Sharing ICT education experience is crucial. Newry principal Cormac McKinney explains why

So many of our schools in Northern Ireland have led the way by integrating cutting-edge technology for teaching and learning.

It was a pleasure to meet many of the headteachers and ICT experts who have been instrumental in this at the recent Inspire school leadership conference at the Titanic Centre in Belfast.

This inaugural event, set up to mark and celebrate the achievements of Northern Irelands schools, aimed to showcase some of the world’s leading educational technology and was a great opportunity for all NI school leaders to come together and demonstrate how they are involved in some fantastic initiatives to use ICT in their teaching. It demonstrated the real passion that our school leaders have for using technology to enhance the teaching and learning experience.

Education minister underlines importance of pupil confidence with ICT

The conference was opened by John O’Dowd MLA, the Northern Ireland minister for education, who highlighted the importance of pupils being able to confidently use ICT from a young age. I fully agree with his view that digital technology has a central role to play in children’s education and impacts upon virtually all areas of learning in the curriculum, making ICT a cross-curricular skill.

One of the most inspirational speakers was Tim Rylands, an internationally recognised presenter with more than 25 years of classroom experience, in the UK, and beyond, including four years in West Africa. He has received particular recognition for using computer games and Web 2 technologies to inspire children’s creative confidence in many areas of the curriculum – writing, speaking and listening, music, thinking skills, collaboration, interaction and much more.

Tim is a firm believer that ICT is about communication more than technology - and that it should be fun. His presentation was certainly that. Joined by colleague Sarah Neild, he had the audience laughing throughout providing each delegate with Plasticine and various accessories to create composite creatures, which interacted with their technology. Tim and Sarah gave attendees plenty to think about in terms of providing creative and innovative ways to bring lessons to life.

Professor Stephen Heppell, the renowned new media and educational technology expert, spoke to delegates via a live stream from Australia, joking that he was presenting in his pyjamas. The audience was captured by his discussions on the workshop manual on teaching in 'agile' and 'multifaceted' spaces.

He also discussed his 'learnometer' - a unique combination of hardware, software and analysed data to help learners, and thus schools, perform better by optimising physical environments. Stephen also discussed his thoughts on learning in a less formal way. 

'Protecting pupils online is a more daunting prospect than ever'

One of the main focuses of the conference was the issue of esafety in school. Esafety is becoming increasingly high profile as the explosion in the use of smartphones and social media means protecting pupils online is a more daunting prospect than ever.

Education minister John O’Dowd outlined the importance of ensuring that our young people learn how to keep safe and display acceptable online behaviour. But he stressed that the effective use of ICT can enhance social interaction and has been shown to play a key role in citizenship by linking young people from diverse backgrounds.

He urged delegates to remember that while we must all be vigilant to guard against on-line abuse and exploitation, we must also ensure we do not overlook the positive aspects of the Internet.

I was impressed by the advice of Geraldine Donnelly, principal of St Joseph’s Grammar School in Donaghmore, who shared her experiences and the importance of ensuring students remain safe while using technology. It was really useful to hear about the policies and processes being put in place by other schools to safeguard our children.

There remains a diverse approach to safety – the range of products and approaches in use continues to grow. Ideally, we will come to a point when there is a more standard approach – one that we all agree is best-in-class.

picinspireawards2Presenters Sarah Neild and Tim Rylands join the awards winnersDelegates also celebrated the achievements of schools in the Capita Managed IT Solutions and C2k Education Network ICT Excellence Awards (Capita manages the ICT for Northern Ireland's schools). The new awards, running for the first time in 2015, celebrate the innovative and collaborative use of technology in schools across Northern Ireland and its positive impact on students and their wider communities. The quality of the entries was extremely high and all schools should be proud of their achievements.

We were delighted to be highly commended in the category "Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Technology". This was in recognition of the work we have been doing for the past four years to create a culture of teaching and learning based on pupils using their own, personal electronic device in everyday lessons.

With initial pupil deployment in September 2013 to all Year 8 pupils, and continuous roll-out in the years following, we are currently in a situation where every pupil in Years 8 to 11 has his own iPad, and those in Years 13 and 14 can choose to bring their own tablet device to school for educational purposes.

Tablets come in at St Colman's for 'a blended approach'

By September 2016 every single pupil in our school will have the opportunity to use an iPad/tablet as their own personal learning device as part of a blended approach to teaching and learning. This initiative, as it is still growing and developing, has led us to become one of the leading schools in Northern Ireland with regards to using ICT as part of everyday practice.

I was pleased to be able to attend Inspire with my colleague Kevin Franklin, head of ICT, who gave a presentation of our work in one of the afternoon seminar sessions. The event demonstrated that our schools are involved in some fantastic initiatives to integrate ICT into teaching and learning, and illustrated how the next generation of educational technology will continue to have a growing role in classrooms over the coming years. It provided us with a great opportunity to share our experience and best practice with other schools and representatives in the education sector.

Cormac McKinneyCormac McKinney is principal of St Colman’s College, Newry. He was among more than 400 education experts who gathered at the Titanic Centre in Belfast for Inspire 2015, a leadership conference showcasing some of the world’s leading educational technology
Pictures by Phil Smyth Photography

More information  

Tim Rylands' account of Inspire 2015