University of Galway research reveals Ireland’s digital education gap

University of Galway research has highlighted significant gaps in Ireland’s education system which are holding back digital teaching and learning for young people.

The report, commissioned with the support of Google, identified how Ireland is experiencing a significant shortage of teachers, with Maths, Engineering and new STEM subjects such as Computer Science among the hardest vacancies to fill.

The new research – Capacity for, Access to, and Participation in Computer Science Education in Ireland – was led by the School of Education at University of Galway and looked at what is holding back Ireland’s digital education, and what can be done to address the challenges.

A copy of the report is available via University of Galway’s School of Education publications’ webpage.

It found that one of the main barriers to expanding Computer Science education in Ireland’s schools is a lack of qualified teachers.

—  As of August 2022, there were just 34 accredited Computer Science teachers.

—  Out of a total of 140 teachers involved with the Computer Science programme, the vast majority of those teaching it were doing so without Teaching Council accreditation for the subject.

—  In focus groups with school leaders and teachers, the research revealed that a lack of qualified teachers was the number one barrier to making Coding and Computer Science available at their school.

Dr Cornelia Connolly, lecturer in University of Galway’s School of Education and lead author of the report, said: “Although the Irish education system has embraced computing in the curriculum at post-primary – by introducing Coding as a Junior Cycle short course and Computer Science as a stand-alone Leaving Certificate subject – we are a long way off making this important 21st century subject available to all students.”

The research report noted that as Ireland is working to become a digital leader at the heart of European and global digital developments – the development of computing skills and a flourishing Computer Science education ecosystem are essential to this transformation.

It also highlights the necessity for Ireland’s education system to incorporate significantly more digital skill and computational development in schools if we are to ensure the ongoing digital transformation of the economy.

The researchers found a low level of understanding of the importance of the subject of Computer Science amongst students, teachers and the relevant stakeholders, with other courses such as Wellbeing pushing Coding and Computer Science off the timetable.

The report highlighted that in 2022:

—  Only 15.6% of schools offered Computer Science at Leaving Certificate – 114 out of 728 post-primary schools
—  117 out of 728 post-primary schools offered Junior Cycle Coding
—  34 accredited Computer Science teachers in Ireland
—  Of a total of 140 teachers involved with the Computer Science programme, the vast majority of those teaching the subject are doing so without Teaching Council accreditation for the subject
—  A significant gender gap in participation in the subject is emerging: 60% of Junior Cycle Coding, and 70% of Leaving Certificate Computer Science students in 2022 were male

The report highlights a range of emergent challenges and recommendations for the effective integration of Computer Science skills and practices within formal education in Ireland across the primary and post-primary sectors.

There is a necessity for all students attending primary and post-primary school to have equal opportunity to develop basic Computer Science understanding and skills, including computational thinking and coding.

Dr Connolly added: “We need to develop a shared understanding and strengthen the acceptance of Computer Science as a foundational competence for all, enabling young people to become active participants in a digital economy and society. While young people are often assumed to be ‘digital natives’ who can pick up computer skills with ease, the research indicated this is not the case. Young people have a high level of access to phones and smart technology, yet teachers report that their technical use and understanding of computers is much lower. To address this, the report recommends that computing education needs to be introduced at an earlier age.”