Digital Skills and the Irish Student


In the past, teachers focused on traditional learning and the basic 3 R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. However, as the ever increasing pace of technological innovation drives changes in the world, educators must re-assess whether the skills they teach fully equip their students for the best opportunities to succeed in school, the workforce, and in life itself. Digital skills are not a luxury, but an essential part of everyday life.

Does the modern Irish student have access to the best technology, the best teaching aids and the knowledge to fulfil this brief?    In May this year, a senior academic at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Prof. Brendan Tangney warned that unless there a was fundamental reform in Ireland’s education system,  the digital skills gap in Irish society would not be bridged.  How can we improve the digital skill levels in our schools ?

A lack of digital Literacy

Digital literacy is the knowledge, skills, and behaviours used in a broad range of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs, all of which are seen as network rather than computing devices.   The need for improved digital skills in Irish schools has been highlighted in a number of recent reports and there is growing concern that Irish pupils will be left behind when it comes to innovative digital literacy.   Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge by educators, relative to their pupils. It is not only vital that teachers ensure that  they incorporate digital literacy into their lessons in order to connect with their students, but that they keep up to speed and engage in lifelong learning themselves. Teachers also identify short class times and a pressure to teach to test and prepare students for exams as factors which limit their capacity to introduce kids-working-on-laptopcomputer science skills and digital competency in the classroom.

The lack of resources is another worrying issue with many schools reported to be without basic digital equipment, computers, whiteboards etc.,   A Google-funded programme discovered that one 500-student school in Ireland had only one computer for every 20 students.  The Computer Science and Statistics Department of TCD issued results of their recent study which reported that some schools had virtually no internet access or Wi-Fi and very few computing resources. The findings showed that almost 60pc of schools had little access to the technology required to make an impact on their schools. Prof.Tangney states that teachers need comprehensive resources, whole school supports, training and technology available in the classrooms in order to effect change in the classroom.

Bringing the digital age into the classroom.

TCD have been working to redress the balance and the college now offer courses for teachers wishing to retrain and introduce digital skills to the classroom. “What we have seen clearly is that, with the proper training, teachers are more confident in teaching computer science (CS) and science, technology, engineering and maths subjects to their students.  63pc of teachers who participated in Trinity Access 21 (TA21) CS workshops introduced new Computer Science content in their classroom, but they are limited in what they can achieve under current structures. ‘  ays Prof. Tangney. The courses are funded by Google and focus on schools identified as being in particular need under the DEIS school system.   Apart from a need for teachers to retrain and the serious lack of equipment, the methods of teaching may also have to undergo some radical thinking,  in order to fully incorporate new technology into the classroom. Thinking creatively and incorporating digital learning into lesson plans could help to maintaining student interest.  Strategies might include things which many educators may have never considered, such as utilizing Skype, texting, Twitter, or possibly even games into the curriculum delivery. It’s a new world and if our students are to be included in fast paced technology, the classroom must rethink its own opposition to the digital age.  Google have repeatedly requested that the Department of Education put coding or computer science on to the Irish School curriculum. “It is shocking that there are schools today without access to the internet and Wi-Fi. Investing in technology is just one part of the equation, but, equally, we must train our teachers in CS using 21st-century teaching methods such as experiential, technology-mediated, team-based models of teaching and learning across the curriculum.” Fionnuala Meehan managing director of EMEA SMB sales at Google. A recent survey revealed that a third of parents believe computer coding is a more essential skill to master than Irish, with two-thirds viewing it as being on a par with mathematics, science and languages.  This is not ict-at-schoolsreflected in the learning at our schools. Virtual headsets would make geography or science much more interesting to any student and computer science as a respected subject,  must find its place on the standard lesson plan.

Digital Schools of Distinction

The Department of Education has a flagship programme, Digital Schools of distinction, which aims to promote, recognise and encourage excellence in the use of technology in primary schools.   Schools that successfully complete a three step programme receive a nationally recognised Digital School of Distinction Award, accredited by the Dept. of Education.  Digital Schools of Distinction will also receive free hardware and software and ongoing practical support and resources as part of the community of digital schools in Ireland. Unfortunately, of the 3,305 primary schools in Ireland, only five schools are currently registered as digital schools of distinction.

Whether educators like it or not, digital learning, digital skills and a focus on technology is inevitable when we consider the huge advances in communication and technology of the past decade.  Ireland needs to step up, rethink and make some radical changes from the misplaced focus on traditional methods of teaching traditional subjects.

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