State must proceed with technology in classroom plan


The €252 million allocated for technology in schools is vital for a knowledge society, writes SIOBHÁN MASTERSON

GIVEN THE current economic downturn, Government plans to curtail expenditure are essential. However, these cuts must not be in areas which underpin the future prospects of our society and economy. One key area where investment remains a priority is education and Government commitments to planned investment in this area must be honoured.

A designated fund to put technology in our schools is a necessary first step. However, the Government appears to be wavering on its plan to spend the €252 million allocated to put technology into classrooms under the National Development Plan.

Any failure to deliver on such a vital commitment is a concern, particularly as a new type of digital divide is fast developing in society. This is the division between the parallel worlds of learning at home and learning in the classroom.

Rows of students sitting in front of a blackboard is outmoded for teaching and learning in the 21st century. Without cutting-edge technology, the classroom is out of touch with its students and is unable to adequately prepare them for their futures.

The cost of putting technology in schools is a drop in the ocean. If teachers and students can use it effectively, it will inevitably create the skills that the Government demands for the much talked about knowledge economy. Parents, students, educationalists, unions and business must work together to ensure that this money is secure, available and spent on time.

A consensus was reached long before the National Development Plan - technology is a prerequisite for teaching and learning in today's schools. In its absence, schools are failing to make the most of their most valuable resource: the experience, skills and interests of their own students. The complex and more important challenge facing Government is not putting technology into schools, it is about bringing the golden nuggets of out-of-school learning, into the classroom. This is without killing the enthusiasm stone dead with out-of-date and broken equipment and with teachers who have not been enabled to use it effectively.

The UK think-tank Demos last year published a report Their Space: education for a digital generation. It talks about young people spending their time in a space which adults find difficult to supervise or understand. It found that "the use of digital technology has been completely normalised by this generation, and that it is now fully integrated into their daily lives".

Another finding is that "the majority of young people simply use new media as tools to make their lives easier, strengthening their existing friendship networks rather then widening them. And that almost all are now involved in creative production, from uploading to editing photos to building and maintaining websites".

It is vital that the classroom does not ignore and alienate these sophisticated learners, but incorporates the positive aspects of individuals' private experience with technology into the more formal learning process.

Unfortunately, the current generation of decision-makers, from teachers and parents to politicians, are all at a serious disadvantage. We see the world from a very different perspective to the new generation, which does not recall a time without the instant answers of the internet or the immediate communication of mobile phones.

Yet, it is these decision-makers who will shape the way that technology is used in the classroom. There needs to be a realisation that to bridge the divide between formal and informal learning between home and school, decision-makers will have to develop strategies with the active involvement of students.

Working in collaboration with young people is the only way to find solutions that are in tune with reality. We should not miss out on the valuable resource that this generation provides us with - their experience, skills and interest.

International research indicates that the quality of education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and that the best-performing systems help teachers to improve by providing them with a precise knowledge of best practice and motivating them to make the necessary improvements. In light of this, the recent Government announcement expelling the ICT Advisory Service and the failure to announce a replacement initiative is disappointing.

The end of the exam season gives us a short period to reflect on the fact that through necessity, the classroom is assessment and output focused. The result: the skills and competencies relevant to the knowledge economy are in many respects not part of schooling. The nature of this exam-focused system is that teachers do not have the time or space to develop technology as a tool to enable learning.

Decision-makers must recognise the potential technology has to transform learning and to enable both the teacher and student. They need to accept the rapid change in behaviour that technology has brought, to embrace it and use it to foster and encourage our common ambition.

• Siobhán Masterson is senior education policy executive with Ibec