A New Age For Education

Clodagh Garry

Two weeks ago, the focus of the Irish Presidency was on the Digital Age.  Events took place across Dublin which brought together Europe’s digital champions, senior policy makers and thinkers to consider our digital future.

The week began in Dublin Castle with a meeting of the Chairpersons of the Communications, Education and Transport Committees across Europe.  Issues surrounding education and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) dominated throughout the day.

Rethinking the Use of Technology in Education
Ruairí Quinn, Ireland’s Minister for Education, spoke of the Irish government’s plans to upgrade the education system here. He outlined how Ireland is currently reforming its literacy and numeracy strategy, transforming the junior cycle of secondary education and creating a new architecture for further education.

Minster Quinn outlined the need to change how we are thinking about technology in education: “The curriculum only reaches a proportion of society….young men are dropping out of school because it’s boring…Shakespeare isn’t as interesting to them as taking apart a car.”

The Minister also spoke about how teaching practices could be improved through the integration of emerging technologies, for example, by connecting a classroom with an expert via Skype to teach students about a specific subject matter.  Rather than replacing the teacher, this would assist him or her, and enhance the education received by the students.  Such methods have the added benefit of creating a working environment reminiscent of professional settings in which young people may find themselves when they finish their education.

Lord Puttnam, Ireland’s Digital Champion, expanded on the Minister’s comments.  “If all you do with technology is use it to support existing methodologies and practice, then why, and on what possible basis, would you expect new or significantly better results?”, he asked.  ICT creates the possibility to transform and improve our education system.  Teaching ICT skills alone is not enough, he argued.  We need to be teaching through the new technologies.

The Roles of the Teacher and the Classroom
The role of the teacher in the digital age was also a topic of much discussion.  Samo Bevk, Chairperson of Slovenia’s Committee on Infrastructure and Spatial Planning, called for a holistic approach, stating that without teachers, ICT learning just won’t work.  Lord Puttnam echoed this, stating that the role of the teacher is more vital in the digital age than ever: “The existence of this extraordinary cornucopia of knowledge only makes the need for teachers and curators of information- in essence ‘trusted learning guides’ – more crucial than ever”.

Delegates expressed concerns on the day, however, about the effects that ICT advances may have on teachers, in particular the extra training, duties and challenges that will be necessary.  Many felt that while the proposed practices sounded positive, in reality their implementation would be difficult.

Jan Truszczyński, Director-General for Education in the European Commission, raised the issue of this extra work and training for the teachers, highlighting the difficulty for teachers to find time to identify and complete digital training.
The varying levels of digital literacy between and within classes were also seen as a challenge.  Children across Europe do not all have the same digital opportunities in their homes.  Patrick Bloche, Chair of the French Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education, highlighted the fact that the only ICT education that many children in Europe will receive will take place in school, as opposed to at home.

Growing Need to Improve ICT Skills for Employment
Lord Puttnam also pointed out a number of challenges that we face, not only in the education system but in society as a whole.  He warned that Europe is in danger of becoming complacent and that we need to move fast in order to benefit from new technologies.  Our infrastructure and download speeds are still too slow and underdeveloped.  The digital literacy of Irish people is a concern; one in five Irish citizens, for example, have never used the internet.  The EU has forecast that by 2015, nine in 10 jobs will require a full complement of e-skills.

The Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, will soon launch Ireland’s Digital Strategy, which will highlight the potential of digital to transform society.  Minister Rabbitte said that while investments are currently being made to provide ICT infrastructure in the education system, the challenge now is to ensure that teachers have the skills and confidence to use the technology effectively.  This was the main concern raised by delegates at the conference, and was seen as crucial to the updating and improvement of our education system.

Improving our ICT skills could also play a role in tackling high levels of unemployment. The European Commission estimates that there will be up to one million job vacancies in the ICT sector in the EU by 2015.  The need to integrate ICT skills into our education system and to equip young people with the skills they need for future employment is pressing.

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