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Exploring EdTech Episode 2

20/11/2023 Hosted by Tim Lavery


November 20 2023

This week I discuss the general state of education technology in our classrooms, I will be looking at how EdTech solutions are now embedded in teaching and learning in Primary education, and talk to Robbie O' Connell, Principal of St. Brendan’s National School located in the southwest of Ireland for his take on the issues as well as getting some great EdTech recommendations from him.

Robbie is a testament to the role of EdTech advocates who is not just driving change at the school level, but actively engaging and enhancing the teaching process throughout Ireland. 

October was the kick off month for the public coding phenomenon that is EU Code Week, growing from 20,000 participants in 2016 to over 4 million in 2021, I find out how European Schoolnet manage this enormously successful programme.

Exploring EdTech: Episode 2

Code Week, an annual grassroots European initiative, aims to promote coding and digital skills in a fun and engaging way. It was launched in 2013 by the Young Advisors for the Digital Agenda Europe, an advisory group of former EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neeli Krus, since then, it has grown into the biggest coding initiative in Europe, especially popular in schools. Code Week, supported by the European Commission as part of its strategy to promote digital skills and competences, kickstarts every October, with activities ranging from online workshops to live coding sessions, hackathons, robotics challenges and more.

Anyone can organise or take part in an activity, just pick a topic and a target audience and add your activity to the map on the CodeWeek website or browse for public activities in your area. You can also find teaching resources, training materials and toolkits to help you get started or spread the word about Code Week.

I met up with Eugenia Casariego Artola, Development & Advocacy Coordinator at the European Schoolnet, which coordinates EU CodeWeek to find out more.

[00:00:00] Welcome to Exploring EdTech, Eugenia, can you give us a little bit of information about your own background and your involvement with European CodeWeek

Okay. So, my name is Eugenia Casariego. I'm originally from Spain, but I'm based in Brussels, and I currently work with European Schoolnet, who is behind or one of the parts behind Code Week here in Brussels. My background is in education management, and I started working with Code Week three years ago.

I also have quite a strong interest in coding and everything coding and technology. For me, Code Week was a great project to get started with and also to work directly at. I had been a teacher myself, so it was great for me to stay in touch with the schools and with teachers and to support schools and teachers in their mission of bringing technology and coding everywhere, right?

So that's a little bit about me. And within CodeWeek, I basically coordinate all of the pedagogical aspects and all of the pedagogical materials that CodeWeek has to offer for educators, parents, schools, etc.

What do you think is the impact or the significance of coding and digital skills on students as a result of getting involved in Code Week?

We always say, or I like to think of it in this way, it's not that Code Week wants every single student to become a programmer.

We just want students to be able to understand the possibilities that technology and coding can offer. And by coding, I also mean many different approaches. To teaching coding, robotic, tinkering and making, AI, app development, that sort of thing. For me personally, it's about preparing students and young people for the future because students are now in schools, will have a job and will have in general, just life that will deal with technology in any aspect.

I completely get where you are coming from, since coding is one of many 21st century skills, a life skill, essential for students no matter what career path they eventually choose.

So for me, it's about preparing the students to deal with this technology and to work with it and not to work against it in a way. We don't necessarily want, as I was saying, everyone to become a professional coder, or even have a job related to IT or even have a job related to STEM, we just want students to be prepared in their professional and personal lives, to deal with the world of tomorrow. That is where technology is everywhere.

To achieve the goals of Code Week it obviously takes a lot of planning and a solid network for delivery, how is Code Week organised in terms of the central team, ambassadors, coordinators, teachers.

Yes, code week is supported by a vast network of volunteers. That's the first thing I would say. And we're very thankful to our community of volunteers. The fact as well that they are based in so many different countries make code week so vibrant and diverse.

And within that community, we do have three kinds of specific roles that some of these volunteers occupy or] take on, right? So, we have the Edu Coordinators, which are our partners in the ministries of education in many different countries. And these Edu Coordinators have the role of supporting the initiative on a national level. They also support with bigger initiatives, such as the code week hackathons.

