The mass return to school is under way across Ireland and, once again, the question is posed by many with dogs in the great educational fight: Are the country’s schools equipping their pupils for life in the digital age?
Or in the rush to ensure that the next generation is employable, do we run the risk of allowing utilitarian approaches to exert increased dominance in the classroom?
During the recession, the Department of Education did well to ensure that the capital budget for new school buildings was ring-fenced.
Across the country, new campus-style complexes combining primary and secondary schools with gaelscoileanna, are being built to provide economies of scale.
Clive Byrne, chief executive of the National Association of Principals, welcomes such approaches along with innovations such as the introduction of short courses in computer coding into some schools. He is, however, concerned about the pace of reform at a time of rapid change in society.
Ireland is a major player in the emerging movement known as CoderDojo, a volunteer-led movement of free coding clubs, aimed at children aged between six and 17.
The first ‘Dojo’ took place in Cork five years ago.
Participants learn how to build websites, create apps and explore technology in a creative environment. Such creativity is not normally associated with computer training as traditionally conceived.
There is much concern about the shortage of female programmers.
However, the Coder DoJo founder, Bill Liao, has expressed the view that girls are enthusiastic coders.
Some believe that the ratio of female-to-male among young coders is close to 50/50.
Some schools have started up courses in coding, but most of the progress on this front is taking place in community and vocational colleges where the prevailing teachers’ union, the TUI, has gone along with its introduction.
It is a different story in the secondary school system where the ASTI is refusing to co-operate with reforms in the junior cycle.
Many school principals are pushing for reforms in the way subjects are taught and assessed.
They are particularly keen that pupils gain exposure to the teaching of modern languages and technical disciplines as early as possible, preferably before the age of 10 when minds are more malleable.
The lack of resources has been a major problem in recent years. According to Clive Byrne, the Chinese-backed Confucius Institute has been lobbying hard for the introduction into the curriculum of the teaching of Mandarin.
However, this language, set to dominate in the 21st century, has yet to be included in the Leaving Cert curriculum.
Some believe that industrial relations issues, born of resentment at recession-era pay cuts, now present a greater barrier in the way of reform than financial resource constraints.
In the wider economy, the most urgent issue remains that of the mismatch between what employers are seeking in terms of IT skills and what is available.
In December 2014, it was estimated that around 7,000 jobs were going unfilled in the information/communications sector despite a youth unemployment rate of over 20%.
The Government’s response has been to put in place conversion courses, a relaxation in work permit requirements and around 4,000 extra places for new ICT graduates.
IT companies are keen that the State pours millions of euro into equipping schools with computers and broadband, but if resources are diverted from other equally important areas — such as transport and housing — the benefits from such investment would be quickly cancelled out.
The Coder DoJo movement is a reminder of what can be achieved at the level of the community given a bit of imagination and commitment on the part of industry players, parents and pupils.
It’s assumed that employees will be required to acquire more and more technological skills as time goes by.
Not necessarily so, according to US academic, James Bessen, who believes that employers could themselves use more imagination when it comes to tackling skill shortages.
In 2013, a survey by Manpower of 38,000 employers in the US indicated that around 35% reported difficulty in filling vacancies.
However, the Boston University academic questions the data used on skill shortages, while acknowledging that the pace of technological change is presenting employers with huge challenges.
He also questioned the ability of educational institutions to fill what skills gaps exist.
He cited the example of graphic arts colleges, saying “much of what they teach becomes obsolete quickly and most are still oriented to print design in any case.
As a result, designers learn on the job.”
This suggests that what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve is the inculcation of self-reliance among pupils. In this regard, the rise of a new wave of community-based coding clubs seems to be just what society needs.
According to Prof Bessen, the key to narrowing the growing wage gap is a greater focus on learning on the job. He cites the example of US healthcare.
For years, the trend was towards the use of more and more highly educated nurses.
However, the extraordinary rise in the use of daycare procedures has led to a revival in the use of licensed practical nurses whose training is more basic.
Ambulatory procedures allow for greater learning on the job. There is a reduced call for intensive medicine of the sort practiced in large hospitals.
The key point is that whatever some experts, or trade unions might claim, it is not inevitable that employees should have to amass more and more qualifications.
One has to question the need to pour countless millions into capital investment in technology in our schools.
Pupils tend to be anything but techno-averse these days.
The State should not bow to the demands of the high-tech sector which has a vested interest in a vast spend on computers.
Better to foster creativity among teachers and encourage teaching practices that promote teamwork and articulacy.
Principals should be provided with a budget to allow them to hire in outside talent, perhaps on a temporary basis.
Business is already building links with schools.
The strengthening of such links should be another priority.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved