The Purpose of Learning #43 #cong22


When we talk about learning we often refer to the narrow confines of the formal learning that we undertake in the school or college setting but, learning happens along a continuum that doesn’t start when we start school for the first time or end when we leave school or college. Instead, we are always learning whether to enable us to complete a task, to upskill for work or simply to expand our interests.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. How do you define your learning?

  2. How do you learn informally?

  3. What has been your most powerful learning experience?

  4. The answers to above questions might help you to clarify what the purpose of learning is for you?

About Pamela O'Brien:

Pam O Brien is a lecturer in the Technological University of the Shannon. She is currently undertaking doctoral research in the area of informal learning through University College Dublin and also works on research projects across primary, secondary and third level education in the areas of digital citizenship, computer science education and the integration of technology in the classroom.

Contacting Pamela O'Brien:

You can connect with Pam  on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @



By Pam O’Brien

When we talk about learning we are often referring to the formal learning that we have all gone through i.e., the learning that happens in the primary or secondary school classrooms or the college lecture halls that we have been in. For many people this type of learning was a positive experience where they followed a specific set of rules and performed well in the tests and examinations that punctuated their time in school and culminated in sitting the Leaving Cert.

But, for many others the process has left indelible marks that follow them as they navigate life after the Leaving Cert. As the start of the Leaving Cert draws nearer every year the talk in the media, both social and traditional, inevitably turns to how best to ‘get through’ this set of examinations that marks the end of your formal education as a child. Regardless of what happens after school, the Leaving Cert still weighs heavily on many students, while they are going through it and for many years after. The purpose of all of the learning that we have undertaken in the run up to these exams seems to distil down to how we perform in those exams and the points that we achieve. But we all know people who don’t perform well in these types of situations. The people who don’t work well under pressure but who achieve great things when given the time and space to flourish. The people who don’t see the point in learning off information, just to spew it back verbatim to score highly on an exam, but who bring a different approach when asked to come up with creative solutions to problems. The people who won’t go to college after school, for a multitude of reasons, but who still get caught up in the points race. At the end of secondary school, despite all the learning that students have undertaken, both through the taught curriculum and through the extracurricular activities and learning that they undertake. they get reduced to a number! A number that often dictates the way that the student sees themselves as well as the way that others see them.

So, what is the real purpose of learning? Is it helping a baby to communicate with their family, a toddler to take the first shaky steps that signifies the beginning of independence, a child to make friends and thrive socially, that same child to think creatively and develop good problem-solving skills, the adult who needs to complete a specific task? The truth is that learning is all of these things and it happens all of the time, often without us even knowing. As parents, we are very conscious of helping our children to develop to be able to partake in society in a meaningful way but we don’t do this formally. As educators, we are aware of helping our students to develop socially as well as academically but again this is often undertaken informally in the school environment. As managers, we are responsible for helping our staff members to develop their skills to enable them to contribute more fully in our workplace. This can happen through formal organised training events or through more informal activities such as mentoring etc. So, when we talk about learning maybe we need to broaden the lens through which we look at it and recognise that the purpose of learning is not confined to completing the Leaving Certificate and achieving the 625 points that now seems to be the gold standard against which everyone is measured. Learning does not start when we walk in the primary school classroom door and end when we walk out of the second level classroom or third level lecture hall. Learning happens all the time, from the day we are born to the day we die, and the true purpose of learning is to allow us to function fully in society, which will mean different things for different people. Somewhere along the way we may have lost sight of that point …

Communities in the 21st Century #27 #cong19


The idea of community is ever evolving. As technology has developed it has facilitated the evolution of the idea of community from ‘a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’ to ‘the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common’. How can we capture the best parts of the former while enjoying the benefits of the latter?

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. How does your idea of community differ from that of your grandparents or of your children (if you have any)?
  2. As the idea of community has changed over the years what have we lost? and gained?
  3. How does technology facilitate your idea of community?
  4. What are the challenges facing our young people as the concept of community continues to change?

About Pamela O'Brien:

Pam O’Brien is a Maths and Computer Science lecturer in Limerick Institute of Technology. The integration of techology in education is a key driving force and is an area to which she devotes a significant effort. She organises the ICT in Education conference (, an annual event which provides an opportunity for educators to share ideas for the integration of technology in teaching and learning. She is an advocate for the student voice and the maker education movement and has been been involved in CoderDojo for many years.

Contacting Pamela O'Brien:

You can follow Pamela on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

By Pamela O’Brien

When we talk about community we are often referring to the most commonly used definition “A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”. However, there is another definition “The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.”.

For my grandparents the idea of community was very strong but was very much embedded in the locality in which they lived. Many people from my grandparents generation got little opportunity to travel much outside their own locality. My childhood and early adulthood was spent hearing my grandmother ‘trace’ the relationships between the various families within the parish and telling stories that emphasised the importance of that community based support network. She spoke warmly of going ‘ag cuardaoich’ to neighbours houses. This is something I witnessed myself many years later when a grandaunt was living in a nursing home. Some of the residents had mobility issues and so were not able to participate fully in the daily life of the home. Some of the other residents went ‘ag cuardaioch’ to their rooms in the evenings. It was so lovely to see the joy these visits brought to both the people being visited and those who were visiting.

Many of my parent’s generation emigrated to find work as there not too many opportunities for employment in Ireland in the 50’s and 60’s. In my own family, most of my aunts and uncles ended up in England. This was back in the days when it wasn’t so easy to travel so for most of these people trips home were few and far between. The Irish community abroad became very important for these emigrants with the local Irish club becoming a focal point for themselves and their families. Despite the different location, the most important community for many people of this generation was still very local to where they lived.

