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Microsoft helping primary school pupils develop digital skills

Tech firm using ‘Minecraft’ to introduce computational thinking into Irish classrooms

Dr Kevin Marshall, Microsoft Ireland’s head of education: “With the movement towards artificial intelligence and machine learning, the digital economy is going to replace a wide range of jobs and we need to think about that. We have to ask what skills our kids will need in the future.” Photograph:   Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Dr Kevin Marshall, Microsoft Ireland’s head of education: “With the movement towards artificial intelligence and machine learning, the digital economy is going to replace a wide range of jobs and we need to think about that. We have to ask what skills our kids will need in the future.” Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

 

Microsoft is working with schools and schoolchildren around Ireland to encourage the development of digital skills as early as possible in their education.

Ireland’s education system is still very much based on the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Microsoft Ireland head of education Dr Kevin Marshall believes a fourth dimension needs to be added – computational thinking.

“We have a good education system in this country”, he says. “But it’s still very traditional and is focused on the Junior and Leaving Cert exams. You can go through the system all the way to the Leaving Cert without ever using a computer.

“With the whole debate around Stem – science, technology, engineering and maths – and the need for more graduates in those subjects we need to change this.”

Marshall is an industry representative on the board of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment where there are continuing discussions about introducing computer science as a Leaving Cert subject. He believes that computer education should begin much earlier, however.

“The more fundamental part is around the primary schools”, says Marshall. “While we support CoderDojo to help children gain coding skills that’s at an informal level outside of the classroom, the bigger area is in the classroom.

“Computational thinking needs to be mainstreamed and the learning needs to be structured and scaffolded within the primary school system.”

He believes it is vitally important to embed this in the primary school curriculum as soon as possible. “Computational thinking makes use of logic, recursive thinking, and abstract thinking and allows people to think about problems in different ways.

Digital economy

“With the movement towards artificial intelligence and machine learning, the digital economy is going to replace a wide range of jobs and we need to think about that. We have to ask what skills our kids will need in the future.

“It’s not appropriate for everyone to be a coder of course but you can give them a better choice in terms of what they can do by including computational thinking on the curriculum.

“If this country wants to remain competitive over the next 15 years it will need to be agile and responsive to these changes. We are doing a really good job with the Science Foundation Ireland research centres and the work being done at third level but we need to do a lot more at primary level.”

One way to bring computational thinking into the classroom is through the gamification of learning. Children can use Microsoft’s video game Minecraft for highly creative projects and learn computational thinking at the same time, for example. Minecraft has been described as a virtual reality Lego or Meccano which allows children and users of all ages to create their own virtual worlds.

Minecraft is a great way to learn logic and abstract thinking”, says Marshall. “Research in Northern Ireland has showed that children who use Minecraft do better at maths.”

Microsoft ran the Mind Rising competition this year for schools and youth groups to use Minecraft to tell the story of Ireland, looking back to 1916 and projecting forward to 2116.

The aim is to transform the teaching of history in schools by using Minecraft to incorporate design thinking, digital storytelling and games-based learning to an enriched learning experience for students.

“The idea was to allow the children to design a project, research it using OneNote, and then develop it on Minecraft and present it using the Sway presentation tool”, says Marshall.

Main challenge

“We are trying to fuse old and new techniques and tools to create a more engaging learning environment.”

According to Marshall the main challenge will be helping the teachers acquire the necessary skills as the children tend to have no difficulty working with new technologies.

Microsoft is supporting teachers through a network of 10 “Expert Educators” who are available to provide seminars for teachers and schools across the country. The company is also looking a providing online training courses on using Minecraft in the classroom.

Second level is important as well of course and Microsoft is working with a number of schools to bring innovative technologies into the classroom. Examples include Coláiste Pobail Setanta, in Dublin, which last year eliminated textbooks entirely for first years.

Teachers there use Microsoft OneNote to disseminate lesson material with students operating in a digital environment and using a broad suite of tools to interact with the material. Another example is Claregalway College, in Co Galway, which is also making extensive use of OneNote.

“We are want to work with primary and secondary schools who are interested in innovative ways of teaching that will help prepare students for the kind of careers and the world which will exist when they leave school”, Marshall concludes.