At the CESI conference in Coláiste de h-Íde last February, I predicted a major spend was on the way in relation to schools ICT. If you are going to get something wrong there is an argument to be made for doing so spectacularly.
Since then the education ICT world has imploded. We have lost the ICT Advisory service in what retrospectively can be seen as the first in the ongoing round of savage cuts. We have seen the shutting down of DES support for the Liberties Learning Initiative and the Dundalk Learning Network; the only remaining digital sand-box situations in the country. NCTE has survived but we can only wonder for how long. We have seen the publication of the long-awaited strategy group Report and its immediate putting on hold. In short, we have seen the desperately needed €252 evaporate and take with it our last real hope of putting schools ICT on a sustainable footing for the long-term. And in our new Minister – a blogger who used to publish at http://www.battokeeffe.ie/ but who stopped the day he was nominated to Marlborough Street – we seem to have someone with the ear of the Taoiseach and no grasp whatsoever of the realities of life in schools.
So where does that leave us? Somewhere in the vicinity of 1996, I’d suggest. With broadband but without much of the optimism and possibility of that time. And without the prospect of a Minister Martin who for all his faults at least ‘got’ ICT. We are back to the fractured and episodic landscape of schools ‘making do’ around IT and finding whatever they can locally to prop up whatever they decide they can scrape together in ICT terms. And NCTE is scrambling to provide on an impossibly small budget for the support and training of a whole new generation of school-based ICT co-ordinators through on-line courses.
‘Joined-up’ doesn’t much come into things. In fact there is even a question mark over ‘thinking’ this time around.
CESI has contributed to building a culture of hope around schools ICT once before: it seems we will need to do so again.
Our largest failing in all of this is one of vision. There are, I believe, two significant challenges to be faced if we are to begin to resolve this debacle: the first is to do with building vision in relation to effective policy for education ICT. Vision comes from better understanding Understanding requires systematic study of what works in our schools. This is an aspect of policy formation and pursuit which remains particularly underdeveloped in the Ireland context and which is likely to remain so unless deliberate action is taken to redress the weakness. I believe CESI once again has a major role to play in foregrounding the work of those who believe ICT can and does make a difference to the quality of educational experience we can offer in our schools and, where it can, in supporting individual teachers and local networks of teachers to explore the possibilities of new technologies for teaching & learning.
The second challenge relates to the ownership of the coming project for change.
Section 3.2 of the Report of the Minister’s Strategy Group on IT in Schools, closes with the words:
This is a complex and multi-stakeholder challenge which can only be achieved if adequate arrangements are put in place at the outset to allow all partners in this challenge to input into both designing and driving the process forward. (2008:13)
There has been a debilitating lack of transparency around planning and priorities for how education ICT has been driven forward in this country. This lies squarely at the door of the DES ICT Policy Unit. There has been no policy forum, no public spaces in which concerns and ideas about what matters for education ICT can be articulated and debated with any real possibility that they will impact practice and official positions. There is a real danger that ownership of the project for change could now become bureaucratised in the way that should be guarded against – relying too heavily on the whim of the politician rather than the wisdom of the partners proper to the process.
CESI was a major contributor to the now-iced Strategy Group Report. And while the funding that would have underscored the implementation of the recommendations has evaporated the spirit that informed the CESI input endures: we have among our members some of the most creative and forward-looking schools ICT practitioners in the world.
And so we own the future – however reluctant we may be about this. Though we can only build it with the help of others – IT and business sector partners in particular. The DES has failed us. So, perhaps now is a good time to take stock – together – of how we might begin to undo the damage of the past six months and set down markers for a future that remains – for a while yet – a possibility. However problematic to predict.