Then we have the ambassadors, there are several in each country. Ambassadors are a link between the industry, or the private sector or the social sector and Code Week. They are in charge, or basically their role is about promoting Code Week in the civil society. The role is to link in the private and the public sector. The role is to push Code Week on a regional or national level.

And then last but not least, and very importantly perhaps the backbone of what Code Week is, our network of what we call Leading Teachers. And Leading Teachers are teachers teaching all subjects and all ages from kindergarten to vocational education and training, VET.

And basically, these are teachers that take up different activities that are engaged in bringing coding and technology to their classrooms, to their students. And they're also taking part of the many different initiatives, taking part in our training courses, our MOOCs, they often lead local courses, local what we call Study Groups, and they are a vast network of teachers.

I think at the moment they are around right 200 of them, and they are based in many different countries, and they are the first to hear about different initiatives in Code Week. They are also our link to the local, very local level, and our link to the schools.

Okay, that’s great, so let’s say I'm a new school. I haven't gotten involved in a European code week before. Schools should probably go to the CodeWeek website have a look and maybe follow Code Week EU, on social media and keep an eye on that map so they can keep up to date on what kind of activities other schools are doing and obviously see what highlights are going on around Europe.

Yes. To summarize that the first starting point would be the website where we have a specific section dedicated to schools.


Have you any success stories of how it works well in a school or how it works well for teachers or students?


So we do have several success stories. And I think that's a very good question that you asked there because I suppose many schools or teachers are looking for inspiration.

We have our own blog, the CodeWeek blog, which you can find through the website and in there, you can find several success stories, several activities that schools and teachers have implemented and can actually set some light into what is actually happening at local level. So that's the starting point for different stories that I would recommend.

Recently, we have a new blog post by our leading teacher Éva Tóth in Hungary and how she organizes Thematic Week on the topic of Atlantis and combining different aspects of technology and, more concretely, of coding in her school and how she created a cross-curricular activity on coding and technology.

So that's one story that I can mention, but there are several of them in our CodeWeek blog. And I think as well, we publish them on social media. So that's a point of inspiration. And like I said, as well, the CodeWeek map is a great place to also see what's going on and what's happening at local level.

So is this a European only project or has it expanded beyond the EU?


It has expanded in the sense that we do have communities active for example, in Tunisia, we do have some leading teachers in Tunisia. We also have some contacts in the States. We have an ambassador in the States. However, we focus mostly on Europe, not just the EU, but also Western Balkans, for example, knowing as well that there are actually very similar initiatives in different parts of the world. For example, in Africa, we have something called Africa Codes or Africa Code Week, as well in the U. S. there's, so there are already in different parts of the world initiatives with similar aims.


What we do is we focus on Europe and Western Balkans, understanding Europe in a broader way, but we do have partnerships with these other organisations, and we do welcome everyone from any country, and with online courses we have people joining from all over the world.


Have you information on how on how it has grown, it has evolved since it was created?


Code Week has been active for now 11 years. It started in 2013 as a rather small initiative with just a couple hundred of activities. It has since grown to, every year we get about 80,000 activities per year involving between 3 and 4 million young people, so it has steadily grown in the past year. The year that we had the most activity was 2020, where we reach 4. 2 million people.


That's amazing.


We have now reached a stable level around 3 to 4 million participants, and now we get yearly, about 80,000 activities in at least 76 different countries. So, it keeps growing and it keeps also changing a bit the countries that become the most active. We keep track of a scoreboard of activities in different countries, that's also very interesting. to see. We do not aim, however, to grow exponentially, I think we've reached a good level of activity. We've reached as well, a very interesting amount of people involved in the community, but we like to see that it changes, that it evolves every year.


That's a huge growth. Obviously spurred on by the exponential EdTech growth over the past three years in particular. In what way, does CodeWeek collaborate with the EdTech community, not only the teaching and learning community, but the providers and producers of education technology to advance this mission.


Yeah. We collaborate, I would say quite closely, there's a number of partner organizations, some of which are on our website, some of each of which are also on our social media as well. And we collaborate with several EdTech companies in many different ways. We often collaborate with them in order to reward our Leading Teachers, our teacher’s community in Code Week, so that's fantastic. We also often collaborate with them on our training courses.

