The Next Leap

COMPETITIVE IRELAND IN THE DIGITAL ERA

Options for action by Government

with 7 comments

As a first step, a drive to transform Ireland’s education system could be endorsed at Cabinet level as a national priority. This drive would contain three elements: i) Cabinet endorsement and leadership, ii) speedy curricular roll-out, and iii) a strategic and cost-saving approach to equipment and connectivity, possibly in partnership with the private sector.

The Department of Education could work with the proposed digital strategy department (proposed in the conclusion, below) on the speedy roll-out of a curriculum capable of inculcating “digital instincts” during primary education. Already the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment (NCCA) has developed a framework for the use of ICT in schools as a tool for learning that has been favourably benchmarked when appraised by international standards.

Urgent action is required to correct the balance of students studying maths, applied maths, and sciences at secondary level, in order to improve the flow of students into sciences and engineering at third level. This is key to a “knowledge economy”. A number of stakeholders repeated the suggestion of awarding weighted marks at Leaving Certificate level for higher level sciences, and higher and applied mathematics, and of considering new approaches to recruiting and compensating high quality teachers in these areas. An additional step towards increasing interest in subjects related to ICT is to introduce a commercial context into computer syllabi to emphasise the viability of a career in the digital sector. For example, introduce a course that mixes simple programming with commercial opportunity, such as an introduction to popular software development kits (SDKs) for platforms such as Facebook, or mobile phone platforms, with which teams of students could learn to design simple services that would generate revenue.

It will be necessary to commit to disbursement of the funding required to provide sufficient connectivity and equipment to bring Irish schools up to the OECD average. This is a strategic investment that will pay long-term dividends. Adopting a national and strategic approach and centrally purchasing computers (plus maintenance, refresh, and technical support contracts) would generate economies of scale and guarantee national constancy. In addition, Government could also consider exempting all school ICT equipment from VAT, availing of the fact that education is outside EU competence.

Stakeholders concerned with the tertiary and fourth level believed that recent developments in cross-disciplinary studies and R&D commercialisation were important steps. Relevant measures are outlined in trend 2, below.
Convening stakeholder think-ins involving policy makers, industry, educators, curriculum developers, and the research community, will facilitate joined up thinking on Ireland’s education reform. In technology, especially during these pivotal years in which countries are adapting to the new opportunities of the digital age, Ireland can ill afford to stand still.

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Written by johnnyryan

13/12/2008 at 01:29

7 Responses

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  1. First, violent agreement on the need for urgent action on second level subjects and third level choices. As employers have been saying for years, more maths and science, less Irish and fuzzy stuff. Honestly, this is a survival tactic, folks. Much of Ireland’s success is built around multinationals. But even the IDA may not fully understand how competitive such companies are inside – every location competes with every other. And if the quality of staff falls, especially in high cost locations, well…

    So yes, Ireland inc. needs to “sell” IT and the Sciences as cool. Any good TV or Web media come to mind?

    No VAT on schools’ IT is a no-brainer, ditto for libraries, and I think this should also be done for home PCs.

    One last thing – *speedy* and the Dept of Education do not go in the one sentence. The other half *was* a teacher, and quit in despair at the almost malign non-leadership and cluelessness of “The Department”. Five years, if you’re lucky, Mr. Ryan.

    R Almatev

    18/12/2008 at 22:36

  2. Nothing wrong with Cabinet endorsement, but we should not let our representatives off with words: we must have real action, planned by people who know what they are doing. This also applies to the civil service. The fact that the NCCA has received world ratings for a policy document, for example, contrasts rather sadly with the actual situation in schools, and is really not very significant.

    A prime case in point appears to be the “strategy” released on Thursday, which looks like someone rang around a lot of clever people, and simply bunged the lot of it down. Lots of ideas, mixed merit but tending positively, but no element of strategy or prioritisation visible. To be fair, only skimmed over lunch, but first impressions of such documents are often telling.

    While not feeling as strongly as one commentator above, I do question whether any curricular change will be “speedy,” given the track record of the Department of Education (which should be, but is not, a heavy user and promoter of collaboration platforms and other internet tools).

