Supporting learners now and as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves
5 May 2020
On Wednesday, 29th April AONTAS Members and staff met for the fifth Update and Engagement Weekly Webinar.
The MED Group, established by the Department of Education and Skills in March in response to the current health emergency, is chaired by CEO Niamh O’Reilly with stakeholders from across the education sector.
After welcoming participants Niamh gave an update on the work being done to ensure that learners who were educationally disadvantaged before the pandemic struck are not now entirely educationally deprived. Importantly, Niamh also described how this difficult moment presented a range of challenges and opportunities for the sector. As concepts and models for what is being termed the ‘Tertiary Education System’ are taking shape at government level she noted the need for AONTAS members to mobilise and promote the incredible outcomes being achieved by adult and community education providers before and during the pandemic.
“I find it important to be able to meet like this for support and sharing of ideas. It’s even more important at this time of social isolation and working alone.”
– AONTAS Member
AONTAS is looking to its membership to rally and will lead out on promoting the sector as an invaluable asset to the country and local communities for achieving a successful personal, social, cultural and economic recovery post-coronavirus.
The second part of the webinar saw a discussion between Niamh and Caoimhe Kerins, CDETB Adult Education Officer. Together they raised a number of questions and topics for members to engage with in smaller virtual breakout rooms. Four groups of approximately 6-8 AONTAS members considered the issues raised. All points were recorded and the list below gives an insight into the highlights:
- The need to capture “What hasn’t been achieved?”, “What do facilitators need come September?” and “The engagement rates are way down especially among the disadvantaged” were all mentioned.
- There is also a sense that all of this extraordinary effort now will leave many facilitators and admin staff burnt out come September.
- The support and guidance we as a team are providing is so important at this time and as mentioned by members they really appreciate everything AONTAS is doing, so well done all.
- AONTAS should lead on promoting the ethics and rigour of data collection, ensuring it is fully representative.
- ETBs may be considered as the central points for data collection.
- We need to avoid collecting purely anecdotal evidence.
- There should be uniformity and consistency in the research conducted and data collected from the very start.
- Need to recognise the ‘silence’ created by the limitations placed on learners and tutors unable to contribute to data collection. Real and pressing issues likely to go unrecorded.
- There are lots of issues around the form of communications taking place between learners and tutors at present including likely violations of GDPR. How would we conduct e.g. a telephone survey without breaking those rules?
- Concerns expressed around this form of teaching becoming the new normalg. with 3 learners present in class and 3 online. Engagement is down and that can’t be ignored. While there’s lots of enthusiasm (from tutors) around succeeding with online classes, they shouldn’t be expected to transition seamlessly online or forget their already existing skills.
- In the long term we should consider the innovation required to support learners with mental disabilities who have been unable to fully understand this crisis or the effects it’s had.
- Learners can’t wait to get back to the physical community education space and face-to-face interaction. Though it is one viable approach to continuing learning for some, Zoom can in no way replicate or replace this.
- Challenges facing older learners in particular are substantial. A chasm has emerged. There is a good chance we will lose many of these learners as they are often the ones who struggle most with technology and who are most vulnerable in terms of health concerns.
- Learners with lower literacy levels and learners facing language barriers are finding it hard to participate. (NALA resources have been good here).
- Not business as normal for tutors. Many tutors are having to teach using phones to teach and do not have access to appropriate technology. The current situation is indeed one of “emergency” remote learning (group pleased to hear Niamh use this term) and should not be used as an example of how best to approach remote learning/ or an appropriate way to proceed in the future.
- There is a need to “track” participants and gain a clear sense of what has/is taking place and what cannot. Individuals in the group would be happy to share data on learner engagement/retention (continuation/adaptation of pre-existing supports?) etc. Would be happy to feed this in to Niamh to communicate in DES groups. Some voice a concern that there is no stratified approach to data collection and that it could be more streamlined and/or centralised. Many are already collecting data that could be shared (ie CDETB).
- Concern voiced that AONTAS and the Adult and Community Sector should not rush into decisions around conforming to a tertiary education system at the wrong time/while an emergency is still ongoing. Introduction of SICAP was used an example and described as essentially now not allowing for community development to occur anymore.
- Members asked AONTAS to develop and share a survey that they could use to evidence the situation in order to gather the data needed (on learner engagement levels and voice etc.) for the future in relation to funding cuts as funding is a major concern.
One prominent feature to take away from the webinar last week was that despite the best efforts of organisations, participation and engagement levels seem to be significantly lower than pre-crisis levels as disadvantage learners are less able to overcome new and exacerbated barriers to accessing their education opportunities. Issues and questions remain around how learners can be best supported now and as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves with restrictions altering future arrangements? Clearly there is still a lot to learn from one another and to discuss together in the coming weeks and months. A key feature of the weekly webinars are constructive dialogue and critical reflection, ensuring the sector remains robust and resilient during these difficult times and for the road ahead.
To play its much-needed role in supporting adult and community education in the sector’s current struggle and for its future recovery AONTAS needs its members to come together in solidarity. To be part of the collective effort to identify and respond to this unprecedented situation Click Here and register for the next AONTAS Membership Update and Engagement Weekly Webinar. These webinars are open to members only and it is essential to register in order to participate. Further information on AONTAS membership is available here.
Go to AONTAS Blogs for more context and blogs about the current situation as it has been unfolding.
To be part of the sector’s effort to identify and respond to this unprecedented situation Click Here and register for the next AONTAS Membership Update and Engagement - Weekly Webinar. These webinars are open to members only and it is essential to register in order to participate.
Further information on AONTAS membership is available here.
AONTAS is holding bi-weekly virtual National FET Learner Forums. If you or a learner you know is interested, register here.