Looking at my generation, we are probably the one that has seen the most significant change in this idea of community. With the advent of cheaper flights and the introduction of the internet it is now much easier to stay in touch with people regardless of their geographical location. So the idea of community has been turned on its head. For us community is no longer confined to where we live. When I was growing up we didn’t even have a phone in our house, so communication with those who were travelling or living in a different place was often confined to letters. Fast forward 30 years and now I can’t imagine being without my mobile phone!! Through this piece of technology and the many apps that run on it I can stay in touch with family and friends dispersed throughout the globe. It has also allowed me to connect with so many people on a professional basis, who I would never have had an opportunity to connect with even 20 years ago. What I love most is that so many of these professional contacts have become good friends because of the ease of communication through social media. This has mostly come about through the combination of some face to face contact combined with ongoing social media contact in between. For me, face to face contact, even if only intermittent, is crucial to sustain these relationships.

For my children’s generation their idea of community is completely different in some ways to even mine. They don’t have any concept of a life without the internet or social media. For them geography doesn’t hugely come into their sense of community. In many ways the world has become their community. There are significant positives to this but there are also some negatives. Despite the appearance of being so connected, many of our young people can feel adrift. They can have many ‘friends’ but very few people they can really connect with, which can be problematic when they are experiencing difficulties. We all need that network of people that we turn to when times are tough. These are the people who help us to get things in perspective. But it can be difficult to open up to people you only know through social media, who, let’s face it are living their best life if their Instagram or Snapchat stories are anything to go by!! Many of us have a tendency to compare ourselves unfavourably to others but this feeling can be magnified for our teenagers who are trying to find their way without the support network of a local community. In my experience this is particularly the case in the early teenage years as our children navigate the first few years of secondary school where friendship groupings can go through considerable churning as new alliances are forged and seemingly unbreakable friendships are pulled apart. Our job as parents is to help our children to navigate these challenging years but that can be easier said that done!!

Technology has helped to facilitate the connections that allow us to belong to multiple communities in a way that our parents and grandparents couldn’t. The challenge going forward is to preserve the best components of the more traditional view of community while leveraging all that is good about the ever evolving concept of community.


Ideas and where to find them #46 #cong18


You don’t have to be an ‘ideas’ person to make an idea work!! It’s important to surround yourself with people who challenge you to look at things differently and to sometimes take a chance on something and see how it might work out. What’s the worst that can happen?

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. You don’t have to be an ideas person!
  2. Find others who bring out your creativity
  3. Take a chance on things
  4. Think about how you might be able to use someone else’s idea in a way that might work for you

About Pamela O'Brien:

Pam O’Brien is a Maths and Computer Science lecturer in Limerick Institute of Technology. The integration of techology in education is a key driving force and is an area to which she devotes a significant effort. She organises the ICT in Education conference (, an annual event which provides an opportunity for educators to share ideas for the integration of technology in teaching and learning. She is an advocate for the student voice and the maker education movement and has been been involved in CoderDojo for more than seven years.

Contacting Pamela O'Brien:

You can follow Pamela on Twitter

By Pamela O’Brien

What if you’re not an ‘ideas’ person? I’ve struggled a bit with this blog post because I don’t really see myself as much of an ideas person …. but that doesn’t mean that I’m not creative!! Sometimes we hold ourselves back by our own (or other people’s) view of us. So it’s important that we work to find and nurture the creativity that we all have lurking inside.

I’ve been involved in many initiatives that are seen by many as being creative but, if truth be told, I haven’t really come up with the idea for many of them myself. Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting that … But seriously, you don’t have to be the ‘ideas’ person to bring ideas to fruition, and I would contend, that sometimes the people who come up with the best ideas might not be the ones who can bring those ideas to where they achieve the most.

What has worked well for me over the years is surrounding myself with others who are creative in different ways to me. In this way we spark off each other and toss around ideas of what might work in a given scenario. Once the idea has been germinated I often find that this is where I can come into my own …. I can be the ‘slogger’ who takes the hint of a concept and see how it might work and then hone it further into something that might work.

The key in my humble opinion are the people you surround yourself with and how you work together. I have found that, particularly over the past 10 years, my views and how I work on so many things has changed because of the people I have come in contact with. Taking the opportunity to interact with people outside your normal sphere of contacts can have far reaching consequences by challenging you to look at things differently.

About 10 years ago I got involved in the organisation of the ICT in Education conference, an annual event hosted by Limerick Institute of Technology to provide a space for teachers to share ideas around the integration of technology in the classroom. The whole idea behind the event was to show teachers what others are doing, with a view to sparking creativity on how those ideas could be used in similar or different ways.

As a card carrying risk averse person, my early interactions on the organisation of the event was often to ask ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ I can still remember having sleepless nights in the run up to the event worrying about a Skype call to Australia or America not working as it should … fast forward ten years and my thinking has completely changed! Now I’m more likely to say ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ As I moved from being a supporting organiser to now being the main organiser the look and feel of the event has changed radically over the years.

What has changed my thinking are the people who have pushed me to take a chance on things and who are there to support me when taking those chances. These are the people who have come up with the ‘ideas’ such as incorporating students into educational events or getting people up and moving during conferences. Neither of these ideas have come from me but they have had a significant impact on the on events that I now organise. Looking back now it’s not rocket science to hear from the very students whose learning environment we are trying to improve, or to get people up and moving and talking to each other about what they are hearing and seeing, and yet so many events we go to don’t do this. So maybe I’m not an ideas person … but I am someone who can see the value in an idea and take it and use it in a way that works!