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Digital Learning: Getting your School Community on board

Maths lesson

By Eoghan O’Neill

Overview

From a professional point of view, I agree wholeheartedly with the above statement. I have always believed that technology has the potential to transform learner experiences. When I was appointed as an assistant principal in 2018, I was responsible for leading digital learning in my primary school. In an all-boys school of 530 pupils, this was a considerable logistical and organisational challenge.

Step 1: Analysing Policy Documents

The Department of Education and Skills has recently begun to recognise the importance of digital learning in preparing our young people for a 21st-century workforce. The Digital Strategy for Schools (2015-2020) was a significant policy document that promised much technological developments in our schools. My vision for education is child-centred, and the same is the case with my vision for digital technology use. I believed that it was imperative to have enough devices for every child in a class (obviously, to be rotated between classes over a week). In consultation with the principal and other teachers in the school, we made a significant investment in 64 digital devices, which were split evenly between the junior and senior ends of the school.

hand looking through ipad settings

Step 2: Appropriate Use of Digital Devices

Simply purchasing technological devices, however, is not going to bring about change and develop digital skills or 21st-century learning environments. As we all know, certain barriers can present themselves in schools as part of digital transformation processes. Many teachers lack the confidence to integrate technology into their classroom practice, despite more focus on initial teacher education (ITE) and increased levels of CPD. The Wriggle Connect platform can be used to positive effect in this regard, allowing teachers to upskill easily in short blasts at a time that suits them. Sharing good practices and internal CPD in schools is also crucial as this can be tailored exactly to the needs of the school at a particular time.

Wriggle device case and charger

Technology will not replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational

Step 3: Removing Barriers

One of the key roles of leadership in schools is how we can remove some barriers that stand in the way of change. New initiatives like the Digital Learning Framework, Primary Language Curriculum and Wellbeing Frameworks are all positive moves. Still, teachers often feel there is no time for some of these ‘extras’. This was one of the central barriers identified in the 2013 Census of ICT Use in Irish Schools. I was very conscious that the increased use of digital technologies in my school would not be seen as an ‘extra burden’ for teachers. This was key in turning a vision into the lived reality of everyday school life. To do this, I consulted with teachers about the various topics they covered at each class level during the year. After collecting this information, I designed a whole-school plan for technology use to complement the ‘Teaching and Learning’ domain of the Digital Learning Framework.

2013 census in schools

Step 4: Involving the School Community

Each class was required to complete one activity (at least) per term in year 1 (2019/2020). Crucially, these activities were all things that were being done already by teachers and could be integrated with technologies to improve the digital skills of our learners. This removed the idea of ‘not having enough time’ to use technology in classrooms. It was also a modest start, with one activity per term not overwhelming any staff member. Each summer, the teachers from all class groups will sit down and add one more activity for each term – this process will continue until 2023/2024, when classes have 5 activities per term. Unfortunately, this has been pushed back one year due to the school closures brought about by Covid-19. Having devised this plan and vision, I am now passing responsibility over to the teachers of the school to carry on this work. They will develop their own activities for the next 4 years, leading to greater investment in the process.

planner for ipad training

Step 5: Leading from the Front

One of the central tenets of Looking at Our Schools (2016) is for school leaders to ‘act in the capacity of lead practitioner’. As the person in my school with the primary responsibility for leading digital learning, I have made myself available to answer questions, troubleshoot problems, provide assistance and organise training. Essentially, you need individuals willing to ‘walk the walk’ if a vision is going to become a reality. I also ensure that the devices are delivered to each classroom fully charged and ready for use at the same time each week. Maintaining the health and performance of devices is extremely important – slow, lethargic devices add another barrier to effective integration.

people looking at documents and laptops

Step 6: Looking to the Future

Covid-19 has brought about change at an unprecedented rate in education. However, for the most part, I feel that this has been a positive change. We must carry this momentum forward. There is not a teacher in the country that hasn’t upskilled over the past year in their use of digital technology. We cannot allow this progress to stall. Society and modern workplaces now rely so much on technology, and as school leaders and teachers, we must do everything we can to prepare our students for a 21st-century working environment.

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