Bringing schools together in Ireland through ICT

Regular readers of this column know that I greatly admire those people I call the ‘unsung heroes’ of North-South cooperation as part of the peace process in Ireland. These are the people, most of them unknown outside their immediate area of activity, who do this kind of work because, in the words of the social researcher Brian Harvey, ‘they have a vision of and passion for cross-border work and cross-border development and are prepared to commit considerable time and energy to such a venture, some a lifetime.’1

In the field of North-South educational cooperation such people include Professor Roger Austin of the Dissolving Boundaries programme (and also one of the founders of the European Studies Programme as long ago as the 1980s); Aidan Clifford and Mary Gannon of the City of Dublin VEC-based Education for Reconciliation project; Mary Yarr from Antrim for her cross-border inclusion and diversity ‘toolkits’ for schools; Professor John Coolahan, the distinguished former head of education at NUI Maynooth who was a co-founder – and remains a mainstay – of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS); Father Sean Nolan, the north Monaghan priest who has been a tireless promoter of numerous cross-border education and reconciliation projects in that often forgotten area, and his co-workers Mary Devlin and Josie Brady; Maxine Judge, who runs the European Studies Programme out of Armagh; and Sharon Treacy-Dunne, director of the Dundalk-based Cross-Border Orchestra of Ireland for young musicians.

This month I am going to concentrate on the work of the first of these ‘heroes’, Roger Austin. For the past 12 years this University of Ulster education lecturer (working alongside a counterpart from NUI Maynooth, currently Angela Rickard) has run the Dissolving Boundaries programme to link Irish and Northern Irish schools through ICT. During this time Dissolving Boundaries has involved over 500 schools, 1,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils aged 8-18. The organisers claim it is ‘arguably one of the largest programmes of its kind in the world.’ In my humble opinion, it is also the single most outstanding example of mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation between schools I have come across anywhere in Europe, let alone Ireland.

Interestingly, it is also a rare North-South educational programme that takes not a penny from the European Union, but has been largely funded by wise policy-makers in the two Departments of Education in Dublin and Bangor, Co Down.

It works like this. Every autumn participating schools pair up with a school from the other jurisdiction, whether a primary, secondary or special school (over 50 special schools have taken part since 1999). Participating teachers receive training in a range of ICT techniques, including video-conferencing, blogs, online forums, and applications such as Power Point, Moodle (including ‘wikis’) and Marratech (for video-conferencing).

What they then do with these technologies between the paired schools over the following nine months is extraordinary. I have in front of me a long list of the curricular themes covered by participating primary schools in 2009-2010 through online interchanges and joint exercises (usually complemented by a face-to-face meeting sometime during the year). They range from land and sea creatures of China to the Irish famine; from healthy eating to learning together through poetry; from fairy tales and monsters to learning numeracy through card making; from observing and recording the weather to collaborative story-telling; from recycling and the environment to exploring similarities and differences.

Both teachers and pupils are enormously enthusiastic about Dissolving Boundaries. In successive evaluations teachers report that it helps them to embed new technologies into almost every aspect of the curriculum; to allow pupils to take ownership of their learning in ways which bring them real pleasure; to see marked improvements in pupils’ concentration, problem-solving and social skills; and to greatly increase the pupils’ cultural awareness and North-South understanding.

In an article last year,2 Austin wrote about the effects of Dissolving Boundaries in three school pairs: one a rural primary school from a loyalist area of Northern Ireland and a very isolated rural primary school in the South where the technology had allowed the pupils to build trusting relationships before they actually met; the second a special school link-up which did wonders for the pupils’ communications and literacy skills, as well as their self-esteem; and the third a link between two secondary schools to study French together, where the requirement to impress the cross-border peer group had led to remarkable progress in a set of pupils previously regarded as ‘fairly challenging.’

Dissolving Boundaries was last year selected by the prestigious UK National Foundation for Educational Research as the only Northern Irish case study in a piece of research for the Department of Education in London on educational programmes which help to tackle the risk of violent extremism among young people. At a showcase event last month, which brought together participating pupils, teachers and parents, messages were received through an online forum from several countries in the Middle East. A group of university tutors in Israel, working with Arab and Jewish young people, commented: ‘You guys have shown the way to help dissolve boundaries all around the globe. We continue to follow your success and learn from you.’

Andy Pollak

1 Harvey, Brian: Audit of community development in the cross border region. Dundalk Institute of Technology, 2008.

2 Austin, Roger: Dissolving Boundaries in North-South education. The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland. No.5, spring 2010