How digital technology can help unite a divided society

25 Apr 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 28 Apr 2017

Professor Roger Austin from Ulster University tells Scope how online interactions can be a huge help to shared education - and allow the educational model, designed to help heal social rifts and increase educational choice, to flourish.

Earlier this month Scope spoke with Professor Joanne Hughes, Director of the Centre for Shared Education at QUB, about her work and her hopes for shared education in Northern Ireland. Now Prof. Roger Austin from UU has been in touch with his own thoughts to further the debate:

I was glad to see Joanne Hughes’ views about shared education and I agree with much of what she has written, including the range of both educational and social benefits she has outlined.

I hope this might become the start of a public debate around two key issues that have not yet had the attention they deserve. The first of these is around the best way to ensure that the opportunities for learning, about better cross-community understanding or access to a wider range of courses, are open to all children in Northern Ireland, not just the 20% that are currently involved. And the second, is to ensure that the links between schools can be sustained in the long term.

Part of the answer to both these questions comes from making  use of what is called ‘blended contact’ between schools, a combination of face to face contact enriched and extended by online interaction. At the moment, the majority of schools in shared education base their work almost entirely on face to face interaction; while this is often very valuable, it’s frequently of short duration, expensive ( bus hire for one day is around £200) and involves children missing other lessons when they are out of school.

Using what we have

Using the computers and internet connections that are already in every school in Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has been shown to be highly effective in enabling children to get to know each other gradually over as long as a year while working together on joint projects in the curriculum. In some cases, such as where links between schools are difficult because of parental concerns or ongoing sectarian tensions, links using Information Communications technology ( ICT) are seen by teachers as safer and more likely to endure. It’s also true that where there are links between special schools and those in the mainstream, ICT can help children with autism get to know their partners in a more controlled way than the sudden arrival of strangers in their school.

It’s worth underlining that all of the work using ICT comes at no cost to any of the schools since they already have the software to use video-conferencing and to work together online in a Virtual Learning Environment. These tools are provided and maintained through C2K. The experience we have had on recent courses for teachers where they were given 2 days training leading to an in-school project using blended contact has been extremely positive. Ulster University, along with Queens and the teacher training colleges are offering a range of courses to teachers in shared education and this programme of professional development will run for at least a further school year - thanks to funding from the Education Authority, while the schools involved are part of the Shared Education Signature Project.

Two final points about the use of ICT in shared education are worth making. The first is its potential to reach every school in Northern Ireland; some that are not involved so far in shared education have difficulties in finding a suitable partner because of their isolated geographical position….but links between ICT could solve this problem, especially if the links are made initially at Key Stage 2, the top end of the primary school or Key stage 3, the first stage of secondary schooling.

Greater choice

Building on these foundations will give teachers and pupils the confidence to be able to take the next step of offering some minority subjects at GCSE partly online. This is not such a revolutionary idea in other countries like Canada where distance between schools would otherwise limit children’s choices of exam subjects. And of course, for children who go on to Higher Education, this type of experience at GCSE or A level is a very good preparation for the kind of learning that is increasingly used in Universities.

Finally, a recent example of blended contact in shared education makes a very good point about what we might hope shared education should do; teachers from 2 schools recently carried out a project where one class acted as the client wanting a new design for a hairbrush while the other school, studying technology and design, came up with a spec that met their client’s needs in terms of colour, cost and feel. There was regular online interaction between the teams in both schools leading to a Dragon’s Den scenario where mixed teams pitched their designs to a panel of local business leaders in Ballynahinch. These thirteen year old pupils were gaining experience of what it might be like to work together in the future, and employment is exactly where most people in Northern Ireland come across people of different faiths and traditions.

To conclude; at some point in the not too distant future, the external funding for shared education may dry up and the entire cost of supporting this important work will fall on the Department of Education and in that sense to all the tax payers of Northern Ireland. If we want to keep this going, shouldn’t we be asking schools to make ICT an essential part of their shared education plans, not least when this year for the first time, teachers are being required to assess their pupils’ ICT competence?

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