Bringing digital equity to Ireland’s next generation
Digital technology has brought opportunity and prosperity to Ireland—but these benefits have not accrued equally across the population. Many communities lack the technology resources and education to access Ireland’s USD50 billion digital economy. This digital divide is intensifying socioeconomic inequality across Ireland. The World Economic Forum predicts that within a decade, 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills. Across Europe, the skills gap could lead to 1.67 million unfilled job vacancies for internet and communications technology (ICT) professionals by 2025. Working class girls, who are significantly less likely than male and middle-class peers to pursue STEM careers, are most likely to be left behind in the widening opportunity gap.
Leveling the playing field for Ireland’s youth
To level the playing field for Ireland’s next generation, Maynooth University’s Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan founded Digital Wealth, a project administered in partnership with Microsoft Education Ireland and Community Empowerment Fund of Microsoft Datacenter Community Development. This school outreach program aims to eliminate the opportunity gap for 1,000 students across Ireland whose access to technology is currently restricted. An estimated 45 schools across Ireland will participate in the Digital Wealth program over the coming three years. About a third of these schools are designated as “at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion” under the Department of Education’s Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) initiative.
The program takes a holistic approach to the challenge of building digital wealth, using the research work of Dr. O’Sullivan and her team to ensure evidence underpins all practice. Funding alone won’t level the playing field, Dr. O’Sullivan explains: “In education, it really doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you haven’t got a working infrastructure, the skills to use technology, or the actual hardware to engage meaningfully with education, you really are being left behind.” Working in partnership with Irish schools, Digital Wealth has identified four areas of need: network infrastructure and computer hardware, student and teacher training, and digital governance or values training. The Digital Wealth team and school administrators work together to assess the school’s need in these four areas and identify the necessary interventions.
Building digital wealth, from hardware to creative thinking
Often, the first step is establishing basic access to technology. Many schools lack both the network infrastructure and hardware, says Dr. O’Sullivan: “Nobody has enough technology in Ireland—if you live down in the country, you might not have working Wi-Fi. We often hear of teachers running to the other end of the school to pick up Wi-Fi. We’ve got schools that have a computer room with broken equipment.” The Digital Wealth team helps schools secure funding and purchase equipment that will last.
At the heart of the Digital Wealth program is educator training. With funding from the Community Empowerment Fund, the group is partnering with Microsoft DreamSpace, a program of Microsoft Education Ireland, to coach teachers in the effective use of technology in the classroom; the goal is to train 300 teachers across Ireland, with at least two teachers per school qualified as Microsoft Innovative Educators. So far, the collaboration has yielded positive feedback from teachers, who say the program has helped them use technology to promote critical thinking and creativity in the classroom . For student teachers with a passion for technology, Digital Wealth and DreamSpace offer a pre-service teacher fellowship; in this digital skills module, student teachers develop lesson plans incorporating technology across the curriculum.
Digital Wealth and Microsoft DreamSpace are also directly involved in digital curriculum development for students, in partnership with STEMpathy. STEMpathy delivers its Learning by Design program in partner schools, challenging students to solve real-world problems through critical thinking, empathy, and the creative use of STEM skills such as coding. Finally, Digital Wealth supports schools in developing an understanding of the value and appropriate use of technology, from good privacy practices to visionary thinking about how technology can contribute to a better future.
Together, Maynooth University’s Digital Wealth and Microsoft DreamSpace and Datacenter Community Empowerment Fund are empowering schools to engage with digital technology as a driver of positive social change. “We share a vision of wanting to make society a better place,” reflects Dr. O’Sullivan. “We value diversity, equity, and inclusion in the schools.” Digital skills are the means of achieving this more equitable future for Ireland’s next generation.
“If you haven't got a working infrastructure, the skills to use technology, or the actual hardware to engage meaningfully with education, you really are being left behind.”—Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan, Digital Wealth, Maynooth University