To give you an example, this summer, we held a training course for teachers in Brussels, and we collaborated with three different companies to offer training courses on specific applications and specific approaches to teaching coding, such as, for example, we collaborated with Lenovo on a workshop.

We also collaborated with Apple for a workshop on app development and we also collaborated with a local lab that we have here in Brussels on a workshop on also tinkering and making. I would say that EdTech and technology companies are a big part of code week and we try to advance with them and to work with them and we do actually quite actively, and have done for a number of years. We also have a standing collaboration now with Google, for example, that has currently contributed to different activities and initiatives that are coming up in the next year.

Eugenia the hackathon concept was introduced in 2021. At that time you had six countries.  Has that developed since?


Yes, so we had indeed in 2016 hackathons and this year we have developed the concept again.

It's running for another year in another number of countries and we're hosting the final of these hackathons in spring in the coming year in an activity called Teach Day.

And we are very excited as it had a lot of positive impact. And it was also really exciting to get to know the students that are behind these projects. And it was very interesting for us to work so directly in local context, because it also gave us an opportunity to work very closely with the local EdTech sector.

Because we don't like to just work with the big companies, but we're also very interesting to see what's going on at the very local level. The hackathons were a great opportunity for code week to learn from the local level and to meet those students.


Fantastic. And like you said at the very beginning, it's never too late to get involved in Code Week, you can join at any point. 

That's correct. We tend to say that every week is Code Week.


[00:14:10] Next up, I chat to Robbie O'Connell, Principal of St. Brendan's National School, Blennerville in the Southwest of Ireland. He is also the Manager and Founder of the Apple Regional Training Centre. Robby has been a staunch EdTech advocate and as a teacher and Principal, he has firsthand experience of what makes great EdTech work for teachers and learners.

Robbie, I was listening to Ann Burns’ superb “Lead the Way” podcast the other day, you were a guest back in episode six, and I was struck by your genuine enthusiasm for teaching, your love of teaching and learning. The Hot Chocolate Student of the Week stands out for me, and I recommend anyone looking for inspiration for direction in their teaching career to listen to that podcast.

Every time we have a chat or anytime that I see you posting on social, on X, Facebook, LinkedIn, you always seem to be completing a course or studying something new. I think it's fair to say that you're the ultimate lifelong learner.


Yeah, and I still am Tim, to be honest, I'm doing a master's at the moment in the leadership of wellbeing and education in Mary I (Mary Immaculate College of Education) and as Anne alluded to in that podcast, do I ever stop and how do I do it all. Tim, I like to be involved in things, I like to keep fresh, when you're not in the classroom and I'm in Principal mode, you can get caught up in different things.

You can go a bit stale, to be honest, when you're not in the classroom and finger on the pulse of what the latest curriculum, books, what's going on. Yeah, I love to do these things. I love networking with others.

The former principal that I worked under, and I modelled myself on him in lots and lots of ways, said “do one thing every year to enhance your CV, to do it for your own head mentally, to gain something from it and meet new people”. And that stuck with me, it has definitely stood to me, yes, you're going to be busy, but, you can find the time if you want.


As an EdTech expert and fellow educator, I know there are growing opportunities in the field of educational technology, both exciting and promising. I'm interested to hear about the challenges you're facing with EdTech in your school, especially in the context of primary education. What specific hurdles or issues do you encounter in your role as a principal and teacher?


The whole 21st century skills model, what I find challenging about it is, it can be the lack of willingness from teachers to engage with ICT. There is a fear factor there. The challenge still is getting teachers to embrace it, seeing it as a resource, seeing it as a tool.

That's what it is, you look at behaviour management systems, class dojos, online. You look at different things, the roll books are gone, we now have an electronic roll book system. We have a database, we have obviously some paper files, but the school software system, it's all done online.

We need to move with the times, but it's a process, but for me, as a school leader, I need to be patient with that. I enjoy technology, I'm an advocate of technology. We look at back to John Dewey when he said of that, “if we teach today's students, as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow”. But we're getting there, Tim, we're getting there.


