Harry McCann was just 15 years old when he set up the Digital Youth Council (DYC), which aimed to give a voice to young people involved in technology and an influence over Ireland's national digital strategy. Within months, he became a leading voice for young people in education and found himself speaking at conferences and events all over Ireland and in Europe.
Despite the outward appearance of success and confidence as a young tech entrepreneur, however, McCann, now aged 22, says that school was of little interest to him and that he struggled with exams.
“I was always fairly hopeless academically. I could do well with continuous assessment and I liked learning, but school never suited me and I never really put in the time or commitment. The DYC – which wasn’t just me but a bunch of young people – wanted a change in education, particularly a move away from the idea of two weeks in June where you regurgitate a load of information – it’s a really odd way of assessing learning. The Leaving Cert didn’t really go my way, although I did manage to get the points to study government and politics in UCC, and I was incredibly lucky to receive a full scholarship from UCC for my work as an entrepreneur,” he says.
"I spent that summer in Australia and it made me realise that I didn't want to go straight into university. I just wasn't ready. Academically, I had never been top of my class and I feared jumping straight from one intense academic environment into another.
"A post-Leaving Cert course would give me the chance to work part-time and learn too. I went to Ballyfermot College of Further Education where I studied broadcast presentation skills for a year. Class sizes were small, the facilities and teachers were really good, and we got that personal attention and one-on-one attention that a lecturer with 150 students just can't manage. The teachers were all industry experts with experience in what they were teaching.
"The jump from school to college is huge, but a PLC was a bit of both worlds. I needed an opportunity to find a happy middleground where I could become an adult and jump into the new stage of learning, similar to school in terms of hours and schedules but less academic pressure. By the end of the year, I could have jumped straight into work in media, but my enthusiasm for learning had grown and I felt ready for third level. I went travelling around Thailand for the summer and got the UCC offer after reapplying and getting the all-inclusive Quercus Talented Student Programme Scholarship, which covers different strands including sport, entrepreneurship and more. [Olympic gold medallist rower] Paul O'Donovan, [Paralympian] Mary Fitzgerald and [Young Offenders] actor Jennifer Barry are among the scholarship recipients.
“When I did go to UCC, I found that I was more prepared than a lot of my classmates: I knew how to put together a bibliography, what to expect in an essay, how to quote people and what was expected in the learning environment. And I had a mentor as part of the scholarship which helped to ensure I didn’t fall behind.”
In college, McCann was advised that he should get tested for dyslexia.
“I can barely read my own writing. In school, English and history were my favourite subjects but because they had huge writing requirements, I could never get all the information down. I’m a confident public speaker and while I’ll never win a spelling test, I never thought I was stupid; school made me feel stupid because there was so much I could never wrap my head around, no matter how many study schedules I put in place. In college, after my dyslexia diagnosis, I could use a computer to write and got an extra 15 minutes per hour in exams. I knew I was capable, and I’ve just graduated with a 2:1 [level eight honours] degree.”
The biggest obstacle to McCann’s learning, he says, was the way information was presented to him. “When it was presented differently, everything changed: online learning meant I could pause, rewind and take notes. I sit down and read – particularly on the weekends – but I do it in my own time and space.”
McCann credits the PLC for much of his progress, growth and success.
“I was doing TV and radio interviews for the DYC before I started at Ballyfermot, and my parents say that, after the PLC, I sounded more confident, developed and mature. It was a unique opportunity to grow up and learn about what I wanted to do after school. I put a lot of effort in and went from scraping by to coming first or second in Ballyfermot. I’d left school lacking in my academic confidence but left the PLC with the confidence to go on.
“Ultimately, I realised that I didn’t want to study government and politics at all and so I changed my choice to digital humanities and IT at UCC. The PLC helped me to understand that this was a better fit for my learning style.”
A year in lockdown has given McCann a chance to reflect on what he has learned and what he wants to do next.
“I consider myself luckier than most. Lockdown wasn’t great and I wouldn’t like to repeat it, but the online learning did suit me and the way I learn. I lived in student accommodation with a group of friends and we spent most of our time together in the bubble. I missed out on opportunities – such as a chance to go to the US last summer working with a telecoms company – because of Covid, and I wasn’t able to travel or speak at in-person events. But I was able to work on my podcast, Off the Fence, which included an interview with the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. I wanted to try and reach a younger audience, who don’t necessarily read the newspapers.”
He has continued to help companies with their business development, marketing and, in particular, digital communications.
“I find myself at meetings where I’m half the age of senior management. People must think I am full of notions. I never claim to be an expert but I do use what I learned over the years. In the long term, the plan is media or perhaps, down the line, politics. The data shows that we will all work different jobs and industries throughout our careers.
“I often look back to when I finished school and decided to defer college for the PLC. When I weighed up my options and considered I had scraped through . . . I knew it was the right decision. And while I’ve made some decisions in my life, I stand by this: doing a PLC was the best decision I ever made. I use what I learned there every day. In Ballyfermot, I did media, radio work and public speaking and it’s helped me develop the skills I want to work in journalism.”
The PLC made such a big impact on McCann that it also influenced the choices of his younger sister. "After school, she did a level five sports injury course in Drogheda, then a pre-university physiotherapy course in Coláiste Íde before going on to a physiotherapy degree in Eindhoven. My parents feel that further education and training was a year well spent for me and two years well spent for my sister – who has gone into her course so much more prepared than she would be otherwise."