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Exploring Ireland’s Best Practices in Digital Schooling

It is a common adage that modern societies across the globe are becoming increasingly ICT-driven. Amid this fast-paced, ubiquitous digital move, the realm of education is confronted with a challenging dilemma of striking the right balance between going digital and preserving the very best of legacy approaches.

IOE doctoral student Irina Dvoretskaya, who has concentrated most of her research on topics of digital transformation in secondary education, has recently completed her PhD internship with the Centre for Research in IT in Education (CRITE) in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland. During her stay at CRITE, Irina was focused on exploring how Irish schools from various socioeconomic settings put to use the potential of modern ICT to make a difference in school-age learning & development. Upon returning to Moscow, Irina was only too glad to talk to the IOE News Desk about how she went about planning this research trip and the key aspects of her agenda at CRITE.      

Interning at CRITE has heralded one of the best academic experiences I have had so far. Back to when I had just set out to plan the upcoming ‘research abroad’ part of my doctoral course at IOE, where all PhD hopefuls are required to take an internship with a leading international center for educational R&D, I first turned for advice to my academic supervisor, Aleksandr Uvarov, and academician Alexey Semenov. Together we were able to settle upon the overall criteria and research priorities to keep in mind while selecting the academic center to apply to.

The most important consideration was choosing an R&D hub that combines strong theoretical and applied perspectives, since one of my key ambitions was to be able to explore how ICT actually works in education and helps achieve stronger outcomes by observing real-life school environments. Following a series of talks with Prof. Brendan Tangney of CRITE, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, during which we discussed my prospective academic scope and visiting dates, I ended up opting for this very research center. Brendan is an accomplished scholar and talented administrator, and I should honestly say that learning from to Prof. Tangney and watching him at work during my stay at CRITE turned out truly enlightening in many respects. I am sure to be relying on this experience along my future career.    

The ‘Celtic Tiger’

CRITE’s agenda is focused on three principal research areas. The first R&D stream is Bridge21, which stands for a new learning model that adopts a multidisciplinary project-based approach and is practiced within small student groups. Trinity Access 21, the second R&D domain at CRITE, refers to an equity-centric program that aims to empower a better chance for vulnerable adolescent groups in Dublin to receive a university degree. Last but not least, the third area is a host of projects to promote school curricula in programming, which are implemented in association with leading IT companies.       

It was back into the late 1970s when world IT giants began their mass advent to the Irish market, and around the same time first efforts were made to introduce ICT-assisted models and techniques in the educational perimeter. It is now widely opined that Ireland’s economic upswing of the 1990s and 2000s, the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ phenomenon, became possible largely thanks to the all-round program for education digitization that got underway during the 1990s. Today, Dublin is home to an ever-expanding network of national offices by global IT flagships, such as Google, IBM, Salesforce, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Zendesk, etc., this placing the city among the EU’s most thriving technology centers with top-paying jobs in IT and high costs of living.        

A Fascinating Journey of Learning & Discovery

While lasting for only two months, the CRITE internship has yielded a great deal of enthralling and valuable experiences – all thanks to how meticulously Irina and her academic counselors were able to plan every facet of the academic stay.    

Here is a recap of what Irina was engaged in during her term at CRITE:

  • Learning firsthand about Bridge21 during her two-day fieldwork at Dublin schools, where she gained insights into the methodological grounds of this L&D approach and conducted interviews with students and other participants  
  • Exploring Ireland’s experience in designing schooler extracurriculars in IT and programming (Irina took part in the Codegirl project, which offers extra training in programming for girl students, and assisted in a programming class organized by Salesforce, one of the world’s biggest software developers)
  • Interviewing participants in the TAP21 project, which aims to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue into university, about their work and mentoring experience
  • Engaging in a diverse training agenda, including Digital Media Literacy, Problem-solving, Knowledge Engineering, Python Data Analysis, Research Frameworks & Methods, and Academic Writing  
  • Presenting her PhD project on factors and facets of school digitization at CRITE’s in-house R&D seminars
  • Conducting a reading group on LMS together with CRITE fellows
  • Doing fieldwork at five Irish schools to source firsthand evidence about how ICT-supported education is designed and delivered.  

ICT Is Important, but the Human Context Always Comes First

As part of my fieldwork, I happened to visit two schools, the elitist Stepaside Secondary School in Dublin, which is entirely Bridge21-based, and a small elementary school in the village of Attymass, County Mayo, which is headed by Principal Sean Gallagher whose acquaintance I owe to our joint work on the SELFIE school ICT self-evaluation project. And I would say it was truly revealing to find out that, despite the stark differences in the socioeconomic environments where they operate, both schools effectively adopt person-centric L&D approaches and take advantage of modern ICT to achieve high educational results.     

On the whole, my time with CRITE has proved fruitful from various standpoints. The insights I gained have helped me develop a more critical stance to the PhD project that I am currently working on, so I have now got a much clearer idea of how I should proceed with my study. The multiple interviews that I have had with students, teachers and other stakeholders who are immediately involved in the processes of school digitization have all reaffirmed that ICT will only yield tangible benefits when it is deployed within a proactive, collaborative, student-centric L&D environment where various participants are driven by a selfless desire to make a difference in education while sharing common values, attitudes and L&D aspirations. So, technology does matter, but the human context always comes first.