By Ciaran Cannon.
Let me start by asking you a few questions. To the nearest metre, how deep is the Marianas Trench? How many people live on the island of Mauritius? Who won the 1972 All-Ireland Hurling Final? To what species does the ring tailed lemur belong? I asked my ten year old nephew the same questions this evening, just before writing this blog and within three minutes he told me 10,971 metres, 1,283,415 people, Kilkenny (we could have guessed that one!) and lemur catta. Is my nephew some kind of prodigy, able to store and retrieve information at will? No, he’s a typically bright and happy ten year old who is rarely found without some sort of smart device in his hand.
That device gives him access to the greatest repository of knowledge that mankind has ever known. His answering of those questions challenges us to finally acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, the internet has already changed the way we learn and there’s no going back. It has also turned on its head the relationship between teachers and learners, a relationship that hasn’t changed to any great degree for thousands of years.
For me, that fundamental change in the dynamic of the classroom was wonderfully described by a school principal from Co. Wexford at a digital learning festival in 2014. He told us of a recent experience when teaching the history of the Irish famine to his third class students. Before he uttered a word in class he asked his students to go online to research the famine and produce a three minute video about it on their iPads.
He was very impressed by the quality of the students’ research and their technological skills but what really caused him to reflect deeply on his role as a teacher was the classroom conversation he then had with his students about the famine, after they had viewed the videos. He and his students debated all aspects of this tragic time in our country’s history. Who or what was to blame? Could the famine have been prevented? Are there lessons to be learned from that experience? “I suddenly realised that I was no longer teaching history, I was in fact creating historians” were his exact words. In that one sentence he encapsulated the incredible opportunity we now have to create learning environments that are dynamic, exciting and inspire our children to learn more deeply than we could ever have imagined.
He and others in the world of education are now beginning to realise that the keys to the kingdom of knowledge have slipped from their fingers and are now in the hands of everyone with a connection to the Internet. The genuine trailblazers in the teaching profession see that fundamental change not as a challenge, but as an exciting opportunity. They fully recognise that the greatest respect a teacher can pay a student is to say “we are all learners now, let’s learn together”. In Claregalway College, for example, teachers and students don’t use textbooks published by others. Instead they collaborate in producing their own teaching and learning content and store it in the cloud where it can evolve as knowledge evolves and can be shared across the whole school community. In the Stephen Perse School in Cambridge, teachers and students have created digital support materials for every subject, including video, audio, written materials and links to online resources. Last year they made those resources freely available online and so far they have been downloaded by thousands of schools globally. In Texas, 14 school districts collectively produce and share online course materials.
For now, these are the outliers. Elsewhere there is a rapidly deepening disparity between what happens inside the walls of our classrooms and the world outside. Right now if we were to somehow reawaken a teacher from 1915 and send them into an Irish classroom, they would find it relatively easy to take up where they had left off. Once they had gotten over the shock of seeing a television or computer for the first time, they would simply ask their students to open their history books on the chapter about the famine and within a few minutes that warm feeling of familiarity would wash over them. They could easily ignore the utterly changed world outside their classroom, a world connected by a vast and ever expanding matrix, because in most schools right now that is the normal practice.
Just nine weeks ago, those who argue against the use of technology in education felt somewhat vindicated when the OECD published a significant piece of research on the use of technology in education. The conclusions of that report were sensationally and inaccurately reported in the mainstream media. Headlines included “Computers in schools may do more harm than good” and “Lack of computers in schools may be a blessing – OECD report”. The report was in fact much more nuanced, if anyone took the time to read it fully.
These are the words of the report’s author, Andreas Schleicher; “School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change”
In essence the conclusion of the report is that technology on its own is not going to revolutionise education, but technology in the hands of expert teachers and eager students can be a powerful enabler of enhanced learning.
Those one dimensional headlines and the rush to use the OECD report to diminish the role of technology in education may point to a far deeper unease amongst educationalists. Is this resistance to technology, the handing over of the keys to knowledge, really about a difficulty in relinquishing power; moving from whole group to individualized instruction; from education meaning “knowing things” to education meaning “constructing knowledge”; from passive to active learning environments; from memorization to creation? So perhaps technology is the scapegoat, not the reason, for change reluctance.
Two years ago Excited – The Digital Learning Movement collaborated with the Sean O’Sullivan Foundation to launch Mathletes, the world’s first online maths competition using the free learning resources of the Khan Academy. The idea was hatched on a Tuesday morning in Sean’s office in Cork and two years later Mathletes has now evolved into Learnstorm, a competition that will be staged across Ireland, California and Idaho in 2016 and will involve over 100,000 students. For me, Learnstorm is a perfect example of the collaborative and creative power of the internet. It was that connectivity which allowed a small group of people who are passionate about education to collaborate in creating something really groundbreaking, despite being 8,000km apart.
That opportunity to engage in almost any kind of joint creativity means that the very notion of a school, for instance, that is wholly constrained by its physical walls is now just laughable. And yet so many schools in Ireland and across the world continue blissfully and obdurately trying to deliver an education to their students while pretending that the enormously connected, massively collaborative world can be kept at bay.
It is no longer acceptable to tell my ten year old nephew and his peers to switch off their digital devices, their connection to the world around them, before they begin school each morning.
Ultimately we have two choices.
We can embrace the incredible new learning opportunities provided to us by the internet and modern technology, or we can slowly but surely turn our schools into museums of the 20th century, our last refuges of redundancy in a world being reshaped over and over again on a daily basis…..by ones and zeros.