Feature,  For Students,  For Teachers

Reflections on 40 Years of Educational Technology

Completing the NCI National Forum for Teaching and Learning Index Survey caused me to reflect on my previous experiences with technology and education.

On an October afternoon in 1981 in Theatre L in UCD, I placed a coin on the flat surface of an overhead projector and adjusted the lens to reveal a perfectly focused black disc on the giant screen. With that simple action I began my professional relationship with educational technology.

Studying for the H-Dip in Education to qualify as a teacher, I was lucky enough to get part-time hours as an audiovisual demonstrator. The only downside was the cringe-worthy task of focusing the projector for the professor’s lecture to the jeers of my fellow students.

The Education Department in UCD had a studio and as demonstrators we were encouraged to take photographs and make audio and video recordings and programmes. (That’s me mixing audio circa 1983)

Having spent the previous four years in the monotone and monochrome world of Physics, Maths, and ‘Maths Physics’, I was excited by the innovations of education and teaching.

That was a time when new ideas were emerging on how and what we should teach. The latest technologies such as slide projectors, tape recorders and movie reels were slowly finding their way into the classroom. We self-learned film and videotape production and explored new uses of audiovisual media for learning.

Throughout the 1980s, equipment became more sophisticated and we pushed the boundaries on what could be achieved in terms of education. This was particularly true for video, satellites and broadcast television.

The RTE archive features a news item from 1986 on a project involving a live satellite link to Jordan used to deliver lectures to engineers with return audio via a telephone link. I traveled to Amman to set up that side of the project. It’s worth a look to see the early manifestations of what is quite commonplace today.


The Studio Room in the Education Department UCD – I am on the control desk and cameraman Ronan Fox in studio and King Hussain wishing the project well from Jordan.
Yes that’s me circa 1987 with one of the first mobile phones in Ireland. In those days you could rent them by the day as part of location filming equipment

All the while, evolving and emerging technology provided new possibilities for learning. As the Audio Visual Centre in UCD, we moved to a purpose built studio with a direct connection to RTE across the road. This was the beginnings of an era of educational television production.

With this development we were able to extend our on-going inquiry on new possibilities for learning. I trained as a TV director and had the wonderful task of devising, producing and directing over a hundred educational TV programmes.

Broadcast TV series such as The Story of Irish Expression, Women’s Studies, Know School Today, N to End and Remote Control brought new ideas and accessible insights to everyday lives.

This was a time before the Internet when video, broadcast and satellite TV were opening up new channels for learning. Soon the pivot point of the ‘technology revolution’ centred on the development of the World Wide Web.

In 1997 we introduced a new live TV series called Learnnet which ran for three years on RTE. The programmes captured the excitement of the early days of the Internet and the realisation that new technology would play an important role in school, college and workplace learning.

On location for an Archaeology programme in the Ollscoil TV Series.
From left to right – Mary Harkin (Researcher), Sally Reynolds (Presenter), Dr Rhoda Kavanagh (Archaeologist Expert Contributor), Kevin Cooney (Sound), Leo Casey (Director) and Declan McCaughy (Camera)

One series had a significant impact on my thinking on adult education: Right to Learn pushed the boundaries of power and access to mass media. Throughout the programmes, unemployed people voiced their experiences of the world through drama and expression. The emancipatory nature of the production process provided powerful insights on the transformative potential of learning from experience.

I was also involved in several broadcast series for adult literacy such as Read Write Now and the Really Useful Guide to Words and Numbers. Insights from these series also shed a light on adult’s motivation for learning and the lasting damage of negative school experiences.

Looking back I now realise that the current emphasis on ‘Teaching and Learning in the Digital World’ is the most recent manifestation of a trend that originated back in the 1980s. Essentially digital media are tools of inquiry in the world. The range and possibilities available today influence who, how and what we teach.

Reflecting on what I learned over many years working at the intersection of technology and learning I can identify some qualities and trends that point to the future.

Digital media will continue to provide access points for learning. From the early days of educational TV to the live Internet lectures of today – options and entry points for learning continue to expand.

Digital media projects and productions are powerful aggregators of learning. The shift from specialist subjects to projects and broad themes will continue as Digital World educators grapple with big questions such as sustainability and social justice – essentially how the world works and how to make it a better place.

Digital media democratise education by providing open access to the discourse of ideas. Of course there is a dark side to this and we’ve still much to learn on how to work together in dialogue. But we have come a long way from the times when public discourse was available only to academic and broadcasting elites.

Digital media will continue to afford new ways to engage and understand our world. Our capacity to capture, simulate and interact through digital devices provides new ‘ways of knowing’. The primacy of the written word has not been overturned but it is now complimented by a rich array of visual, aural and multi-sensory representations of our world and ideas.

As I write these words on a small laptop, to a file stored in the cloud, to a post shared with the world, I remember that day focusing the projector to begin my journey to Teaching and Learning in the Digital World.

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