There has been great progress in recent weeks with the return of our entire school community to in-school learning. Minister for Education Norma Foley TD writes.
The phased approach to returning to in-school learning has been made possible with the support and work of everyone in school communities, and by the progress made in curbing the levels of Covid-19 in the community.
In early 2020, education systems around the world were faced with an unprecedented challenge following mass school closures as part of public health efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19. More than 100 million learners, educators, education and training staff globally were affected. To ensure the continuity of teaching, learning and assessment, digital technologies were used on a large and unprecedented scale particularly in the remote environment.
I want to acknowledge the challenges faced by teachers and school leaders with the sudden move to a remote learning environment. You delivered a balanced and manageable programme, ensured that learners were not overwhelmed by information and supported the most vulnerable children and young people and for this I thank you.
The use of digital technologies in teaching and learning is not a new concept in the Irish education system. A number of government strategies and initiatives over the last two decades have encouraged and promoted the effective use of digital technologies in teaching and learning. Significant progress has been made under the current Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020 – Enhancing Teaching, Learning and Assessment.
The focus of this strategy is on the effective use of digital technologies in teaching and learning, assessment and in leadership and management. The strategy has been underpinned by a €210 million investment through an infrastructure grant for schools. The implementation of the strategy in schools is supported by a Digital Learning Framework and comprehensive digital learning planning guidelines. This is backed up by extensive continuous professional development (CPD), resources and supports for teachers and school leaders.
Initial research and surveys conducted on the experiences during the pandemic indicate that some schools found the transition to online learning somewhat easier. Many of those schools were familiar with online learning platforms and adapted quickly to providing learner feedback on work submitted digitally. For others, their capacity to provide continuity of learning was impeded by poor broadband connectivity in some home environments and the lack of digital devices for both teacher and learners and alternative methods of delivery had to be deployed.
Moving swiftly to alleviate some of the immediate challenges, €100 million in grant funding was issued to schools during 2020 to improve ICT infrastructure and to support teaching and learning using digital technologies. Schools were advised that this funding could be prioritised to assist them in addressing their ICT needs arising out of the Covid-19 environment, including the purchase of digital devices to loan to students and teachers, software, essential learning platforms and other ICT solutions as determined by the needs of the individual school.
The Department provided schools with a suite of guidance materials, agreed with the education partners, to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all pupils/students in a Covid-19 context. This included the following requirements for schools:
- regular engagement with pupils/students;
- a blend of guided and independent learning tasks/experiences;
- appropriate and engaging learning opportunities;
- learning tasks;
- two-way feedback between home and school; and
- support for pupils/students with special educational needs.
All schools are required to have a communication and learning platform in place. Schools can select the platform that best suits their own needs. Extensive support and guidance on the use of many of the most commonly used platforms is provided by the Department’s support service, the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), and its technology in education team at www.pdsttechnologyineducation.ie.
The continued professional development of teachers and their upskilling on the effective use of digital technologies will continue to be a key priority for the Department and its teacher support service, PDST. The Inspectorate also provided an advisory service to schools to support the delivery of remote learning and to provide assistance to school leaders in particular during school closures.
“I want to acknowledge the challenges faced by teachers and school leaders with the sudden move to a remote learning environment.”
A dedicated PDST portal on remote learning includes information on popular communication and learning platforms, digital tools and resources, video conferencing, webinars to support and inspire teachers to identify good practice and a dedicated online course for teachers for remote learning. In general the two most applicable blended learning models as identified by PDST are the enriched virtual model and the flipped classroom model.
The PDST leadership team is also available to support school leaders in leading remote teaching and learning process through school support, national programmes and localised networks. Also with regard to training, the Centre for School Leadership developed an online module in terms of mentoring newly appointment principals and as well as for professional learning for mentors and 1:1 coaching.
Along with the many benefits for our learners in using technology to access education, participation in the online environment can expose our children and young people to online risks. While schools have a key role in educating children about online safety, internet safety does not lie solely within the remit of the school environment. Providing an effective response to online safety requires collaboration between many stakeholders including government, parents, educators, industry and individuals themselves.
The Department continues to make available extensive training and curricular supports and resources to assist schools in the development of policies and practices on the safe use of the internet and on the prevention of bullying and harassment using the internet. The Webwise programme is a key educational resource in this area: www.webwise.ie.
Digital technology is a tool to be employed by teachers to enhance and support teaching and learning it will never replace the teacher in the teaching process. Regular engagement with pupils and students supplemented by digital technologies, will continue to be important elements of the education provided by teachers.
The current digital strategy for schools expires at the end of this school year and I was pleased to recently announce the consultation process, as we work to develop the new strategy. It will build on the progress to date and the learnings from the impact of Covid-19 and online learning.
The consultation framework is designed to be wide-ranging and effective, to ensure that a broad variety of views and ideas are considered in developing the new strategy. It is available here: https://www.gov.ie/en/consultation/ and I encourage educators, parents and all those interested to have their say in this important area over the coming weeks.