    On the point about boosting subject choice at second level, I would prioritise the ideas mentioned, putting recruitment and motivation of great teachers first (which, I’m afraid, also implies dealing with poor performers far more effectively than now). If done well, but this is a big “ask,” this will achieve much of the needed inspiration of students, which can be supplemented by well-formed material and promotional activity. It should be quite possible to make the IT and telecoms worlds fun and engaging, and media even more so, and the web can now be so very participative. I would rate the crude mechanism of weighted marks rather lower, but would certainly abolish any other distortions, such as weighted marks for Irish; An Gaeilge has a chance to develop in a new way using modern means, and in fact, this is already happening: the Irish-language Wikipedia looks in fair form, for example. And I would not rule out weighting, as the situation is very serious. But to get back to where we were, we have to do more than get people to take the subjects. We have to rebase the teaching and marking. Fifteen years ago, for example, many primary schools has a multi-level approach to maths, with classes doing basic practice at mental calculation, followed by computation, and then problem-solving. Often involving more than one text book (say “Busy at Maths” and “Figure It Out”, this approach allowed everyone to try all levels, and provided a full challenge for the more advanced students. Now, many classes only pursue the middle area, and mental arithmetic capabilities are down, while problem-solving is, well, a problem.

    There is a hint in the text about having specialised, for example, maths, teachers at primary as well as secondary level. This sounds nice but a small note on classroom reality: there are more than 2000 primary schools in Ireland, and maths is taught pretty much to every class every day. There is already a shortage of maths and physics teachers at second level. So I see no realistic way to source specialsts for primary. Rather, we need to empower the general teaching body (and this means reversing errors such as cutting the number of subjects student teachers take).

    I like very much the idea of getting school- and college-goers to use collaborative platforms. There may be issues with having enough teachers with time and interest, but this might be a good area to seek parent and community volunteers. I am aware of some local moves on these topics, and I fear many have started with great optimism but petered out rapidly.

    I agree with the point strongly made above on funding, which we must start to take seriously right now (but what a bad moment to have to do so), and also like the fact that the report notes that this is not just about buying a PC and dropping it somewhere. As too many have found to their cost, given an environment with many users – some a little careless – maintenance (promptly responding) and support (from anti-virus to fast classroom call-handling) are essential. Any such contracts must be rigourously awarded and managed.

    I believe strongly in the need for broad involvement in appropriate discussions, but it is important to put real teachers, and some pupils / students, at the centre of any such discussion. And to keep any curriculum development very, very practical. We need to avoide debacles like the recent proposals in the UK, rightly termed by “The Economist” as a recipe for “content-free learning.”

    Ah, and I saw a note on jargon somewhere. I think three levels is enough to understand education: third level is third level, whether immediate undergrad, “second chance” or advanced postgrad. We don’t need to muddy the waters with “Fourth Level.”

    J Doyle

    20/12/2008 at 11:38

  3. A note on “fourth level”, there is a tendency to point to increased R&D spending at postgraduate level/university centres as a indicator of Government action on the “knowledge economy”. It was important to include this in the report since at present it seems to dominate discussion of where bugetary allocation should go (for a description of what “fourth level” means see http://www.iua.ie/iua-activities/4th-level-ireland/index.html).

    johnnyryan

    20/12/2008 at 12:26

  4. Thanks Johnny, I have seen that indicator used, but am unconvinced of its value (or perhaps rather, see it as valid but not top five). Fourth level is a fairly new term in any kind of broad circulation, and I simply don’t see the need for it, but in the way of such things, it is probably along to stay.

    J Doyle

    20/12/2008 at 20:09

  5. Before flying away on the wings of optimism, check out the Indo’s take:
    http://www.independent.ie/education/latest-news/primary-schools-should-be-funded-like-research-1574952.html (John Carr)
    and
    – and, almost opposite some of what is in the Report, and especially the fourth level point, “INTO says €1bn investment in science favours ‘tiny elite'” (http://www.independent.ie/national-news/into-says-83641bn-investment-in-science-favours-tiny-elite-1574951.html)
    and this on bonus points:
    http://www.independent.ie/education/latest-news/call-for-students-of-higher-maths-to-get-bonus-1576236.html
    by yet another group, “The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs”. Perhaps all these studies and strategies could be more coordinated.

    Paul O'Conor

    22/12/2008 at 15:37

  6. Paul, absoloutly right – the IIEA can collaborate with both INTO and Forfas’ Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. I’m not sure these points at all contradict what it says in the report. The need for considerable rethinking about primary and secondary levels, not least to avert the (social) digital divide, was front and centre in the report.

    johnnyryan

    22/12/2008 at 16:57

  7. Interesting link – Social Media Classroom, started by Howard Rheingold. http://socialmediaclassroom.com

    Johnny Ryan

    20/01/2009 at 18:15


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