Whither Irish Education ?

The Irish Times asked me to do an update of my MacGill Summer School speech for their recent Innovation Magazine.  It was limited to 800 or so words,  but I also took the opportunity to cross reference (both URLs are given later below..) the recent article by Der Spiegel on the internet and German teenagers,  and also Bill Gates’ recent observations on the future of education.

After my article was published last friday,  I read with interest today the Mercury News interview with ex-Sun CEO Scott McNealy on Curriki

Anyway:   here’s my Irish Times article…

“When a multitude of young men … come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting …”

John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University” asserts that discourse and debate with ones peers are a stronger foundation for any university than a teacher-ful campus dispensing its degrees to those who just happen to pass its examinations. One must wonder what his reactions would be today to our current educational system, with its propensity to learning by rote, deep immersion in narrow topics, and intensely competitive solo performances.

Learning from each other and team performance are explicitly encouraged in just one location throughout the Irish educational system: on the sports field. In almost every other situation, individual attainment is instead specifically nurtured. However, group working is the critical skill for most careers after school and university.

Why is our education system so focused on the individual? Perhaps one reason is its very structure. In many of our schools, colleges and universities most of the staff operate as individuals. In general, instructors tend to jealously guard their own teaching materials. Colleagues are not always aware precisely what is being taught by their peers. Discourse and sharing is often regrettably absent.

Newman noted that “you cannot learn to converse till you have the world to converse with”. The internet gives us the world at our finger tips, and group working and sharing is at its heart. In the early days of the internet, you could only connect your computer if you then shared it with yet others. Internet browsing emerged from a group of physicists devising better ways to share their scientific results. Social networking enables us to participate in numerous activities, learn and share.

Sharing of best practice in Irish educational is limited. Our Department of Education and Skills launched the scoilnet initiative to publish an online “yellow pages” directory of selected references to interesting teaching materials, both domestic and international. The teachnet.ie initiative of St Patricks Drumcondra, with funding from Citi Foundation, has encouraged certain teachers to contribute some of their own materials to a nationally available pool. But, at this time, both initiatives offer only partial coverage of any specific syllabus. A proffered reason may be limited IT competence amongst the bulk of our teaching professionals.

A decade ago, many of us worried about the ‘digital divide’: the privileged had access to the internet, and those of limited means did not. Over the last decade there is considerably greater affordable access to the internet. But now is there a digital divide of student from educator? Most of us know how to book an airline seat online, send an email, or access our bank account. But how many of us know how to share our work with an online community, how to upload to Youtube a video of our work, or to make a podcast of an interesting discussion ? Meanwhile, for the younger generation the internet is an intrinsic part of the real world. Some politicians have noted that only 2% of our schools have access to broadband: but I believe regardless, the majority of our youth already have access to broadband and the internet is now inherent to their lifestyle and learning experiences.

Der Spiegel recently reported an insightful analysis into the “internet generation”: the majority of German school pupils are actually not web-savvy digital natives. Some may use the internet intensively, but in fact are not particularly intrigued by it. Interestingly, some German teachers perceive the advantages of online project work: it enables students to see each other’s work, promoting healthy sharing and ambition amongst the participants.

Distance learning has enabled the UK Open University to become one of the largest educationalists worldwide. Now with the advent of low cost high quality digital video recorders, it becomes relatively straightforward for the best teachers anywhere on the planet to promote their own teaching – and themselves – via the internet. South Korea indeed already has national “star” online teachers. Earlier this month, Bill Gates observed that “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university”.

What therefore should be the future of education in Ireland ? Will any Irish teachers achieve global “star” online status ? Will our young people learn solely from Irish based instructors ? How will Irish educationalists work with their peers overseas ? Will student project work be evaluated online, and will it be evaluated in Ireland ? Will national examinations compete for prestige with easily accessible international alternatives ? Will many teachers just become “youth-sitters” or “teaching assistants”, whilst students learn and collaborate online in international classes ? Are there opportunities for Ireland to strategically lead, rather than follow ?

As Newman observed, if young people come together and converse with each other, they shall surely learn. Our current national debate of our educational system, including of the third level via the Hunt report, may be missing the significant context: the consequence of the internet is relentless innovation.

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About chrisjhorn

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4 Responses to Whither Irish Education ?

  1. There’s an interesting movement in the US focused on making third level education more efficient. The book DIY U (by Anya Kamenetz) provides a comprehensive survey of this movement and some interesting projects in the area of making this more efficient.

    Some interesting points made in the book include:

    – people assume that a third level education affords access to a more lucrative career; this was the case in the US during the mid 20th century, but no longer holds today

    – there are many unfortunate stories of people leaving tertiary education with liberal arts degrees, laden with debt and poor career prospects

    – there are some influential ranking schemes which are very sensitive to the amount of money spent by each university on each student – more money spent on each student leads to higher rankings. This actually gives the universities an incentive to increase their prices

    – silicon valley VC money is very interested in this space as it sees it as an enormous market (eg there are $700bn of outstanding student loans) which is largely inefficient and makes little real use of the internet, more and more good content is available online and increasingly people are becoming cost-conscious when choosing their education

    There are lots more interesting points made in the book. I think it’s a fascinating area and one which will clearly undergo profound change in the next decade.

  2. Newman’s idea of a University was to enable the education of people so that they might tell the truth and to become gentlemen.
    It’s many years since I met Ronald Knox who was here to celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Uniuversity (86 St Stephen’s Green ) I met him persionally when I was a student and at that time in the fifties, Knox feared that the ethos Newman wanted for the Royal might be blurred. One feels that the truth is easier for scientists than for those who specialise in the humanities, yet more distortion and untruths about the effects of incineration on the environment than I have ever previously envisaged have been promulgated in the matter of the Covanta plant on the Poolbeg

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