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.”

Three years ago the board decided to upscale the impact. “I thought of virtualising the curriculum to bring our programmes out of the centre and into west Tallaght and to challenge the digital divide and the academic access divide,” says Waters, a former lecturer in higher education.

“The potential began to evolve in my mind. We did a lot of research: this is not the standard e-learning model with the student alone at the kitchen table. We knew we needed more than that for the students we work with. Collaborative learning, groups and teams, virtual real-time classes – all these provide the immediacy our students need without tying them to coming to classes at a particular time if that’s a challenge.”

The first step is to train the tutors to deliver this learning in the community, so Waters and her team developed a new Level 7 qualification, the Special Purpose Award in Transformative Community Education, a teacher qualification provided in a virtual learning context. The new online course is being delivered in pilot sites in Limerick, Longford and Dublin, funded by the ESB and supported by Accenture and IT Carlow.

“From September we roll it out nationally, so tutors all over the country interested in getting a qualification and learning about e-learning and supporting their students to take up our offerings can access this first step. The Department of Education has shown a big interest and is watching the development carefully,” says Waters.

The next step is to develop two further qualifications, aimed at a wider audience: the Special Purpose Award in Active Citizenship and Community Leadership. “We think the model of running these programmes in centres that can support the development of collaborative learning groups will really help students from disadvantaged communities.

“Ultimately the plan is to make all of our basic education programmes available in a virtual context, building up a community of educators to bring them together in a digital learning network. That’s the way education is going. This is a fantastic opportunity for community education to be on the cutting edge.”

Enriching traditional teaching
Waters says virtual learning, far from isolating the learner, can enrich and enhance traditional teaching and learning as well as bring people together.

“As a teacher I have found using the virtual learning platform, with videos, websites, online discussions and the chance to access the class at any time, has improved and expanded my traditional class teaching. I believe by making our community education centres hubs for virtual learning, ones that provide disadvantaged students with the support they need, we can open up education to a much wider group.

“An Cosán is leading from the front now but I can see us as part of something much bigger in the future. The big question is, can we transfer our ethos, our unique community learning methodology, into a virtual learning context? I know we can.”

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