Picture it. A conference about digital learning being opened by an Education Minister performing a remarkably moving rendition of “True Colours” with a very talented young musician. Struggling? Well that’s because the minister is not from our shores but is the extraordinary Ciaran Cannon, Minister of State in Ireland. The platform for this performance is the inaugural Excited Digital Learning conference in Dublin Castle.
I had the absolute pleasure and privilege of being invited by Ciaran Cannon to speak at the Excited 2014 Digital Learning conference. I was invited because of the power of Twitter – appropriate given the focus of the conference – and was keen to attend to learn more about the digital technology scene in Irish education. It was truly refreshing to participate in an event where the Minister was working with educators to create a National Digital Strategy. Interestingly it was the British Lord David Puttnam, Digital Champion in Ireland, leading the cry for Ireland to lead the digital revolution. I am not aware of a comparable role in this country but if it did exist Lord Puttnam’s absolute passion for this new order would make him an excellent candidate.
This was a conference inspired by a belief that change is at hand. The organisers – educators with day jobs – put their actions where their passions lie. Ambition for a different future was available in abundance as speaker after speaker, including exceptionally self-confident and articulate young people, expressed their desire for change. The sense that something extraordinary was within reach galvanised this conference. However my conversations with educators across different sectors revealed that there is a real discrepancy between desire and current reality. The themes are familiar – limitations of wireless within schools, cost of kit, paucity of IT support, and the inevitable caution of teachers. Yet what was very striking to me was that even though there were real barriers to progress the people attending this conference were determined to make the difference. For them young people deserved the best possible opportunities and a digital learning revolution was integral to this vision.
This conference I believe helped those attending to see beyond the real and everyday barriers, to see the extraordinary possibilities of digital learning and technology in learning. For example, listening to Marty Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone, and his view of a future in schools so unlike today was insightful. He was clear that technology gives us ubiquitous access to knowledge and to people. The challenge is how to manage this in the future to transform teaching and learning in the classroom. Yet most inspiring were the youngsters who attended the conference. The teams who participated in a Dragons’ Den; the media team who worked alongside RTE; or the children who happily played with Lego on stage whist Rene Tristan Lydiksen, Managing Director Lego Europe Education, explained his view of playful learning.
Conferences can often be somewhat solemn affairs where attendees tick off speakers, participate in break out groups and emerge as survivors. Well I can personally testify that Excited 2014 was an experience rather than an event. The task now is to build on the aspiration of everyone gathered in Dublin Castle. And although this does not affect me directly I look forward to building on connections I made with extraordinary people to share experience and best practice. After all, in this digital world geographical distance is no longer a constraint.