School makes the switch to smart learning well ahead of the curve

12 Jul 2020

St Joseph’s Secondary School in Rush, Co Dublin decided to switch to using iPads in the depths of the last recession after linking up with educational technology firm Wriggle. 

By Emmet Ryan, The Sunday Business Post

Patricia Hayden is well aware of the importance of saying "I don't know". The principal of St Joseph's Secondary School in Rush, Co/. Dublin, had a bold plan during the economic crash, but she knew she needed help.

Hayden was also smart enough to realise her lack of knowledge could help to identify the challenges ahead. In 2011, when Ireland wasn't flush with cash, she decided the school needed to switch to using iPads.

"We are short of space in the school and we had a lot of boys who found the traditional methods boring. We felt there was an opportunity with individual devices that we could inspire the students a little more," she told the Business Post.

"We wanted to change things in a way that would make them think differently. Back then, a Deis (disadvantaged) school was seen as a poor relation that no-body wanted to go to."

Tablets as we know them today were still in their infancy, the first iPad only launched in 2010, and such an outlay was ambitious for any school, let alone a Deis one during a time when budgets were tight. Yet Hayden was not deterred.

"I wouldn't be a technological genius by anybody's measure but I could see that if I found the right people to put it together, we could put a plan in place and it would work," she said.

She linked up with Wriggle, the educational technology business based in west Dublin, and started to get things moving. She wanted to remove books entirely from the school and have everything in the classroom run through tablets. After a one-year trial to see if it was feasible, she opted to deploy the plan school wide.

"It changed the way the school worked and how it was perceived overnight. It was hard, parents had to pay, but by doing that they put a value on it. Over the years things have developed," she said. "We've become more clued into security and internet safety issues. The level of oversight and control increased. It put us in a good position, out teachers were ahead when it came to addressing bullying online along with the arrival of the likes of WhatsApp and TikTok."


Technical know - how

St Joseph's is a big school. This coming year it is due to have almost 850 students with 80 teachers. Staff experience ranges from one year to 37 years on the job. Last year alone, 18 new teachers joined the staff and that's a lot of people to get up to speed on how the school operates.

"When we introduced iPads we also introduced one-hour classes, the students worked better in the one-hour classes with the devices. People saw that happening and other teachers came to visit," Hayden said. "To be honest, teachers who weren't up to speed didn't apply to the school. Well, maybe they did, but they certainly didn't get the jobs."

Hayden has made her school a destination for teachers. They want to fo there because it has made itself stand out. "Even with the older teachers who didn't have the technical know-how, they have enjoyed it because of the possibilities it has opened up." she said. "We're in a bad building, but we can bring them out of the classroom with the iPads to give good practical classes. Ours is a co-ed school, but for the lads, for the young lads, I knew it would be attractive to them. I felt it would work and I knew there'd be companies eager to help with kids."

Finance was the biggest barrier, particularly at the start, but the school was able to pull together savings and payment plans to help. Being able to almost completely remove the cost of books helped. Students can have them at home if they wish, but it's iPads only in the school. Now, there's a whole new challenge with the uncertainty around what way schools are going to return in the autumn.

The advantage Hayden has is that her school has been through a significant change during times of economic turmoil. She is battle-hardened and has a plan.

"We'd obviously prefer to be in the classrooms but we are preparing for everything. We're training teachers on the use of different platforms. No matter what happens, we can adapt quickly," she said. "Everybody now realises the value of the time in school and the teacher in front of the classroom. That time in school is precious and it has to be active when we're there."

Hayden is also familiar with some of the problems not entirely in her control. Broadband access in Rush would be politely described as being of a variable quality. She has worked on ways to enable classes to be downloaded so all students can continue at the same pace, irrespective of what occurs in the next few months.

Not everywhere is as prepared. Research by Wriggle found that 43 per cent of schools don't have sufficient digital infrastructure to adapt in the same ways as St Joseph's.

"We could see there were gaps in the education system that were being highlighted by the pandemic. We wanted to see how we could start filling them," said Jamie Johnston, teacher engagement manager at Wriggle. "It doesn't matter what the tool or platform is, it's about starting from a place where you look at what you want the students to achieve. The government needs to support schools to get the right devices in the hands of the students so this digital divide doesn't increase".


Ultimate stress test

Seán Glynn, his colleague, sees this crisis as an opportunity to be ready for whatever other potential challenges may arise for the education sector.

"The pandemic is the ultimate stress test. The enthusiasm we have seen from teachers to upskill over the last four months hasn't been highlighted enough," Glynn, who is also a teacher engagement manger at Wriggle, said. "We've worked with 9,000 teachers through webinars and online training since this started. We're now working towards a new platform for online training to meet that need."

Whatever happens, Hayden doesn't want the success of St Joseph's to be in isolation. Her goal was to level the playing field, so she wants other schools to be able to function at it's level during the crisis.

"There's always a way. It mightn't be the ideal way, but one of the things the National Association of Principals and Deputies is doing is encouraging teachers to record their classes,' said Hayden. "The device is, in a way, the simplest thing. There is always a way."


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