David Puttnam: ‘We have to see distance learning as a human right'

Educator and digital advocate David Puttnam tells Jess Casey that delaying the Leaving Cert is a mistake, when we ought to regard remote work as part of Ireland’s new normal
David Puttnam: ‘We have to see distance learning as a human right'
From his West Cork office, David Puttnam works with a 70-strong international school group — he reports an overwhelmingly positive response from parents to the online component of their children’s education.

Educator and digital advocate David Puttnam tells Jess Casey that delaying the Leaving Cert is a mistake, when we ought to regard remote work as part of Ireland’s new normal

As thousands of students across the country get to grips with distance learning as schools and universities remain closed, David Puttnam has lamented the opportunity lost with regards to revamping the Leaving Cert exam.

The film producer and educator, who sat down to speak with the Irish Examiner from his home in Skibbereen, Co Cork, passionately feels that it has been a mistake to postpone the Leaving Cert — a decision he believes will cause deep unhappiness to students.

“I’m not saying it to be controversial, I’m saying it because I have been involved in education for a long time. I think a massive mistake is being made to try to defer and delay the Leaving Cert.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks the Leaving Cert is great. For a long, long time it’s been the least-worst option. This is an opportunity to begin to look at what might be the very best, or rather a better, idea of assessment.

“Young people are being forced to go through this without being adequately consulted and I should think this is a nightmare for them, their parents, and their teachers.

“Trying to force this through, it feels to me like an unnatural act that is being imposed because somehow it seems like the least-worst option.

“This is a completely personal view, but it is from someone who has spent a huge chunk of the last 20 years working deeply in education.

"I’m sure there are educators who believe that I am wrong, but that is where I stand.”

An alternative could be managed through a system of predicted grades and a swift appeals process, as well as by using a genuinely transparent means of assessment, says Mr Puttnam.

“Very importantly, this is where the universities have to step up.”

Mr Puttnam also believes the upheaval caused by Covid-19 might become something of a more regular occurrence in the years to come than we might expect.

“I think the idea that this is a once-off event is going to prove to be incorrect,” he says.

Students may be looking at a new normal when it comes to online education in the years to come, he believes.

“For my age group, these restrictions might be a one-off. I’m 79 now. But [for young people] and particularly for children, this kind of thing let’s say could be an every five year tranche in normal life.

"It could be caused by pandemics, or it could be caused by other impacts like storms, for example.

Resilience: The big, big word without any doubt is going to be resilience. Educational resilience, communication resilience, food production resilience. People are going to hear that word so often it’s going to give them a headache.

“How we become a more resilient society will be the massive issue in the years to come, and how we educate ourselves and our children as a result.”

Mr Puttnam is best known for his role in producing Hollywood blockbusters including The Mission, The Killing Fields, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone, and Local Hero.

Together, these films have collected 10 Oscars, 10 Golden Globes, 25 Baftas, and the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.

He is also a member of the UK House of Lords, a former president of Unicef UK, and he was Ireland’s first national digital champion. Since retiring from film production in 1998, he has focused on his work in education, the environment, and communications.

He spoke to this newspaper from his home studio via Cisco video conferencing, the system he uses for teaching remotely.

In 2012, he founded Atticus Education, setting himself the goal of being able to teach a class of university students in Australia remotely from his home in West Cork.

“After we finished our first year, we did an evaluation,” he explains. “And the really amazing thing was, and I remember very well, there were 28 students, and what was incredible was that 26 of them thought it was better — they preferred it.

"They found the process more intimate than me just standing on the stage in front of them.”

On any given day, he may be teaching and interacting with university students in places like Singapore, Brisbane or Sunderland all from his own home. He also works three days a week in London — remotely. “Next week, I have eight video conferences,” he explains.

“They are a mix of business conferences, parliamentary conferences, I’ve got a select committee. I’m ruled by my schedule. It does take a couple of weeks to get really disciplined.

“Our biggest fear before we started out with the students was the tech breakdown,” says Mr Puttnam. “We were terrified of the equipment breaking down and that kind of permeated everything.”

Those teaching remotely need not only to be absolutely confident in front of the camera but also confident that technology will not let them down, he says: “You have to feel as confident using them as switching on the light.

For a teacher, losing concentration, and losing their audience, is the worst thing that can happen in the classroom. And therefore, if technology is gonna cause you to lose your class and, as it were, lose their attention, that’s terrifying.

"I find using the technology the easiest thing in the world now, completely natural. It would be no different now than sitting across the table from someone.

"Some people can be very rigid, and they’re not quite sure where to look. That’s just a question of getting used to it.”

Mr Puttnam also chairs the advisory board of Nord Anglia Education, the world’s largest international school group, spanning almost 70 schools in 39 countries teaching 55,000 students.

“Because seven of our schools are in China, we were obviously affected by the virus very early on,” he explains.

“We’ve just been collecting data for the last month on the effectiveness of online interventions. The figures are very interesting — 95% of parents think it has been a great success.

"They’re not saying we should switch away from bricks and mortar schools, but they have been pleasantly surprised. We’ve learned a lot. And I think that we’re much better equipped now. We weren’t when we started.”

Ireland as a society also needs to revalue how we view the ability to communicate, work, and learn remotely without hindrance, says Mr Puttnam, by recognising it as a human right.

“We’ve got to see this kind of communicative process — and the ability to educate kids remotely, if necessary, when they can’t go to school — as a human right.

"As human beings, we’ve got to up our game.”

Skibbereen was Ireland’s first digital hub, which has helped Mr Puttnam with his work. “There are still parts of Ireland where it would be impossible to speak like this, by video conferencing.

"Now, we’re in a situation right now where the ability to work remotely is absolutely fundamental.

“I think there must be people kicking themselves that more investment wasn’t made faster in network broadband and broadband rollout. Definitely as a country we’ve been caught short.”

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