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Opinion The future of Ireland's economy depends on the digital education of our children

Gavin Molloy of Olus Education says the schools’ curriculum needs to keep up to prepare for the careers of tomorrow.

IT WAS REPORTED earlier this week that Facebook plans to create a further 10,000 new jobs across the EU. Given that the massive tech company is headquartered in Dublin, it’s hoped Ireland will benefit from this move.

You would also have to have been living under a rock in the past few weeks to miss the discussion about Ireland’s corporation tax rate and the forthcoming international agreement on global tax for multinationals. Many will believe that Ireland has become an essential hub for tech companies simply because of this tax rate.

But many more will also argue that it’s not that simple and it’s also down to our highly educated workforce. No doubt a big factor in that is the quality of our teaching staff. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many teachers in the course of my career and they are a top-class, vital cog in the Irish education machine.

This may be an argument for another day and the forthcoming increase in the rate will make for interesting watching in the coming years. Whether those changes affect the rate of Foreign Direct Investment here is difficult to say but if we want this strong international tech presence to continue, we must address the shortfalls in our education system in Ireland to meet future demand.

As things stand, all the big tech companies – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb – have major bases in Ireland, as Dublin rapidly asserts itself as the silicon valley of Europe. But can our education system keep up with a rapidly changing jobs market to fill the roles these companies are creating?

Change the focus

The Institute for the Future, a leading foresight education and futures organisation supported by 20 tech, business and academic experts, famously said in 2017 that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Our modern education systems have served us well in the past 200 years or so and the model suited the post-Industrial era, but now we are operating in the technological era, bringing sweeping, disrupting changes. It is important therefore that our education system now evolves to equip young people to thrive in this changing world.

Ireland’s education system was recently flagged as having the lowest investment among 36 OECD countries. Yet our 25-34-year-olds are significantly above the OECD average when it comes to holding third-level qualifications, and tech companies continue to invest in recruitment and office space here.

With Brexit, Covid-19 and all the other uncertainties facing us locally and globally – how can we ensure that we maintain and build upon our position as an essential place for tech companies to locate themselves? The answer can only be: start at school.

Digital wave

Ireland’s ‘Digital Strategy for Schools’ ran from 2015 to 2020, and a new strategy is currently in the consultation phase. Schools have seen an influx of technical investment during this time, and I’ve personally seen significant increases in the use of technology in the classroom.

We are very far from the finish line at this point, with huge investment still required in most schools around the country in the areas of broadband, wifi, devices for students, and training for teachers. So, what else should we be doing to optimise our students’ potential for the future?

Craig Fenton, Google’s Director of Strategy and Operations, recently said ‘there isn’t much intersection between what business needs and what the school system teaches’. Core subjects (language, maths, arts, history, geography etc) will always be important, and he was also very clear on this, but this doesn’t change the fact that we are not providing what the jobs market needs.

If we want to make a genuine leap to meet this demand we must start by taking a moment to appreciate how much we have achieved despite comparatively low levels of investment in education to date and then make some bold changes. That means a collective effort on the part of parents, teachers and government.

There’s no point changing the school curriculum to train children for the jobs firms can’t fill in 2021, we need to be much more ambitious, dynamic and forward-looking than that. We need to integrate technology into education to the same level it has been integrated into our everyday lives outside the school environment.

Invest in digital

Imagine a scenario where children come home and open a cloud-based folder to show their parents a video they made about a coding project or a science experiment. Consider the problem-solving skills, the valuable mathematical skills involved in this and how it aligns with things kids naturally love doing – making things and showing them to their parents, peers and teachers.

To be clear – I’m not advocating for ‘more screen time’ – just as using Google Maps or booking a hotel online doesn’t take away from your enjoyment of your holiday – I’m advocating for more effective and clever use of technology to support learning. I’m advocating for the practical usage of technology in and around educational settings to support children and young people to be best placed to take on the jobs of the future and master coding and digital skills in a way that works for their lifestyles.

We’ve found through the work that we do that technology can unleash all this in a very personalised way. A child’s writing, oration skills, creativity and more can intersect with the use of technology and teamwork and collaboration can be much easier to reach. This isn’t just for older children, all of these skills are accessible in one form or another from an early age.

What needs to change?

The new Digital Strategy for Schools must include three key components if we are to take full advantage of the opportunities available to us; (1) proper financial investment, (2) ongoing training and support for teachers and students, and (3) a proactive and positive approach to monitoring progress in the schools. 

Programmes such as the ‘Digital Learning Clusters’ that provided project-based digital learning funding for schools, can and should see increased funding; other programmes such as the Digital Schools of Distinction should see higher levels of investment and integration with the Digital Learning Framework to keep the focus more streamlined for schools, and schools need proper and ongoing infrastructure investment. 

There are still schools in Ireland that have insufficient access to devices for the students, poor broadband access, and of course insufficient support for all teachers and students.  For this change to happen, we need all levels of society to take this problem/opportunity seriously – parents need to engage with their local TDs, schools need to be properly supported and motivated, and the government needs to respond accordingly.

Only when we truly understand the opportunity, and difficulties facing us in maximising the opportunity, can we then start to support our teachers, drive policy and engage with employers in a way that ensures Ireland can once again stand up to seemingly insurmountable odds and come out on top.

Gavin Molloy is Chief Product Officer at Olus Education, a recent merger of The Academy of Code and Cocoon Education.

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