A student’s vision brings national honours to Loreto, Milford

The award-winning work of a Leaving Certificate student at Loreto Community School in Milford will change the way future students learn.

The award-winning work of a Leaving Certificate student at Loreto Community School in Milford will change the way future students learn.

Shaun Sweeney of Doaghbeg, Fanad, who prepared, designed and presented an e-book detailing “The Smart Class of the Future 2025”, is the young man whose work brought the inaugural SmartClass award, €150,000 worth of technology and training, to the Milford secondary school.

His proud parents, Elizabeth and Tommy, were at the school on Monday to see their son on stage with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, principal Andrew Kelly, other school administrators, politicians and representatives of Intel, Steljes and The Educational Company of Ireland, the companies that ran the collaborative, national competition.

The award includes a Fizzbook laptop for each incoming first-year student with the entire Junior Cycle curriculum content pre-loaded on to the tablets, including textbooks and workbooks. The award also includes technical support and a wireless local area network for the school. CASETeL at Dublin City University will provide teachers with ongoing professional development.

Mr. Kenny, who presented the award on Monday, said the digital curriculum prize “will make a huge difference not only to the 140 first-years, but to everyone in the school, to all their families, their teachers and the wider Milford community”.

The competition asked students to consider how technology in the classroom could change ways of thinking, working and living. Shaun said deputy principal Anthony Harkin brought the project to his attention last June. Shaun spent the month of July designing a school building using a computer design programme, then spent August developing videos on aspects of his vision, 40 minutes in all. Shaun said he spent at least two hours a day on the work, some days up to five or six hours. Most of the work was done by the end of August, he said.

When school resumed, Anthony and Mairéad McDaid, assistant principal, guided Shaun in his work until the project was completed in October.

Shaun envisioned a school with different environments for general purpose learning, languages, science and commons areas. Each student would have their own “tri-tab”, which he described as “basically like three iPads stuck together”. Students would work on one screen. On another they would see their timetable and a three-dimensional virtual representation of the classroom, showing which students were on line and where they were: A student could log on from home, watch the classroom through a video set-up in the school and message the teacher.

The student would use the third screen to read their textbooks or take part in virtual learning environments. Designed like video games, those environments would enable students to create their own avatars to explore the subject.

“That would be kind of targeting people who would find it difficult to learn at home with a book,” Shaun said.

Shaun’s 2025 school had spaces for students to sit in small groups and work together, and the commons gave students lounge space where they could be on their own. “I think that’s also important,” he said.

His students in 2025 wear e-monitors on their wrists that alert them each time their classes start, and that can download email and messages and monitor heart rate and blood pressure. Students would use an e-card to mark themselves present at class and to pay for things. A discipline meter he devised would work off a system would accumulate credits for infractions.

Shaun made online learning an important feature of the school.

“I explained how it would work and that it wouldn’t be for every student, but it would be based on motivation and the type of learner you are,” he said. The Loreto student also designed a building that employed different types of sustainable energies, with conservation and recycling woven into the design.

Some Loreto teachers will receive their first day of training in the new system on Monday, said Mairéad McDaid. “Students are the digital natives and the teachers are kind of the digital foreigners,” she said. The Loreto staff are looking forward to getting involved in the SmartClass initiative.

“It seems to be the way forward,” Mairéad said. “It’s exciting, it’s new and it’s innovative.”

The first-year students will have all their texts loaded into their Fizzbooks, eliminating the need for heavy bookbags. And classroom teachers will have control over every screen in the classroom, so they can monitor students’ work.

“We’re hoping this will be beginning of a new system of teaching and learning,” Mairéad said.

Shaun was glad he took part in the competition. “I learned a lot from it that made you think about things you weren’t normally thinking about,” he said. Shaun, who has always been good at computers, said he would like to pursue electronic engineering and computer engineering.

He takes computers as an elective subject but believes firmly that it should be an exam subject – it is in the school he designed for the SmartClass project.

“Information technology is being used everywhere,” he said. “There’s so much to it.”

Shaun is modest about his achievement. He learned in late December that his project had won the inaugural award.

“I did it for myself more than anything,” he admitted. “I wasn’t doing it to win.

“But it was nice to win just the same,” he said.

After the awards presentation, Mr. Kenny visited a Loreto classroom, where Shaun explained his project to him.

“He thought it was very positive,” Shaun said. “He asked me to email him the whole project.”

Still, Shaun was unhappy with the way the protest dominated media accounts of the taoiseach’s visit.

“The thing that annoyed me was that I haven’t seen a heading yet about us winning the competition,” he said. “It’s about eggs being thrown at the taoiseach.”