It is 430pm the last day of the school year, and I am laid out in a very comfortable armchair in the foyer of the conference space in Dublin Castle. (Curiously, there were two large stuffed trolls seated next to me. However, I digress.) I am not sure if I could get out of the seat even if I wanted to. This seemed like a great idea a month ago when I booked my ticket for Excited (@weareexcited). But here I was exhausted after the end of year rush and a reasonable night at Fairyhouse for the staff end-of-year celebrations.
A number of lively and brightly t-shirted students populated the room and the people started to filter in and the energy of the occasion lifted me from the approaching slumber.
....24 hours later and I leave that same space - armchair nowhere to be seen having been replaced by numerous school displays - and I am energised by an event which set a challenge to all the educators present to lead the change in digital education and to achieve a repeatedly-articulated goal of having Ireland as a leader in digital education and learning in the World.
So, my reflection on the event.
Blend of participants and attendees
Firstly, the positives of which there was many. I felt that this was a 'rounded' event with high-quality speakers and presenters plus the presence of industry, ed tech start ups, representatives of the DES (seemed to be a significant number from the building unit there) research institutions and primary, secondary, further education and third-level educators. I have attended a good number of ed tech conferences in Ireland in the last few years and while it was great to see many of the familiar CESI cohort, it was refreshing to meet new educators and to hear new perspectives - including the musical intro by Junior Minister Ciaran Cannon!
This mix of people brought a new dynamic to this event that brought a different dimension to the discussion. In my experience, ed tech conferences can be, at times, overly positive and lacking a critical perspective. Though it is understandable when these events' main goal is to celebrate the good practice and innovation that is taking place. On the industry panel Mike Ferrick from Alison.com posed the questions whether teachers were achieving at their full potential when content and material for the subjects is now freely available on the web. It was asked whether they are using their time effectively is the need to create content has essentially been removed from the equation. It was interesting to note the immediate defensive position taken and the line of the history and continuing heritage of "great teachers" in Ireland put back to them. However, I have no issue with being asked difficult questions - it forces honest reflection which is needed on the part of educators if we are serious about this change. I suppose that the 'Excited' event was not a representative audience of educators and it was likely that the most technologically innovative teachers were at this event, not those who either do not have the skills, expertise or desire to supplement their current teaching practice with resources and material available in the digital learning environment.
Answering (& asking) difficult questions
This point is made though in the context that I am happy to take on difficult questions if industry are willing to be asked and respond to difficult questions by educators. This discussion must also be cognisant of the primary role of education in a society. While not wishing to denigrate the importance of employment and work, I do not see that my primary purpose as an educator is to create employees. That is industry's job. As an educator, I see my role as facilitating the development of the students who I teach and interact with. Now many of the skills that the industry participants and others were highlighting are the self-same characteristics I would look to develop in a student, skills such as problem-solving skills, creativity and resilience. But I see this interaction between industry and education more as a venn diagram where what we are developing in schools has real value to enterprises, this is opposed to a view (one which was dismantled in a recent RTE Prime time debate) where schools are "conveyor-belting" students through a system with fully-formed employees ejected at the other end.
The question was asked of what can industry do for education? In light of my views on this, I would be looking for a more respectful conversation to be had with educators which highlights the skills that industry are, and probably more importantly will be, looking for from future graduates; not one which blames the education system for not producing ready-made employees for them. In my opinion, it's my job to help students reach their potential; it's your job to make them into effective employees.
The voice of students was celebrated at the event and rightly so as it was articulate and perspective to the needs of students across all sectors. The presentation by Ciara Judge (@CiaraFudgyJudgy) , Sophie Healy-Thow (@SophieHealyThow) & Émer Hickey was excellent and was a reminder of the fact that these articulate, thoughtful and motivated students are in our schools all throughout the country and we must give them the opportunities to lead the discussion about their education and have a real say in it.
The group discussion that followed did bring out a dichotomy of views on PowerPoint and I think it does have a relevance to the issue of Student Voice. From the students who were surveyed on Friday and Saturday, a view that they liked using PowerPoint for projects and presentations was expressed. In the group discussion it was expressed succinctly that we needed "power points not PowerPoint". We need to be careful that, if we ask for the students to express their views, that we respect it, regardless of whether we think we know best. I think there may have been some IT snobbery at play and something we need of which we need to be mindful. Students from all ages were surveyed and if they find PowerPoint as a useful and effective tool for their learning, we need to respect that point of view and not denigrate it in the rush to have them use [place multi-user, super-slick, collaborative, recently-launched, only-in-beta ed tech presentation tool here].
The Psychology of Change in CPD
Attendance at the event was definitely affirming of the role and potential of technology in education detailed by all of the students and teachers throughout the weekend. CPD for the teaching body was repeatedly mentioned as playing a key role in the achievement of the movement's goals. However, I feel more thought needs to be given not just to the structure and resourcing of CPD, but also to the psychology of change and how to move it beyond the "converted". Technologically innovative and "techie" teachers often find themselves ploughing a lonely furrow and even at times rowing against a culture of indifference. The presence of so many schools at Excited that have made that transition shows that it is possible but understanding their success and the role of organisational culture and leadership will be a very important piece in the puzzle of making the Excited a national movement in education. The CPD provision to make this step to Ireland becoming a world leader in ed tech and in the use of technology in schools need due consideration given to the psychology and management of change and needs the school management and leadership on board with this journey. (JMB & ETB leadership to be invited next year, perhaps?)
Finally, a big thanks to all for organising the event and I look forward to the different EXCITED events throughout the year. On a practical level, I had a very interesting chat with Mike Ferrick from Alison and I hope to be able to further use the platform to support the work experience programmes in St. Oliver's CC.