That resonates with my own experiences in the classroom and as a CPD trainer. I often found that while continuous professional development (CPD) was offered, it didn't always align with teachers’ immediate needs. There were moments where I know teachers were saying, “Teach me how to troubleshoot this interactive whiteboard or navigate this specific software,” which can be the nuts and bolts of daily challenges before we ever begin the process of teaching and learning.

I'm curious about your perspective specifically in the context of a primary school. Do you believe that EdTech has reached its pinnacle in terms of delivering its best, or do you think we're still awaiting the full realization of its potential in shaping the future of education and will we ever get to that point?


I think we're still waiting for the future to happen in lots of ways. And it's contradictory Tim, the free book scheme, right? All primary schools have free books.

It's great, from a financial point of view for parents, it should have been there a long time ago, free textbooks, now, they've extended that to secondary schools up the third year, but from an EdTech point of view, I think it's quite contradictory. There are digital ICT grants, there's digital frameworks, there's chatGPT, there's artificial intelligence, all of these things coming on stream.

And now we decide to go back to the books, go back to the chalk and talk.

Absolutely, and I share your sentiments. The ship has sailed, and we should be well beyond the point of hesitation. Robbie, I think our extensive experience in the education technology realm has afforded us a unique perspective, having witnessed the evolution of IT initiatives over time—shifting from various ICT programs to digital learning, and the more recent emphasis on 21st-century skills.

Considering this ever-changing landscape, let's circle back to the fundamentals. What, in your view, are the essential needs or foundational skills that a teacher should bring into their classroom, concerning EdTech?


First of all, embracing it, using as an effective tool. So using it as a tool, you look at all of the programs that are online in relation to, the interactive whiteboard. There's a lot of digital supplementary resources, digital games, that change up and make learning fun, make it relevant.

Like I used to always throw around a soft little football asking questions, now there's Name Selectors apps. There are all of these things that make it fun, and it's like it's something you'd see at a fun fair and you put all the names of the children into it and you press start and it would pick it. So, mixing it up and embracing it and using it as an addition to what we already have.

Teachers, and we can all get caught up in the curriculum, the curriculum must be taught, and I have no time to be doing that. But by bringing the children up to the interactive whiteboard, getting to pick out Madra. Where's the dog? There's a picture of a dog. There's the word Madra. Can you match it up?

It's just confidence. So, the basics are, look at your planning. All the planning is done through Google Drive now. We use Google Drive to update our website very effectively. We use Google Drive for sharing resources amongst teachers. And teachers pop in their Cúntus Míosúla, their monthly plans, every month onto Google Drive. Do you know what I mean?

So, they're the basics, but what I would like to see more and more of, is using the digital tools that are there. Like we're doing maths, for example. Pop up the page on the interactive whiteboard. Remember we did projectors before and the sheets and stuff and the magnifiers.

But now... every book is online, the teacher could pop it up and the teacher can write the answers in, on the board. But even if someone has a visual problem, instead of looking down at the book, they can all look up at the board. You can enhance it, you can enlarge it, and all these things are there.

Have they the time? They do, you know what I mean? That would be the basics, but ICT for me brings the mystique, brings the kind of wow factor, brings the kind of eureka moments for the children as well. And they love the different lessons that involve ICT.

Before we'd say, “What does what does a mummy look like?” We're doing Egypt or something, now, teachers can just go, two seconds now, I'll show you. I'll freeze the screen there in case something untoward comes on, and I put up a Google image or a stock image of a mummy. We can enlarge it; we can talk about it.

So before, if the textbooks didn't have the appropriate images, we just have a fantastic tool now, but fun and energy, they're the things that children would go home with, and they can look at it at home themselves and it's a great conversation point.


Indeed, and I think it harkens back to your initial point that EdTech is a powerful tool. Essentially, it's a resource that, in the hands of a skilled teacher, can elevate the learning experience significantly and serves as a conduit for fostering connections with students, particularly the younger ones who are digital natives and inherently anticipate its presence, for these students, its absence might create a communication and learning gap.

