Changing lives with virtual education

Irish Lives: Liz Waters recognised as social entrepreneur for work with disadvantaged

Liz Waters: ‘It just takes one generation to lift a family out of poverty and then that poverty never returns.’

Liz Waters: ‘It just takes one generation to lift a family out of poverty and then that poverty never returns.’

 

Liz Waters never wanted to be a chief executive. At heart she is an educator; it’s something about the “hands-on” aspect of teaching that fires her up. Since the 1970s, education has brought her into contact with prisoners, the homeless and other socially and economically disadvantaged people.

This week though, she is no longer a chief executive, even though she had come to love running An Cosán, a community education centre in Tallaght in Dublin.

From now on she will focus on its new online presence, the Virtual Community College, looking to create a future in which widespread education for the socially disadvantaged could become reality.

Solution

“We have worked out of the belief I have in what I call a one-generation solution: it just takes one generation to lift a family out of poverty and then that poverty never returns,” she says, on the cusp of her mission to marry technology and opportunity.

“They have lifted themselves out. A good education will get you a good job.”

This week, she received a prestigious Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Impact Award for her work on the project.

The task now is to scale up the work of An Cosán where she has been since 1995. It was established by Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone with the intention of bringing valuable community-based education to the Dublin suburb.

Waters became chief executive after just two years and the ethos suited her ideas on education.

She particularly likes to quote one statistic: 99 per cent of school-leavers from the middle-class Dublin suburb of Terenure go on to third-level education as compared with 9 per cent from west Tallaght.

“What we are faced with is a huge entrenched inequality,” she says. “Education is not sexy. But if we could just grasp at the fact that investment in education will lift people out of poverty, quicker and faster than anything I know of.

“It’s the long term. There is a huge drive to get people back to work but we want to ensure that they can get well-paid work.”

The success of An Cosán is evident. The organisation enrols 600 students a year, studying subjects of practical importance to the community. In its 28 years it has educated 15,000 people at its Dublin centre.

Wider base

Three years ago the board asked Waters to begin thinking about how to take this approach to a wider base. “How do we scale [up]? Is there another way? The early way to scale education was through bricks and mortar,” she says.

“You know there are light-bulb moments. I just got an idea. What would it be like? Could we do it? Would it happen? I was speaking with a colleague and she said maybe it could.”

It did. Today the first 27 students from Limerick, Longford and Dublin will complete their courses following a pilot programme that ran from March to June.

The students worked in community hubs – more of which will be located across the State as the scheme expands – or from computers in their homes, an approach Waters expects to see become more popular as confidence is built. The hubs will have facilitators, the first of whom are the students graduating today. “It’s the first step but, over the next three years, I expect we will have over 1,000 students,” she says.

“Why not? There are thousands of [potential] students around the country and barriers for them are cost, place and time – and the barriers of a lack of academic literacy and fear.”

The courses An Cosán delivers, which will be repeated by the Virtual Community College, include degrees in leadership and community development, and addiction studies and community development, both accredited by the Institute of Technology, Carlow.

The system is operated through the Blackboard collaborative tool, an online platform helping to create virtual classrooms. The students are given support services such as counselling but, above all, are encouraged to believe education does not have to be beyond their expectations.

Threshold

“We have students who say they would never have been able to go [to university],” says Waters. “They wouldn’t have crossed the threshold. What we do is we show them how possible it is to achieve really good standards. Our external examiner told us that the academic standards are just as high in our centres as in other institutions.”

Two years ago An Cosán attempted to track the progress of 1,500 past students and found 1,200 were employed.

The Virtual Community College aims to achieve the same success. Waters says that with the help of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and its extensive “knowledge bank”, there has never been a better time to take it to the next level.

“I expect from January I will be able to fly with it. It’s a dream come true. I am a teacher at heart and I have been a CEO for 13 years. I return to what I love best and what I am passionate about.”

Originally from Galway, Waters studied English and history at UCD. In the 1970s she worked in a homeless shelter and later taught personal development skills in prisons. Those early experiences shaped her views and will be the driving force of future community colleges.

“The one thing working in St Patrick’s and Mountjoy taught me is that there is never a middle-class child in prison,” she says. “The people are there because of poverty and disadvantage. Most of them were early school-leavers really struggling and that convinced me that the only way out was through education.”