ICT at the back of the class

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1 April 2005 | 0

LIKE A FIRST year starting off in the big school, it appears that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Ireland is having a bit of a hard time settling into the Irish secondary education system.

The potential of interactive media and the Web has yet to be realised in many secondary schools, as computers are mainly used to teach computing and little else.

In primary schools you will find PCs that permanently occupy a classroom and that are used on a wide range to do with literacy, language, history, geography, science and maths. In secondary schools it’s rare to find desktop PCs in the standard classroom; instead they are permanently kept in a dedicated ‘computer room’ on the other side of the faculty.

 

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Teachers, computer manufacturers, software suppliers and outside observers say that the culture and the power structure of secondary schools mitigates against the cross-curricular adoption of ICT.  Even Dominic McEvoy, the national coordinator for teaching in schools at the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) admits there is a problem.

The NCTE is responsible for implementing Schools IT 2000, the government ICT in Education initiative launched in 1998, which made major inroads into supplying computing equipment in Irish schools at a national level for the first time. By early 2001, Ireland’s 750 or so secondary schools had an average of 42.7 computers each.

Since then, in December 2001, the former Minister for Education and Science, Dr Michael Woods, has launched a further €109m initiative which over three years will roll out computing even further. While the DES initiatives have worked well in primaries, nevertheless there have been problems in secondaries and Dominic says the NCTE is working to ensure ‘a smoother ICT transition’ for pupils moving from first-level to second level. Circumspectly, he says that one of the problems is that a secondary school class deals with a different teacher for each subject, rather than a single teacher who teaches a range of subjects during the day and uses computing to support the teaching of those projects when appropriate.

Second class

The nature of that particular challenge is daunting if you believe the claims of one education software provider, who asked not to be identified. ‘Computers are a no-no in secondaries,’ he said. ‘Secondary schools are five, or even ten years, behind primaries when it comes to adopting ICT across the curriculum. Paradoxically, one of the reasons that teachers are reluctant to adopt computing as a classroom tool is that they are too interested in teaching the curriculum. They are under huge pressure to make sure that their students get good results in the Junior and Leaving Certificate and their attitude is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

‘In addition, computers in secondary are often only used to teach computing skills like word processing or the European Computer Driving Licence because secondary school teachers are subject specialists. If the English teacher wants to make creative use of ICT to teach Shakespeare, he has to go and get the IT teacher involved and that can develop into a turf war.’

While the NCTE has had meetings with every primary school teacher in Ireland to help them develop ICT plans, those meetings have yet to take place with secondary school teachers this year. John Mallon, education sales manager with Apple Ireland, says that in some cases ‘schools have no idea why they are buying computers. They are getting computers because they were given money for computers’.

Each secondary school has been given a €1,905 basic annual grant for IT capital spending, plus an additional €19 per pupil on their rolls, thus a 200-pupil school receives an annual grant of €5,705 and a 500 pupil school receives €11,405.

‘This money can be spent on hardware, software and infrastructure like networking,’ says Eddie Guilmartin, who uses both educational software and the Web geography at Templeogue College. ‘But there is no additional funding for consumables like ink and paper, which can create funding difficulties. There is also the question of how do you fund your IT maintenance contract?’

Software

‘There is an amazing amount of high-quality educational software suitable for use in Irish secondary schools available, if teachers are prepared to look for it,’ says Ken Winstone, MD of Diskovery. ‘You won’t find software labelled “Leaving Certificate Maths Honours” or “Junior Certificate Irish”, but quite a number of teachers are prepared to look at software produced for the UK market, which may be GCSE-orientated, but which has a lot of elements that will support their teaching. There is software for teaching English literature, Maths, Irish, foreign languages, literacy and special needs. In secondary schools we are making the biggest inroads in special needs teaching, because it is the first area where the teacher of a particular subject and the school’s IT specialist will sit down together to plan how to use ICT to help students.’

According to Ken, software used in secondary schools to teach basic literacy, vocabulary development and spelling has to be much more adult than that used in primaries. ‘A normal “learn to spell” package assumes that the user is a four-year-old, but a teenager with literacy difficulties isn’t interested in teddy bears and lollipops on screen. A title like Star Spell has nothing junior about it, in fact it is used in adult literacy programmes,’ he says.

‘In Maths, a package like Measuring Up can really help a student understand theorems and, using examples, give an example of why theorems are practical, useful and important. In the old days, I learned my theorems by rote, but with mathematics software I can see how they work.’

Space

As secondaries start spending their ICT capital grants, a move towards notebook PCs is becoming apparent. Not only do the notebooks themselves take up less physical space in a school building, notebooks make it easier to take computing out of the school computer room.

‘If you are looking to the future of ICT in education, it will go wireless,’ says Dell products manager, Fintan Keating. ‘We supply a wireless trolley that carries ten notebooks and has a wireless access point and a printer on top of it. If Mr Burke wants to use computers to teach mathematics to the third years in their usual classroom, he can call for the trolley, or trolleys, to be wheeled in. The notebooks can all connect with the Web or the school network wirelessly and because they have charged batteries, there can be a notebook at every desk without loads of cables all over the place.

‘Portability also means that you aren’t storing PCs in inappropriate places—I recently came across a PC in a woodwork room where the keyboard was covered in half an inch of sawdust. With a notebook, you can bring in the machine when you want to do Computer Aided Design and then put it somewhere safe when the sawdust is being generated.’

Apple Ireland also has its iCart, a trolley equipped with a printer and a scanner that can carry five, 11 or 20 wireless iBook notebook computers. ‘Taking the computer to the student in their usual classroom is much better educationally,’ says John Mallon. ‘Studies show that students do better when working in their usual surroundings. The fact that the iBooks are wireless also means that students can sit at their desks facing the teacher; normally in a computer room, because of the cabling requirements, students are forced to sit at their desks staring at a wall.’

Portability means that there are no limits on computer use. Dominic McEvoy says: ‘There is even room for computers in PE to plot things like body fat indices or to record sporting achievements.’

Which system?

Unlike Northern Ireland, where schools IT purchasing is done at a regional level by the Education and Library Boards, in the Republic every school is responsible for its own budget. On the NCTE Website (www.ncte.ie) secondary principals and teachers can find advice on purchasing and ICT planning, ahead of the workshop meetings that are due to take place throughout this year. ‘We ask school principles to look at where there ICT is now and how it is used in the curriculum. We then ask them where they would like that to be in three years time and then how they think spending their capital grant will get them to that position. Principals are encouraged to look at ICT planning not as individuals, but as partners working with teachers and, if appropriate, parents.’

However, while the NCTE provides reviews of software, the centre does not recommend one particular computer system over another. ‘It’s not just a question of PC versus Mac anymore,’ says Dominic. ‘You have schools implementing Linux and Unix systems, as well as having PCs or Macs. The most important thing to realise is that the children we are dealing with today are a totally different generation. With the advent of television, the last generation was the generation of the moving image; this new generation is the generation of interactive media. ICT is part of life today and computer literacy is as important as reading and writing ability.’

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