plans.

Of course these types of initiatives will not serve those without physical devices to use the resources and broadband will be a huge issue for others but these moves are a hugely positive step for education at a crisis point.

Targeted funding

In Ireland, we cannot expect teachers to take on the additional role of the design and development of high quality digital content. We need targeted funding to populate our national repository as was done in the early stages of Scoilnet.

The capacity for a repository service has been proven in the context of third level education. For a short few years we had a successful national repository in the National Digital Learning Resources (NDLR) service. This service was established as a collaborative pilot service project in 2004 largely by the university sector.

By 2006, the NDLR had grown considerably as 21 of the Irish institutions of higher education became involved. By 2010, many members were registering from organisations outside of the 21 main institutions of higher education in Ireland. These organisations included other educational institutions and bodies in the wider public sector. However, the repository service was shut down at the end of 2012.

Despite the challenges, Covid-19 provides us with an opportunity to look at future school policy and investment in digital teaching and learning projects. There have been many surveys conducted online in the last few months which have looked at the impact of Covid-19 on second-level education.

The recent report published by the ESRI highlights many of the challenges that students and teachers faced during the lockdown. We do not know what September will bring and we need to prepare now for as equitable a level of access to high quality digital content as is possible.

Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn is a lecturer in technical communication at University of Limerick