Over the last decade, as the cost of technology has decreased, there has been a significant movement towards digital learning internationally. However, policymaking regarding the use of ICT in education, specifically post-primary, has been lacking. Students’ experience of technology at post-primary school varies hugely. Over the last 12 months the debate around the digital literacies and key skills offered to students had become very device focussed rather than content focussed. However, this debate has led to some key developments. The recent spotlight on the use of tablets in schools has led to many schools now giving more consideration to the digital device that they choose to have students use.
In 2016 I published a co-edited Handbook on ICT use in schools with Dr. Tríona Hourigan. This book reported on case studies and experiences from international digital teaching and learning projects in primary and post-primary education. Some contributors wrote about full engagement in a technology rich environment, others wrote about a blended approach and one contribution described using TV sets to facilitate some ICT component in rural African schools. When we were working on the book we did not envisage any circumstance where every school in this country would be pushed suddenly into facilitating an education online.
On Friday the 13th of March every school in Ireland shut its doors and many schools that had limited online activity suddenly had to “pivot to online.”
For many teachers this has meant being plunged into online delivery. From the many column inches in the traditional media to the many comments on social media we can see the response from schools has not been uniform. A lot of focus has been on on exam classes but as of yet we are not hearing as much about Special Education Needs (SEN). We also need to hear about the experiences of those in non exam classes.
For schools one of the positive aspects in the wake of Covid-19 is the avalanche of digital resources that has been made available, without cost, to students and teachers. A group of Irish publishers and the Irish Writers Union agreed to waive licence fees for selected books online. Publishers such as Edco books, Folens, O’Brien Press, Mercier Press, Little Island Books, Gill Books, Futa Fata, Leabhar Breac, An Gúm, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Cois Life and are among those that have signed up for the scheme. The European Commission, in a move to ensure continuity in education and training activities, is also promoting the online platforms and EU-funded projects that may be useful to many at this time. The PDST and other Irish agencies have also been very proactive in offering training to teachers on how they can harness the available technology. However, there is a flip side to all of this. The constant narrative of what is available in terms of resources and training can seem overwhelming; particularly for those who may not have engaged in this type of activity prior to the school closures. 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. The research shows that this informal “Community of Practice” is a key driver in the successful implementation of technology in Education. Many students have also had to learn how to adapt to the challenges of this new world.
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. While the investment is to be welcomed further consideration should be given to supporting assessment and feedback within a remote learning environment. A total of €7 million of this funding will be provided in the post-primary sector and €3 million in the primary sector. The total funding is very little and is likely to fall short of stakeholder expectations. On Friday the 24th of April the Department of Education and Skills issued a circular to schools providing the details governing the funding. One potentially very positive note is that schools have the discretion to choose the devices and equipment that will best meet the needs of their students. It is critical that the very recent recommendations (January 2020) of the review of tablet devices at Ratoath be considered when decisions about how to spend this funding are being made. Tablet devices are not necessarily the best choice of device for students.
Covid-19 has provided us with a real opportunity to look at future school policy and investment in digital teaching and learning projects. There are many surveys being conducted online including one run by national parents council which will yield very rich data for this area. The digital agenda is firmly at the centre of education at all levels now. The research that I’m involved with focusses on the digital experience of students at post-primary in Ireland. Schools, teachers and parents urgently need action research which can underpin how decisions are made in terms of how technology will be best used by students with the well being of all stakeholders at the forefront.