Matthew Lawlor came to Coláiste Naomh Eoin on Inis Meáin for transition year – and quickly decided to stay.
Lawlor (17) is now in sixth year in this small school on the middle Aran Island. “I’d such a good time here and there was so much more going on than at home in Boyle, Co Roscommon,” he said. “It was also a great way to improve my Irish.”
Five years ago, smaller, remote schools such as Coláiste Naomh Eoin – a Galway Roscommon ETB school – struggled to offer a wide range of subject options. But, four years ago, the school teamed up with H2 Learning to offer remote learning options for particular subjects, including physics.
“It’s part of an initiative run by the Department of Education, designed especially for online learning,” explains Mairéad Ní Fhátharta, who is school principal and grew up on the island herself.
“This class includes mentoring hours, supervision and support and IT grants. It means that we can offer physics to two of our students, Matthew and Caelán Cullen Quinn.”
Cullen Quinn (17), is from neighbouring island Inis Mór. “Physics is the only remote learning class I do, but it takes place in the classroom and it’s expanded my options in a way that might not have been possible before.”
Coláiste Naomh Eoin isn’t the only school taking advantage of technology to provide wider subject choice, however, with principals looking to technology to fill gaps in the face of a national teacher recruitment and retention crisis, particularly in language and science subjects.
A recent survey by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which sampled more than 100 second-level schools, found that four in five schools have had no application for an advertised post.
The idea is simple: if there aren’t enough students interested in a particular subject to justify hiring a teacher, different schools can share a teacher by providing that subject either online or through a blend of online and face-to-face learning.
Karen Ruddock, director of Post-Primary Languages Ireland (PPLI) is involved in a pilot with the Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board to provide a model of blending provision to students.
“There are about 140,000 Polish speakers in Ireland, of which maybe 35,000 were born in Ireland,” she says.
“In any given year, you might have five or six students from Polish backgrounds – which isn’t always enough to provide a teacher. So the blended model being used in this pilot provides one hour of online learning, one hour of a face-to-face class and one hour of independent learning.
“It has still required some planning on the part of the principals, as five participating schools have had to align their timetables to provide the Polish class.”
Kenia Puig, an education officer with PPLI, oversees the development of Polish and Portuguese in the curriculum, part of which involves blended provision of Polish and online provision of Portuguese.
“For us, this is about equity of provision, giving access to [a subject] to students who would not otherwise have it,” Dr Puig says. “Students still do the subject in school and we have an e-mentor who offers support.”
Ruddock, Puig and Ní Fhátharta say that, while this form of learning will never replace face-to-face learning, it can help fill gaps.
“Covid has led to one of the biggest social experiments in education we’ve ever seen,” says Ní Fhátharta, whose school, along with all others in the country, was closed for chunks of time during lockdown.
‘Crave social interaction’
“We saw that young people are very social and they crave social interaction, so the real classroom experience can’t be replaced by a screen. H2 Learning is doing a fantastic job and we’re so grateful for this experience – it has levelled the playing field for smaller schools – but school is about so much more than the academics.”
Yvonne O’Toole is principal of the Institute of Education in Dublin 2, a fee-paying school that has pioneered online learning options, including for students who may not otherwise be able to study a particular subject of interest to them.
“We have one student from Kerry who is studying applied maths with us. We support all the students with online learning and they have access to recordings for the year, as well as notes that we post out to them. The online classes are interactive and we have found that students enjoy them, and value the opportunity to revise, record, stop and rewind the classes.”
Michael Hallissy founded H2 Learning in 2002 and now works primary with schools in the ETB, further education and training sectors.
“During Covid we focused on how schools could pivot quickly to designing blended approaches,” Dr Hallissy says. “In a nutshell, we are helping schools and other organisations design and implement digital learning.”
While the pandemic saw teachers plunged into online teaching, H2 courses are planned and designed around digital technologies. “These projects are supplemental models and have existed in other countries for years. There are also models like iScoil (see below), where students who are out of school for a variety of reasons can continue their school using online and face-to-face. Today, the internet allows us to design more engaging experiences.
“This is an interesting time to reimagine education – what we teach, how we teach, and where and when to teach. Students don’t necessarily want all their learning online, but they want to have some elements online to reduce travel and provide them with greater flexibility – and greater say – in their learning.”
Case study: How online learning is opening up new possibilities Rachel is studying law at DCU, but she has taken a different path to college.
“I went through a very difficult time in second year,” she says. “This really affected my mental health. I tried to return to school so many times, but I just couldn’t.”
Rachel enrolled in iScoil, an online learning service for young people aged 13-16 who have disengaged from mainstream education.
"It offers an alternative route back to education for students who, for myriad reasons, can't attend mainstream education," says Brian Fitzsimons, chief executive of iScoil.
“All students are referred to iScoil by educational welfare officers from Tusla, after all other options have been exhausted. Some students have mental health challenges and some have additional learning needs, but they all demonstrate, when awarded a place, that they want to learn. Technology is the tool and the pedagogy is built around the needs of each individual student.”
A study by Eemer Eivers, senior research fellow in DCU, concluded that the iScoil intervention was successful in terms of student engagement and outcomes.
There are currently 163 students in iScoil, with 82 per cent achieving QQI and 75 per cent progressing to other educational provisions, but demand for iScoil far outstrips the organisation’s resources, with 165 Tusla referrals over the past two years declined due to funding issues.
Rachel attended iScoil entirely from home. “It was quite different from mainstream in that subjects included more practical learning. I logged in every morning and there was work assigned by mentors and tutors.
“After iScoil, I decided to sit my Leaving Cert through a grind school, and I worked with a private home tutor for eight hours a week to get the required four Junior Cert subjects – iScoil really helped me prepare for this as I was already used to self-motivated learning, a skill I have carried with me and is particularly important in college.”
Rachel is now working towards a career in corporate law, and credits iScoil with keeping her earlier education on track.