Robbie, I'd love to explore another aspect of your seemingly boundless energy, specifically your involvement with the Irish EdTech company, ZEEKO. Could you provide some insights into ZEEKO and elaborate on your role as a consultant with them?


During the pandemic, I got speaking to them, looking for assistance really, in relation to internet safety.

I think they were one of the first providers of internet safety talks to schools. They came down, talked about internet safety, did it very well. They give training for internet safety for teachers, and talks with teachers, parents, and pupils.

So, the whole Zoom thing came about, Google Classroom came about very quickly, all of these things came to the fore. Schools were under pressure in relation to undergoing live teaching. So, I spoke with Joe at ZEEKO and basically, he was providing training for schools around the Zoom protocols, the do's, the don'ts, the safety measures that can be put in place to protect you as a teacher, you as a school, and you as a board of management.

So then, they, we got talking further, we started looking at 21st century skills and they do a program called Ceannairí Draíochta, Magical Leaders, which I assisted them with in relation to 21st century skills. But they're known for helping schools in general, they're based up in DCU (Dublin City University).

They're funded a lot of the time by Enterprise Ireland. But basically, they have a lot of free resources for families, for teachers, for anyone around internet safety in general, I find them very good to deal with. But as I said, in the consultancy role, what I do with them is assist them with webinars around Magical Leaders and Magical Leaders is all about 21st century skills.

There is part of it that is online, there's training for teachers, it’s free. As I said, it's sponsored by Enterprise Ireland as well. They're working with the teacher colleges as well around 21st century skills. I enjoy working with them because they're quite progressive in relation to the current education landscape,


I suppose Robbie, it's essential to consider the continuous layering approach to technology within school environments. While incorporating more EdTech is crucial, we must also acknowledge the necessity of imparting skills and enable teachers and more, especially students to adeptly navigate emerging technologies.

It's not merely a matter of assuming students will adopt on their own. We need to actively teach these skills.  Building self-esteem and fostering self-confidence are integral components. Moreover, we need to revisit the notion of lifelong learning, recognising that today’s students will likely engage in multiple careers, throughout their life, necessitating continuous, lifelong learning through digital technology.  I find the ZEEKO ethos, particularly compelling in emphasising the need to equip children from the get-go, with skills to thrive and co-exist in a digital world. 

Shifting gears, Robbie. I'm curious about your recommendations for EdTech applications and hardware. Specifically which applications have proven effective for student engagement in your own classrooms? Additionally, do you have any noteworthy, software suggestions that have benefited school management functions?

I suppose in relation to, the school management side of things, the Aladdin system, it's just superb.

I think the majority of schools would have it or a version of it. I think Aladdin has, taken over now, more or less. There are other alternatives to Aladdin. So what Aladdin is, from a school management point of view, it manages e-payments, it does the Roll, as I said, for us, the school roll every day, it does our data returns in relation to numbers. It does online files, for example, if a child has a psychological report done, we scan it onto Aladdin. There’s a digital file on every single child, we can easily look it up. There's a matching app on my phone, I have access to parents’ number if I'm out at a football match. The practicalities of it are brilliant.

It's just superb, I can send a text message from my phone or from the desktop, an email, a notice, I can see if they've read it, Tim, crucially. You can tailor it to your needs. It's a one stop shop in relation to the school management point of view.

Robbie, you are a big fan of Apple, you set up and manage an Apple Regional Training Centre (RTC), what makes Apple still synonymous with education and what Apple products do you use in school?


I'm pro Apple the use of iPads in schools, in classrooms, there's so many apps, but our digital framework has recommended apps for teachers to use. And we communicate this to parents per age level, so per class, for example, in infants, there's this lovely one is called Book Creator that we can start off with in relation to making a digital book.

The infant teacher asks every new infant parent to send a picture of their child and their hobbies, should they so wish. The teacher then makes a little digital book via Book Creator. Sends it to the families before they start school. Some of them they're familiar with, some of them they're not familiar with. So, here's a picture of Tim. Here's Tim. He's from Kerry. He loves rugby and his favourite animal is a dog. Very basic. Teacher does that, and then when they go into school, they make their own digital books.

