Deirdre Butler’s passion in life is exploring what being digital in learning can mean. This means finding new ways for digital technology to revolutionize learning — by challenging us to examine how we learn and to question our assumptions about “traditional” models of schooling. Butler’s expertise led to her serving as a judge at Partners in Learning regional and global forums since 2006, and as lead judge at the recent European Forum in Moscow and US Forum in Seattle. We recently asked Butler about her passion for digital learning and her work in training the next generation of teachers.
What role does digital technology play in teaching?
Technology in teaching is not new – I’ve been using technology to teach for more than 30 years. At first, it was video and audio, then computers. Today, using every available tool, we can shift from text-based teaching to multiple modalities. Teachers once were simply transmitters of information. Technology makes learning dynamic.
You started as a teacher, and then became a researcher. Now your focus is on teacher education. What inspired your career path?
Like Nelson Mandela, I believe that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” To do this I believe that teachers are the key change agents. Mindful of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” my work centers on teacher learning. The challenge is how best to design sustainable, professional development models and support structures that will foster and develop teachers as self-determined learners. I have tried to understand this complex problem by designing challenging yet supportive and sustainable learning environments for teachers.
How has the community you’ve built supported your efforts?
I have worked to build alliances with people in other institutions and agencies, establishing an extensive network across education, government and industry sectors. The network includes links with students and teachers at primary and post-primary level as well as advanced learning institutions nationally and internationally.
What projects have come out of these partnerships?
I’m particularly proud of the Empowering Minds (EM) Learning Community, which is a collaboration between St. Patrick’s College, the MIT Media Lab, Media Lab Europe, the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) and primary schools across Ireland. Project work engaged in by the community’s children and teachers (50+ schools nationally) is shared at the Annual National RoboShow at St. Patrick’s College. I’m also the National Director of TeachNet Ireland, a continuing professional development project that encourages Irish teachers at primary and post-primary levels to develop educational resources for publication on the web. To date, the project has published 500+ online curriculum units and these are available free of charge through the website www.teachnet.ie.
Over the past two years, TeachNet Ireland has focused on developing a Web 2.0 strategy which builds on teacher collaboration and use of web tools such as blogs and podcasting. We have also developed a range of high quality online courses to reach a greater number of teachers. The TeachNet portal now includes a blog, podcast and teacher project resource listing as well as a range of online courses to support teachers.
As someone training the teachers of tomorrow, are you optimistic about the future of education?
I am – so long as we continue to shake up assumptions and beliefs. Technology is not a silver bullet. We must set up environments to stimulate teachers and to enable them to experience different learning environments. We must change hearts and minds.
Deirdre Butler believes we must question our assumptions about the learning process. How have you questioned your own assumptions, and what was the result?
About Deirdre Butler
Deirdre Butler is a senior lecturer in St. Patrick’s College (a constituent College of Dublin City University) with chief responsibility for designing and coordinating learning programs for undergraduate and postgraduate students using a broad range of digital technologies. Butler has consulted for and participated in educational development work using expressive computational materials in Mexico, Costa Rica, many European countries, as well as rural and urban areas of Ireland. Prior to St. Patrick’s College, Butler worked in primary schools for nearly twenty years.
Birthplace: Dublin, Ireland
Current residence: Dublin, Ireland
Person who inspires me most: Seymour Papert, whom I had the privilege of working with as my PhD advisor.
Favorite childhood memory: Getting that much loved Crolly Doll for Christmas when I was very young, particularly in light of my escapades some months earlier when I had done some “interior design” work on the much prized new bathroom that been installed in our home. I had found a container of gloss paint which my father had been painting the fence in the back garden with. He had briefly left the paint outside the back door while he nipped inside to have a cup of tea. Seeing my opportunity to put my artist skills into action and spruce up what I thought was a very boring bathroom, I took the
paint brush and container and set to work. Let’s say when I was discovered singing and painting happily a short time later my parents were to put it mildly less than impressed. So that year I had been rather worried that Santa would definitely have me on the “naughty list” and keeping with tradition he would leave me a bag of cinders at the foot of my bed instead of my much longed for Crolly doll.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): First week in March to Austin, Texas to meet with the other members of Microsoft’s Higher Education Advisory Board. I will also be presenting at the SITE (Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education) Conference on the teacher professional development work (LEAP21) that I have been involved in with ITL (Innovative Teaching and Learning) research (www.itlresearch.com).
Favorite book: Currently, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. A constant favorite since my early teens is The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran.