Getting Digi With It

‘Promoting literacy with e-readers and technology’ at the SLARI Conference, Saturday 19 November 2011

What a difference two years makes!

Way back in the digital dark-ages (well November 2009) CBI hosted a seminar titled Digital Developments where the assembled panel painted a vision of the challenges and possibilities coming down the fiber-optic tracks, which still somehow seemed a long way off. Maybe it was fear of change, perhaps naiveté, but if you had told those in attendance that day (who, don’t forget, were people interested enough in this field to give-up their Saturday morning to be there) that by the Autumn of 2011 there would be 16 secondary schools in Ireland where every student would have their own touch-screen tablet device – and be using it to access all of their educational material digitally, rather than in conventional text-books – you probably would have been laughed out of the building.

Just 24 months later, that same fact – though still regarded as an impressive marker of how far things have progressed in such a short time – was by no means surprising to the delegates of last Saturday’s SLARI Conference: ‘Promoting literacy with e-readers and technology’. The location of St. Michael’s College couldn’t have been more apt, for here we found ourselves in what can only be described as the fantasy contemporary school library: hundreds of well-ordered titles of all shapes and sizes sitting side-by-side with a bank of shiny-new broadband enabled computer terminals. Thankfully, the kind of doom-laden talk of the ‘death of the book’, which regularly could be heard at such gatherings in the not-so-distant past, seemed a long way off. For whilst everyone who spoke was at pains to admit their personal preference for the immersive experience of ink on paper, there was also wide agreement that for those involved in educating (and publishing for) the current generation of young people, it simply isn’t possible to continue ploughing the same tried-and-tested furrows of old.

The day opened with a presentation from Coleesa Humphreys, Senior Librarian, ICT and Service Development at South Dublin County Libraries. Given South Dublin were the first authority to introduce digital loans via the Overdrive virtual library system in 2007, it was fitting that Coleesa kick-start the discussion by bringing us up to speed with where they are today. After four years, the service has now expanded to include e-book titles in PDF and ePub formats, plus audiobooks in WAV and MP3. Users of Apple products, such as the iPhone and iPad, can now enjoy direct access to the collection via a new app, rather than having to download to their laptop or computer first. South Dublin are also making bold steps into the digital publishing realm themselves, by making a number local interest publications available to members through Overdrive, in addition to conventional formats.

With the proliferation of titles and formats available, combined with increasing access to mobile devices amongst the population-at-large, it is little surprise that South Dublin has witnessed a massive increase in the popularity of it’s digital offerings over the past 12 months. With Kindle titles due to come on stream shortly, there seems little reason to doubt that 2012 will see this trend continuing. There are currently five library authorities nationally offering digital loans through Overdrive, including Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Kildare, Waterford City, with Fingal and Dublin City hoping to join the party soon.  (I can vouch for the user-friendliness of the system and heartily encourage others living in these areas to make the most of it).As word spreads, it seems inconceivable that library users in other parts of the country won’t start requesting access to similar services in their locality, accelerating the growth in demand for digital loans even more.

In a largely optimistic presentation, Coleesa did have a few small niggles to report, not least the apparent lack of enthusiasm of many Irish and British publishers to work with Overdrive in making their titles digitally accessible to library users. Though both Collins Press and Mercier Press in Cork have been proactive in this regard, there remains a good deal of scepticism on the part of others to make their products available through such channels. Even global behemoths like HarperCollins are doing their best to make things awkward, imposing a 26 loan limit on their e-books before the library needs to purchase a new license. Whether or not you view this kind of deal as necessary to ensure a continued income stream to the publishing industry, it cannot be denied that those companies who are still unprepared to engage with the business of digital borrowing are only alienating themselves further from what will inevitably become the primary business of libraries in the fullness of time.

Having been brought up-to-date with the situation in the public sphere, it was then time to turn our attention to the matter of primary concern to those in attendance, namely the application of digital reading and learning tools in the education context. With a fully integrated virtual library still someway beyond the budgets of all but the most wealthy establishments (Overdrive annual membership chiming in at a cool €3000 for Irish schools), now was the time to discuss some more down-to-earth ways of integrating such technologies into students’ everyday activities. Three short presentations from SLARI members brought us back to the central issue at hand. First up, we heard Jenny Mangan explain how Larkin College had achieved successful outcomes from using theAccelerated Reader software under the supervision of a dedicated JCSP librarian, raising not only literacy levels amongst reluctant readers but enthusiasm for reading in general.

Stratford College Library Website

Helen O’Kelly from Stratford College introduced the library website she had created to encourage students to extend their online frame of reference beyond merely using Google search. The site receives direct feeds from news sites and other respected online sources, as well as offering links to relevant information relating to specific subjects. What’s more, it was set-up entirely for free using open-source design packages and is pretty much self-maintaining, requiring minimal day-to-day input from Helen herself. Last to speak before we paused for a cup of coffee was Jane O’Loughlin, who has taken the bold step of purchasing 6 Kindles for use by students at Clongowes Wood College. Despite some teething problems, mainly relating to ensuring online purchase accounts are securely ‘locked down’ when the devices are out on loan, the project is now successfully up-and-running. Feedback so far has been very interesting, with one student reporting that reading on the Kindle was, “the next best thing to a real book,” much to Jane’s delight!

Ciarán McCormack

After the break, it was the turn of Ciarán McCormack Creative Director ofFÍS and passionate advocate for the benefits of technology in the education sector, to wow us with a demonstration of the very latest advances in digital teaching and learning aides. Ciarán made it clear from the start that a lot of his work is sponsored by Apple, so it was inevitable that he has some bias in that regard. Still, the case he made for the multifarious ways in which the iPad might be successfully employed in the classroom was no less impressive for this. For one, Apple is the only company which currently has all three Irish educational publishers on board to produce digital editions of their text books. Split into groups of three, we were all given the chance to try-out some of the apps which have Ciarán so excited about the possibilities of the iPad for assisting students of different abilities and approaches to learning. First, there was Disney’s ‘read-along’ Toy Story, which marks a significant leap in terms of aiding literacy development simply by highlighting words on the page as the text is read out loud. Readers then have the option of recording themselves reading the story as their confidence improves – nothing particularly ground-breaking but hugely motivational all the same.

'Read Along' Toy Story

Science teachers would have enjoyed both The Elements and Star Walk, which were both very nicely produced pieces of software. But for me the highlight had to be Shakespeare in Bits from Dublin company MindConnex. In a nut-shell, this app does everything you’d hope a digital study-guide would; animated actors ‘perform’ the play scene-by-scene, explanations are given on the text with difficult words defined, a ‘family tree’ gives behind the scenes information on all the characters, and you can even make notes and annotate the script as you go along. Made specifically for the Irish market, it features all the plays on the Leaving Cert and is pretty much the best thing I’ve seen in this sphere to date. For anyone interested in finding out more about the kind of apps available to the educational sector, Ciarán has recently set-up a website featuring his top picks of the 400,000+ titles currently on offer at tme.ie

It was Ciarán too who finished-up with the stat about those 16 schools that have already rolled-out one-to-one iPad deployment amongst their students. With the way things are progressing, it is not hard to see this figure multiplying significantly within the next few years, especially when you consider that it actually works out cheaper than purchasing the hard-copy text books themselves. Certainly if the evidence of this conference is anything to go by, the future of digital reading in Irish schools is very bright indeed, which can only be a good thing in terms of improving literacy and learning outcomes in general.

Vive la digital revolution!

This piece originally appeared as a blog post on inismagazine.ie 

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