And it's just a plus button, Tim, plus picture, plus a drawing and you can add a sound file. It's so basic, but it starts off like that. And again, giving the children the iPads in their hands, giving the confidence around it, I've twins they're only a year old, and, from time to time I'd have my phone, or they might see the phone, and they're swiping, they're swiping up and down, they're messing with the phone, and you can see they're actually just doing it naturally, and they're seeing, oh, if I swipe that way, this happens, and there's all this kind of stuff.

It's confidence, it's timetabling them, it's using the apps, and it's not giving it carte blanche, Tim, and just giving teachers a guide, this is our recommended apps, this is what you can do to supplement your writing, this is your typing, which is a life skill, a 21st century skill and you can forget about those things as well and again, adding fun to it.

They love to see the iPads coming. They love their iPad time. And there's a bit of work to be done, be a project or whatever it may be.

Spellings for me as a program, I don't know if you've heard of it, Tim. It's an individualized spelling program, it's only about maybe four years old, a lot of schools work off it now. The testing is all done in school via iPads, you go through this little Q and A, this little survey, and it creates an individualized spelling program for each child, it's brilliant. And then there's follow up work that they do at home on it, as well. Down to recommending, I suppose what I've seen through the Apple RTC is that schools are buying iPads Tim. They're buying 30 iPads, they bring them back to the school, they open them up. There's nothing on them and there's where the likes of Wriggle come in.

Wriggle are a computer specialist, IT resellers, they're affiliated with Apple as a reseller. But schools, they just don't know where to start, so you need to manage what you have and go back to your first question as well.

Another huge challenge is just doing it the right way and the wrong way. But there's not enough support out there for schools unless the teachers go up to the Apple RTC and learn about how to use iPads effectively. And then they can teach the pupils how to use them effectively, but schools, unfortunately, are buying iPads in whatever store they wish and they're saying, “Oh, it's grand now, we have iPads”, but they have no plan,


Hardware and software rollout planning, and management is crucial Robbie, if often overlooked.


Oh yeah, absolutely. But as I said, Wriggle through the Jamf system, Jamf is a kind of it's a data management system as well, so for example, if you put on Lego WeDo on one of the iPads, then they go on all of them. If you don't have that system, if you don't have that training, then you're going back to the labour-intensive setup of teachers going around opening up each individual iPad, going into the app store, downloading the app.

There are systems, so you box clever, but who's going to tell them how to box clever? You know what I mean? We don't expect teachers, we don't expect school management to be ICT experts. But that's where the Department can step in, I think, in relation to assisting with the overall run out of ICT within schools, but there has to be a system, there has to be a whole-school approach Tim, you need teachers to be on the same hymn sheet.

You can't have anyone on the solo run, if you're on a solo on in your own class, and there's solace in that. If you tell teachers in sixth class, these are the few recommended apps that we want you to explore this year as part of our digital learning strategy, they're happy enough with that then, whereas you give them an iPad loaded with 40 apps on it, they feel under pressure to use them all, and there's no focus. Do you know what I mean?


Certainly, implementing the appropriate tools tailored to the specific needs of educators is crucial. It's not just about selecting the right tools; it's also about ensuring they align with the appropriate age group and teacher skill level. Additionally, your point about incorporating effective management and a well-thought-out rollout is paramount. This is especially critical to bear in mind, considering that the majority of schools, operate at scale—such as your own school with 220 students and 20 staff.

Managing such an agency requires strategic planning and clever execution, boxing clever as you pointed out. It's clear that effective edtech integration involves not only tool selection but also astute management and implementation strategies.

Your insights into EdTech are absolutely invaluable Robbie, and it's always a pleasure discussing teaching and learning with technology with you. I look forward to having you back on the podcast to delve deeper into specific topics as our series progresses. So, for today. Thank you, Robbie O'Connell for sharing your expertise.

No problem, Tim. Pleasure as always. Thank you.

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