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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Technology & Education

The ubiquity of digital technology is rapidly becoming apparent although still largely unacknowledged in the public consciousness. The average Irish consumer still does not comprehend fully the fact that they are now and - more increasingly will be - living "digital lifestyles", in much the same way as they took on "electric lifestyles" after electrification in the early 20th century. The Christmas spree will see more Irish households with digital music players, digital cameras, digital video recorders, games consoles, DVD recorders, LCD and plasma screen televisions, sophisticated laptops, 3G mobile phones, personal organisers etc. then ever before.


However, one area where the penetration of digital technology is still sadly lacking is perhaps the place where it can be most effective… the classroom. Although Ireland is making leaps and bounds in the area of technology and education - mainly through the auspices of the
National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) and initiatives like the Diageo's Liberties Learning Initiative - there is still a huge way to go before we see technology in mainstream education.


On paper it seems so obvious. When we consider how much parents need to pay for schoolbooks, the idea of purchasing a laptop with a wireless connection through which all the required educational software and content is made available seems a sensible option. With the teacher as guide, classroom teaching could be enlivened by the unlimited resources available online around any subject area. The dryness of Mathematics for some could be dispelled through interactive animated games. The magic of Science could be brought to life through the huge amount of visual resources available on the web. English, Geography, History, Art - in fact, every conceivable subject, could all benefit from access to technology in engaging learners. Children could bring home French tutorials on their iPod Shuffles. Mobile phones could be loaded with English grammar exercises. The potential is endless.

The Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative, supported by €2.6 million funding from Diageo Ireland, has attempted to prove the benefits of integrated ICT in education in 16 schools in and around The Digital Hub/Liberties area. The
Schools Programme of the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative seeks to develop a range of programmes in local primary and second level schools aimed at addressing the digital divide. These include providing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) equipment and technical support to local schools; providing professional training to teachers so they are fully informed about the education benefits of ICT, and advising and informing the schools of employment opportunities in the digital sector. The Schools Programme aims to equip local children with the skills needed to live in a digital age, and to work in the digital media industry, which will be located on their doorstep.

In one such project,
Claymation, children created characters from play dough. These were then filmed and the children used their digital media skills to animate the characters. Voice-overs ‘as Gaeilge’ and sound effects were introduced. The project makes the experience of learning Irish enjoyable and engaging. Literature and art and design with technology are all integral parts of the project. The end result was a series of short films that are now used in the classroom to help teach Irish. To see some example of these animations, click here.

Another very popular DLLI project was the more Community-focussed
DigiRhythm, which saw local children utilise cutting-edge digital technology to record and edit their own rap music. The project was designed to teach participants a range of skills such as rap/song writing, sound recording, and digital mixing. The children worked with musicians, DJs and sound engineers to write the rap tracks and produce them. Examples of some of this extraordinary music can be heard here.Other projects that have involved children learning through ICT include Digital Beat (music video production) and Digital Control Technology (programming of machines).

Much of these projects built on the earlier success of the
Digital Storytelling project which focused on providing both primary and post-primary students with the technical skills to tell their stories using digital technology. Over 250 students in 10 schools participated in the project using a variety of digital recording equipment - digital stills cameras, mini-disk players, digital video cameras - to create stories inspired by their local area and their life experiences. Some were fictional, some were autobiographical. These stories were all put up on a website and were also broadcast on Network 2. What was so impressive about the project was how the children were empowered to learn by access to the technology. In fact to them it wasn't learning at all - it was fun. But through having fun, they learned to communicate, to work in teams, to express themselves and to harness technology through acquired knowledge and publish their own thoughts and experiences to an audience.

[N.B. To see examples from the Digital Storytelling project go to
www.thedigitalhub.com/storytelling]

Through these various programmes and initiatives, the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative is seeing at first hand the remarkable progress that children can make when they have access to this technology - even in a limited capacity. So now that we are pursuing the dream of the knowledge economy, what is stopping the integration of technology throughout mainstream education?

