Puttnam backs levelling of technological field

Cork-based David Puttnam is backing an initiative which provides revamped computers and IT training to disadvantaged schools. It’s levelling the technological playing field, writes Claire Droney

GOT an old laptop under a bed? Or a desktop computer gathering dust in a spare room? Camara Ireland wants it. It will take it, wipe it clean, refurbish it, install Windows or Linux on it, protect it with an antivirus, and sell it cheaply to disadvantaged schools in Ireland, Africa, Jamaica and Haiti, as well as training the teachers in the latest ed-tech advances.

A social enterprise model, part-run by volunteers, the goal of Camara Ireland (a branch of Camara Education) is to increase the number of digitally literate children and enhance education through technology. Started in Ireland in 2005, the organisation recently celebrated the shipment of its 40,000th computer.

“We’re really seeing the need for this now, especially amongst schools in disadvantaged areas,” says Camara Ireland manager, Steven Daly, who has noticed a decrease in the number of donated computers since the beginning of the recession.

“Companies are changing their computers less frequently now and they’re likely to replace them every five years. This has made us be more inventive, to find different sources,” he says.

So far, Camara Ireland has supplied over 120 schools and youth centres in Ireland with computers, training and support. A standard package which includes 20 computers and six hours of training costs €3,300.

“By charging, you create a customer-supplier relationship, rather than a donator-receiver one. As a result, there’s a level of quality and expectation. It’s considerably lower cost than buying new computers on the open market, and they’re guaranteed for a year,” says Daly.

However, Daly warns that shiny new computers are useless without the expertise of teachers.

“They’re just the tools, and the teachers are the experts here. We just try to fit in with this expertise and layer more skills on top of this,” he says.

“There’s a huge desire and hunger for more training and professional development in teaching, especially around technology. It’s a big step if you’re not used to it, standing up in front of a class where a lot of the students might know more than the teacher,” he continues.

Oscar-winning film producer and current Digital Champion of Ireland, David Puttnam agrees.

“We need far more emphasis on continuing professional development. The idea that you can train at 23 and emerge fully-fledged as a teacher is silly. Most teachers under 45 are fairly technologically literate. Over 45, there is more of a resistance to it, and teachers tend to come up with reasons to do without these technologies. This will be resolved in time, but in the meantime, whole cohorts of pupils will miss out,” he says.

A staunch supporter of using technology in education — he delivers online education seminars to students in universities all over the world — Puttnam says at 72, he has had to force himself to become au fait with computers, or be left behind.

“Technology is the obvious way forward. The majority of young people today are technologically savvy, they tend to look at their phones rather than listen to them, they send texts and receive more information through phones and iPads. That is their world. To pretend that you can engage them by insisting they use technology that they consider old-fashioned or irrelevant is silly,” he says.

As part of his role as first Digital Champion of Ireland, Puttnam has visited schools around Ireland and has been impressed by their use of technology. In a Dublin secondary school, he observed a history lesson where students used iPads to study the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

‘‘They were able to enter the Vatican and roam around that ceiling. It’s a much more vivid thing to do than looking at a static image or picture,” he says.

Puttnam’s vision for the future of technology here is simple — to watch young people becoming confident and competent in dealing with technology, and for it to be ubiquitous in schools. He also hopes to see Irish teachers become less reliant on educational software and to instead become ‘content creators’, able to individualise programmes to suit each student’s need.

One school whose students benefit greatly from the use of technology is St Gabriel’s School, Limerick. Catering for 46 young people with physical or sensory disabilities and developmental delays, the school uses technology to inspire and motivate its pupils.

Having received a complimentary suite of different devices including laptops, tablets and large touchscreen tablets from Dell, St Gabriel’s also benefited from training from Camara.

“Our children are more interested in learning via computers,” says acting principal Cathy Cooper. “It’s more immediate and it just helps them lots. Touchscreens are incredibly good. We have lots of cause-and-effect activities where you press something and something happens. They learn to share and take turns.

“Our plan for our students’ learning is for them to be as independent as possible and choice-making is a huge thing. So instead of somebody deciding for them, our students can make a decision via a computer and we just build from there,” she says.

Older students at the school complete a FETAC programme on technology in life, learning about the internet and emailing, as well as Skyping schools abroad.

In Glanmire, Cork, a local CoderDojo club recently acquired a selection of laptops from Camara, at a cost of €120 per unit.

“I recognised that the kids need their own laptops, and €120 with a warranty is a bargain. We would encourage children to have their own laptop because practising coding once a week is not enough,” says mentor Shirley Gallagher, who teaches the basics of coding to up to 25 children every Saturday morning in a local parish hall.

“Camara is an excellent initiative. They even put copies of Scratch on the computers, which is a clever program that teaches children to code without all the language and text,” says Gallagher.

“Whatever walk of life you’re from, you need technology. CoderDojo is doing what is needed to get kids to a level playing field. It’s just so intuitive for them. The whole idea of getting children to code at such an early age is so they’ll be coding fluently without trying,” she says.

Last year, Corpus Christi National School in Moyross in Limerick received 20 laptops and six hours of training from Camara Ireland.

“We didn’t have the means of purchasing laptops at normal prices, and it’s made a huge difference,” says principal Tiernan O’Neill.

“Educational underachievement is something we’re constantly trying to overcome. With IT, the opportunities in how to engage the children are endless. Apps in literacy and numeracy can bring learning alive,” says O’Neill.

“There was huge interest in the training and even the older teachers who didn’t think they could do it managed it. We’re lucky here that the staff are constantly reflecting on their practice, and constantly evolving.”


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