Redefining outreach: Community education goes online

An Cosán in Tallaght has a community education model with higher retention rates and outcomes than many State educational institutions. Now it’s going national

Sineád Kelly, Education Programme Co-ordinator at An Cósan,   Jobstown, Tallaght. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Sineád Kelly, Education Programme Co-ordinator at An Cósan, Jobstown, Tallaght. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Tue, May 13, 2014, 00:00

Great strides in education delivery usually start at the top. Ivy League universities or globally ranked business schools risk resources and research to develop competitive new ways of teaching and, if they work, everybody else follows suit.

An Cosán is flipping the paradigm. Last month this community education centre in west Tallaght in Dublin broadcast its first virtual lecture to students in Limerick’s South Hill and Longford’s Women’s Link Centre. Virtual lectures are nothing new. What is new is that An Cosán is taking community learning, an intrinsically local activity, and making it available nationwide.

An Cosán has been developing community education in west Tallaght for nearly three decades. It’s learned a thing or two about what it takes to bring people all the way through education, from basic literacy up to degree level, even when faced with profound social and economic obstacles.

The centre offers education programmes at all levels for the people of west Tallaght, and has a 90 per cent retention rate – one universities and institutes of technology can only envy.

Learner at the heart of things

Its success is down to one thing – keeping the learner at the heart of things. To ensure

students stick with the programme, An Cosán has developed programmes that reflect the needs of the local community, such as a degree in addiction studies and a degree in community development, both delivered locally in conjunction with IT Carlow.

Once a learner signs up to a programme, staff and volunteers at the centre do all they can to tackle obstacles to success. They provide childcare, literacy support, mentoring, counselling, IT training; whatever it takes.

The board at An Cosán has long believed what it has created in Dublin could benefit other communities. Harnessing the latest in technology and pedagogy, it is using the accessibility of virtual learning to do so.

Liz Waters, the chief executive of An Cosán, delivered the first virtual lecture last month to tutors in Limerick and Longford. Over the next three years the centre will make a range of courses available to community groups and community workers through virtual teaching in a blended process of online and in-person training and teacher led-education.

“An Cosán means ‘the path’. We know that education is the path out of poverty,” says Waters. “For 28 years we’ve been in the business of running community education programmes for the people of Tallaght west and we are very successful at what we do. We take 600 students each year in everything from basic literacy and numeracy right through to degrees, in a collaborative partnership with IT Carlow.

“For us it’s not about equality of access but equality of outcomes. We create scaffolding around every student to really help them achieve their outcome. It doesn’t matter where they have come from, if you can put the right supports in place they really will achieve their potential. We have limited resources but a fantastic team of volunteers.”

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