The issues are complex. On the one had there is another digital divide - this is a generational one, rather than a socio-economic one. The majority of teachers do not see themselves as technically-savvy and there is the fear-factor of bringing technology into their mainstream teaching. In post-primary, the curriculum has largely remained the same for the last twenty years and the idea of change is hard to fathom. Secondly there is a time and resources issue. It takes time and money to implement such a huge change into the educational system. It requires training for teachers and extra resources in an already strained sector.

However, there is an interesting project being run by the
NCTE called the Laptops Initiative which may very well be the Trojan Horse for change that is needed. Ostensibly, the Laptops Initiative was aimed at providing children with learning difficulties access to mobile technologies to help them engage in learning. A profound example of how mobile technologies can be of enormous help is seen with children suffering from Dyslexia. Dyslexia impairs a child's ability to read, regardless of their abilities of comprehension. In an education system still rigidly devoted to the three R's of reading, writing and arithmetic, it is easy for these children to get side-lined by the system. The provision of learning resource teachers - although beneficial and worthy - can often have the unfortunate effect of marginalising the student as they are seen as being 'different'. This has meant that children with learning difficulties often disengage from school. The Laptops Initiative, in certain cases, allowed for children with dyslexia to be provided with Laptops and relevant software within mainstream class situations to help them, as well as having a learning resource teacher available to them. In a sense, they "fostered" a laptop for educational purposes. The results have been quite dramatic - not only for the children with learning difficulties but also for the teachers.

Firstly, the children themselves have made remarkable progress in that now their teacher can read and correct their homework and class work by simply printing it out. Software on the computer helps them with spelling, grammar and comprehension - overcoming their original difficulties. Also, many of the students find it much easier to type then write.An example of the profound effect of this initiative was on one student who suffered from Dyspraxia - a very severe learning difficulty in performing tasks requiring fine motor skills such as drawing or writing. Many of his mainstream teachers had simply written him off.

However, with the aid of a dedicated learning resource teacher and the laptop, this student was successful in 2005 in his CAO application for engineering in the
Institute of Technology in Tralee. Without access to technology, all involved in his learning were sure that he would have dropped out of school.

But it is not only the students with learning difficulties who have benefited from the initiative. Teachers who would have been previously skeptical of using ICT in the mainstream are now converts too. Their primary worries, it would seem, had been that they would need to have some technical knowledge in dealing with the student. But in reality, the students are trained to be self-sufficient. They are in charge of the upkeep and security of their "fostered" laptop. So technical knowledge on the teacher's behalf was not necessary. Another worry for teachers was that other students would be distracted by the laptop. In fact, although there was some distraction at the start, this was purely a novelty factor and the class soon settled down and accepted the laptop as a key aid to that particular students learning requirements. Indeed in one case, an entrie school became involved in a hunt for a laptop when it had been mislaid, knowing how important it was to that particular students learning!

However, perhaps the gravest obstacle to the fuller integration was noted by one Principal of a school involved in the Laptops Initiative: "I'm not sure how far we can go with this because there are obvious constraints. There are personnel and financial demands to be met, for example, and curriculum is one of the biggest stumbling blocks - some teachers just don't see any advantage in using ICT vis-à-vis the examination system. However, it is an ongoing process." It seems that a major overhaul of the post-primary school curriculum is what is required to fully integrate ICT into mainstream education. This is an enormous undertaking but certainly one that would be in keeping with the economic imperative of creating a knowledge economy and also feeding the need for IT and science skills in order to maintain competitiveness. Certainly, the evidence from both the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative and the Laptops Initiative would suggest that the impact is profound, especially in disadvantaged schools and with children with learning difficulties. What kind of positive impact it could have on education as a whole is merely speculative, but the signs would suggest that it is the only way to go.

For the initial evaluation report of the Laptops Initiative, click
here.

For the original newsletter that this article came from go to: www.thedigitalhub.com/newsletter/issue34.htm

posted by Neil Leyden @ 2:24 p.m. 1 comments