ExcitedCiaran Cannon, Minister for Training and Skills at the Department of Education and Skills (DES), was the force behind the inaugural Excited Digital Learning Festival which took place in Dublin Castle this weekend. The purpose of the Festival was to bring together speakers and attendees from the worlds of education, technology, entertainment and enterprise in order to debate and discuss the issue of technology in education with a view towards informing the government’s Digital Strategy for Schools. It is intended that the new Digital Strategy for Schools will be completed during 2014, and will set out how resources, policies and projects can be prioritised and organised throughout the school system for the next five years.

After an unexpected musical opening to the festival by the Minister on Friday night, Ireland’s Digital Champion, Lord David Puttnam, opened proceedings with a presentation entitled “Has Ireland the courage to lead the global learning revolution?” In his presentation, and again on Saturday, Lord Puttnam told attendees that now was the time to do something about digital education in this country and that we had a very tight timeframe to get things right. He emphasised the importance of 100mb Broadband to each school and within each school. He talked about devices in the classroom that allowed pupils to participate in their own learning. However, one of his presentation slides warned the government that, “A country that fails to value its teachers, fails to value its future”.

There were also presentations by tech industry executives Mike Feerick, Dr Martyn Farrows and Peter Hamiliton followed by two panel discussions moderated by Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. I have to say that I was really disappointed that out of eleven panellists, there was no representation by a practising primary teacher, although two secondary teachers, members of CESI, were flying the education flag. Given that one of the panel discussions was about Creativity, I was disappointed that I was surrounded in the auditorium by primary teachers doing fantastic creative technology work  in the classroom which wasn’t being showcased from the stage.

I was encouraged that on Saturday the voice of students and teachers was heard a little louder from the stage. We heard from Peter Creedon, a primary principal whose school has almost gone completely mobile and Evelyn O’ Connor, a secondary English teacher who detailed her own digital journey from technophobe to technophile. We also heard from three teenage Cork girls, winners of the Young Scientist and Technology Award, who confidently reported on what young people wanted from a digital education.

Attendees also got the opportunity to participate in the formulation of policy via group work, where groups were given questions to discuss and post suggestions on Padlet boards. Rapporteurs then summarised the points made by all of the groups and hopefully these will be used to inform the formal discussions on the new Digital Strategy. You can read all the responses to the questions made by the various groups in the following Padlets:

Saturday also saw a range of displays from primary and secondary schools from around the country detailing their innovative work in digital education. Pupils confidently demonstrated their work in blogging, podcasting, robotics, Lego, geocaching among other things. This was a great practical demonstration of good digital classroom practice.

In his closing remarks, Lord David Puttnam said that he was excited by the buzz in the room and that he felt the attendees were ready and willing to take on the responsibility of the development of digital education in this country. Interestingly, he struck a political note when he said that he thought Ruairí Quinn was one of the two best Education Ministers that he had ever worked with and that he hoped that he would not be moved in a cabinet reshuffle.

I think that the passion and the vision of Minister Ciarán Cannon for the development of digital education shone through during the Excited festival. The Digital Strategy for Schools is due to be published this autumn, and given that it will coincide with the 2015 Budget which has committed to savings of €2 billion, it is difficult to see where Minister Cannon will get the money to implement a Digital Strategy. Without investment, a new Digital Strategy for Schools will be yet another aspirational report which will raise the hopes of teachers and pupils and will disappoint yet again. My one worry is that business and industry will drive the Strategy rather than educators which would result in a missed opportunity.

From discussions I had with attendees over the weekend, the following points came up which would be great to see in the new Strategy:

  • Sort out Broadband, especially for the hundreds of rural schools around the country
  • Bring back the ICT Advisors who did great work through the Education Centre network
  • Employ people as Technical Support for schools, possibly again based in Education Centres
  • Invest in infrastructure to bridge the digital divide between schools
  • Invest in CPD for teachers to bring them up to speed with latest technology

Excited is a great new development in formulating policy for digital education over the next few years. There are plans for Excited conferences in Dublin and Cork, a Khan Maths Symposium in September, bringing Excited to the US for St. Patrick’s Day 2015 and coming back in May 2015 to see how far down the road we are with our planning for digital education. The education community is waiting anxiously to see the new Strategy and to see its effects in practical terms in the classroom.