At a recent Science Foundation Ireland forum on how science and industry can work together for economic recovery, Mark Little, the former RTÉ broadcaster and now a social media entrepreneur, told an interesting story that captured how children have grasped information communications technology (ICT).
He described how an eight-year-old boy walked over to the family’s television, moved his hand from left to right across the flat screen in a wave-like motion and, when no picture appeared, declared that it was broken.
The boy’s belief that the television activated in the same way as an iPad rather than by remote control tells us something about how instinctive new technology has become to a whole generation of young people.
As parents, educators and policy-makers, we must quickly adapt to the pace at which new developments in ICT are encroaching on our lives and informing the futures of our children.
Lord David Puttnam, the Oscar and BAFTA-winning movie producer, educator and technology advocate who spoke at the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) annual conference in Citywest Hotel Dublin in January, said that digital classrooms can revolutionise pedagogy in the same way as free second level education was a major breakthrough for learning in the 1960s. He believes that Ireland’s strong enterprise economy – the clusters of multinationals and innovative Irish companies – has its genesis in Donagh O’Malley’s decision to make second-level education a right and not a privilege.
Today, we must take the same forward-thinking approach and invest in primary education. Technology is already pervasive in our lives and it will be central to our future – in our homes, in our leisure time and in our workplaces. We already know that much of the work today’s children will undertake as adults has not yet been invented. If you find that hard to believe, consider the number of people now employed in making smart phones, tablet PCs, satellite navigation systems, touch-screen cash machines, 3D ultrasound systems, not to mention the software that runs on these systems. None of those jobs existed when those workers were in school.
Education has to be about learning new skills rather than memorising vast quantities of information available on the internet. IPPN, the professional body that represents over 3,350 primary school leaders, has long advocated harnessing ICT to support the teaching of all subjects in primary education where the foundation is laid for all future learning.
We need to accept that the traditional methods of delivering the curriculum no longer fit the way in which children experience their world. It is no longer reasonable to expect children entering junior infants at four or five years of age to sit for long periods in a non-digital environment, because, since they have been able to crawl, these children have been exposed to touch-screen technology.
This generation of primary school children are, in David Puttnam’s words, ‘digital natives’, while the rest of us he describes as ‘digital immigrants’. We need to meet the expectations of a new generation of young people, some of whom are more familiar with new technology than their parents and teachers. This throws up challenges that the Government and the education sector must confront.
The challenge for teachers is to successfully adapt from the role of teacher as purveyor of all knowledge, dispensing it to children in measurable amounts, to a role where the teacher is a facilitator of learning where everyone is both a teacher and a learner.
The narrative has moved on from ensuring that every child has access to basic education to ensuring that they are properly prepared to meet the skills demands of a rapidly changing society and workplace.
The challenge for Government is to establish a multi-annual budget for ICT in primary education. High-speed broadband, laptops and tablets, reliable networks and practical technical support are essential ingredients. Many schools have already fundraised extensively to install interactive whiteboards. Some will question the affordability of an ICT investment plan based on our economic circumstances – but, in my view, a better question is: can we afford the cost of not making this investment?