Education in Ireland

Perspectives on the Irish education system distilled through the crucible of experience,leavened with the empirical wisdom of the perpetual student!

Friday, August 24, 2007

ICT as an effective tool for Special Education Needs

I was struck by the relative lack of interest shown by ILSA members who attended the annual conference in September (2006), in those stands at the exhibition that demonstrated the use of ICT in SEN. In fact, so sparse was the interest in ICT that one exhibitor packed up early and left! Why this lack of interest in a medium of instruction that has the capacity to make a significant contribution, in the hands of a trained practitioner, to teaching and learning in the special needs area?

Technology has the capacity to create a revolution in education. In the past 20 years technology has penetrated every area of society and every aspect of our social and cultural lives. Television liberated the world from the confines of text and static illustrations. Computers make possible vast amounts of information, instantly available at the stroke of a key. Children are now growing up with remote controls. Interactive technology is as common in today’s home as television was in the past. Children are now raised in a world where they can control information flow and access.
Research in the US has shown that when ICTs are used effectively they bring about changes in the role of teachers
A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which the learner constructs new ideas or concepts based upon current or past knowledge. The practical application of this theory to the classroom is that the teacher should help the child to learn how to learn, how to find and apply the information needed and to become an adaptable, collaborative problem-solver. Constructivism argues that education should be an active, multi-disciplinary, exploratory and social activity.
If technology is to support this theory, the nature of the activity should be on the development of abilities to ask critical questions, locate relevant information and integrate this information and to communicate effectively. Software programs that support this kind of activity should encourage the use of collaborative and integrated activities that put children in control of the computer.
Bruner talked of the need for learners to be reflective “turning around what they’ve learned.” Bruner called this reflection metacognition. There are several strategies for developing metacognition including bridging, tacit and explicit communication and self-monitoring. Peer collaboration is seen a means of enabling the above strategies. The use of ICT as a tool in teaching is one method whereby peer collaboration is positively encouraged. Peer collaboration requires communication. Such social interaction is pivotal to the collaborative learning that is involved when ICT is used as a mechanism for teaching. A growing body of research on collaborative learning has demonstrated the benefits of children working with other children in collective learning efforts. When children collaborate, they share the process of constructing their ideas, instead of simply labouring individually. The advantages of this collective effort are that children are able to reflect and elaborate not only their own ideas, but those of their peers as well. Children come to view their peers not as competitors but as resources. Mutual tutoring, a sense of shared progress and shared goals, and a feeling of teamwork are the natural outcomes of co-operative problem-solving and these processes have been shown to produce substantial advances in learning.
I hope I am making the argument that ICT has too much going for it to be simply ignored. The right software packages, coupled with proper professional training will equip any teacher with a significant array of resources to use in the Learning Support or Resource Room to the benefit of both pupils and teacher. To ignore ICT is like cutting off your right arm, or left hand, if, like me, you happen to be a ciotóg! Programs such as the Lexia Reading program, Nessy, Wordshark, Numbershark and Clicker should be an integral part of the armory of resources of every LS and RT teacher in the country. So next time you attend an ILSA conference, do please look at what is on offer at ICT stands; I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Stagnation in ICT in Irish Education

The Department of Education and Science consistently acknowledges in public the potential of ICTs to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in the Irish school system. The Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin has also publicly acknowledged the wonderful work that many teachers do in using ICT for teaching and learning, when she launched the Digital Schools Initiative in February 2006.

However we have to balance these public utterances against the reality of no ICT policy or strategy in place in the DES since the Blueprint for the Future of ICT in Irish Education -Three Year Strategic Action Plan 2001-2003 expired. No funding has been given to schools to maintain, upgrade or replace outdated hardware since 2002.

Is it any wonder that Ireland is now at the bottom of league tables in the OECD Report Education at a Glance 2006? This report highlights the fact that in five countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico and the Slovak Republic, one in five students
have rare or no use of computers in their homes. It is extremely important that emphasis is placed on access to ICT within schools in these countries to counterbalance the lack of usage in homes. There is a very clear warning for Ireland in this report that without investment in technology in schools a large proportion of the population will get left behind in the knowledge society of the future. The digital divide is already there and widening, between Ireland and its partners within the EU and within the OECD; now we are in danger of allowing a digital divide to open up within the country too!

A report from Eurostat entitled ‘The Digital Divide in Europe’ ranks Ireland 24th out of 25 EU member states for use of the Web by school and college students. Irish students use the internet less than their European counterparts and their access to technology remains limited. Just 57 per cent of Irish students use the internet, compared to an EU average of 85 per cent across all 25 member states. Only Greece ranks below the Republic in the league table, with a score of 55 per cent, while Finland scored 97 per cent. The report was based on data collected by the agency in the second quarter of 2004.

Schools are being requested by the DES to develop an educational system in which ICTs play an integrated role, enhancing the quality of teaching and learning for all students and across all subject areas.But this request is being undertaken in a policy vacuum!

The NCCA articulated the following vision of ICT literacy for all students in a discussion paper Curriculum, Assessment and ICT in the Irish Context (2004). Our students will leave school as capable independent learners, able to use ICT confidently, creatively and productively, able to communicate effectively, able to work collaboratively, and to critically evaluate, manage and use information.

The discussion paper identified a set of guiding principles for teaching and learning with ICT and provided the basis for developing an ICT framework as a cross-curricular scaffold for planning and teaching with ICT.

This framework is for all students from primary to the end of the junior cycle (compulsory education). The framework outlines a comprehensive set of learning outcomes for each of the three levels. The only thing missing is any reference to what schools need in order to implement the laudable learning outcomes in the document, funding!

Clear policy and planned funding on an annual basis is required if schools are to have any chance of implementing ambitious schemes devised by NCCA or NCTE. Coupled with the question of funding would be:

• in-service training for teachers
• replacement policy for outdated equipment on
an industry standard
• provision of technical support on a regional
basis through the network of education centres
• development of indigenous software for the
Irish curriculum
• incentives for teachers to develop ICT skills
• appointment of ICT co-ordinators in a full
time capacity

The current state of ICT in the educational system should serve as a wake up call to the DES. Unless action is taken quickly, the current malaise will become terminal. The flickering embers kept awake by an increasingly disillusioned band of enthusiasts will be quenched and Ireland will continue to languish at the bottom of every league table for the foreseeable future.