Change Required

The pace of change in all aspects of digital-technology and education is here to stay.

On one hand new ideas, new applications and improved hardware are launched into education systems on almost a weekly basis, systems that strive to develop policies that seek to keep up with these advances. On the other hand, teachers and learners work within with assessment methodologies that change slowly, systems that are underpinned by long-developed policies that can stifle creativity when it comes to the use of digital-technology in the education system.

I have often argued that change in assessment methods will be one of the key drivers serving to integrate technology in the classroom. In Ireland we have too often ended up with excellent school-based digital projects that have no outlet in our formal State-examinations.

School-based digital projects

In 2008, the then Minister for Education’s Strategy Group in Ireland, wrote:

…Information and Communications Technology (ICT) should be used seamlessly within the curriculum at both primary and post-primary. Students must be encouraged to use technology in a multi-faceted way, to research and reinforce their subjects, to present their knowledge through multimedia presentations and digital video and, finally, to submit personal project work for official assessment as part of state examinations (my emphasis).

Five years on and the Republic of Ireland is in a process of educational reform, particularly in the first three-years of Secondary (High-school) education (some details here from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in Ireland).

There is to be an emphasis on literacy and numeracy driven by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and on six Key Skills identified within the European Schoolnet KeyCoNet project on competency development.

The six Key Skills are:

  1. Managing Myself
  2. Staying Well
  3. Communicating
  4. Being Creative
  5. Working with others
  6. Managing Information and thinking

These Key Skills are not subject specific. They are to be used across all subjects as teachers and learners focus on the process of learning. There will be a greater emphasis on assessment for learning, on the learning journey itself.

What particularly encouraged me in the adoption of these Key Skills is that digital technology is integrated into each one…

  1. Managing Myself – Using digital technology to manage myself and my learning
  2. Staying Well – Being responsible, safe and ethical in using digital technology
  3. Communicating – Using digital technology to communicate
  4. Being Creative – Stimulating creativity using digital technology
  5. Working with others – Working with others through digital technology
  6. Managing Information and thinking – Using digital technology to access share and manage content

I believe that when I look at the ecosystem of digitally supported teaching and learning that five of the Key Skills can with proper support and training be worked well into educational reform and systems of assessment in Ireland. I am however concerned about the Key Skill “Staying Well – Being responsible, safe and ethical in using digital technology ” and for the moment I want to express my concern, from the perspective of a teacher.

The ethical use of digital technology is a challenge. I am not talking here of Internet safety and such-like. I am talking here of how aspects of the process of education, in the digital environment are owned and managed.

    • iPads ,Chromebooks, tablets, readers etc introduce teachers and students into “walled gardens” – how many teachers have thought through the implications of who really benefits from what?
    • Where does teachers and student data exist in the digital space? Who owns what and where is the server that stores it?
    • What does free mean? Free apps, free suites of productivity tools, and so on. What happens when free develops a paid model or “free” simply closes down.
    • What might be done with student and teacher data? Who has the right to search it? Who has the right to make money from it?
    • How will we teach students (and teachers) to protect their data, keep it safe,claim ownership of it and indeed make money from it should they be so lucky!
    • How is attribution acknowledged and respected?


iPads ,Chromebooks, tablets, readers etc introduce teachers and students into ‘walled gardens’.


Michael Trucano of the World Bank raised somewhat similar questions recently in his posting “Who owns the content and data produced in schools?”

Trucano writes about responses to similar questions that I ask above

“Now, in some cases, people responded by saying they did not have answers to all of these sorts of questions, and that they didn’t really care what the answers were: They had never considered them in the past and/or that they simply weren’t that important” (my emphasis).

John Naughton, vice-President of Wolfson College, Cambridge made teachers sit up and think about content data at the recent 2013 Computer Education Society of Ireland (C.E.S.I.) annual conference.

He warned us of the dangers of becoming modern day sharecroppers (definition: A tenant farmer who gives a share of the crops raised to the landlord in lieu of rent) as we use online applications to “enhance” our lives, whether of the Google, Facebook or myriad of other applications offered to us for “free”.

I find it interesting, that it is changes to student assessment, that make me as a teacher focus on changes in my ethical understanding of the work, students do in the digital space.

More thought will be given to these issues as we develop policies and grapple with the implications of teaching and learning in the online space.

Some of us will experience what educational researcher Jack Whitehead calls our “living contradiction.” Yes, I work within some free applications and within walled gardens. I also introduce them to the students I teach.

I am not arguing that we stop this, but I am calling for greater ethical awareness, responsibility and thought for what we do in the process of integrating digital-technology and education.

The Key Skills identified for students are also Key Skills for teachers to engage with, particularly if we want to stay safe and ethical in our professional responsibilities in Ireland and beyond.


Department of Education and Science. 2008. Investing Effectively in Information and Technology in Schools 2008-2013. Dublin.

Whitehead, J. 1989. Creating a Living Educational Theory From Questions Of The Kind, ‘How Do I Improve My Practice?’ Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 19, No.1, pp. 41-52.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Matt From London. All others: Donal O’ Mahony

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