The Community Education Practitioner Report is available here.
Eighteen community education practitioners from seven different counties took part in two virtual practitioner focus groups held on the 14th October 2020. The discussions were held as part of a larger piece of research on Community Education in a Time of COVID-19, which will include the pilot of the first ever Community Education Census (Please note the CEN Census survey deadline has been extended to 5pm on Monday, 30th November). During two 40-minute focus group discussions, participants were asked to reflect on some of the challenges faced in the transition to remote learning and some of the positive learning that has come out of this period. Discussions also focused on priorities for the coming months and what is needed to ensure community education is able to deliver quality learning to a diverse group of learners in the context of the pandemic.
Focus groups highlighted ongoing issues related to areas such as connectivity. In some instances, great efforts had been made to connect learners with the devices needed to continue learning, but in many cases the need for devices exceeded the group’s ability to provide access to the hardware necessary to keep learners engaged. Practitioners also noted a decrease in participation as a result of the pandemic, with lower participation particularly for learners at lower levels (National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) 1-3), where online learning was more of a challenge. Moreover, it was highlighted that while the sourcing of devices for learners was key, larger structural inequalities prevailed and had been deepened by the crisis. As one practitioner noted, “you can give technology in the form of a laptop, but that is not access”.
Home was not seen to be an environment conducive to learning for all learners, with one participant explaining, “family environment didn’t always lend itself to a safe space to learn.” Practitioners noted particular challenges around childcare, highlighting that “working from home means we are now childminding from work.” This was a challenge for both tutors and learners, who faced increased childcare responsibilities and differing work schedules as a result of lockdown restrictions.
Participants welcomed the new COVID-19 regulations, which allowed for some modified opening of community education centres, but again, acknowledged challenges to the provision of a holistic community education experience. Staying engaged with learners was also described as highly resource intensive. As one practitioner noted, “we have 300 people we would need to call in a week to reach everyone. We have to think, ‘Can we afford to make those phone calls?’”
Meanwhile, community education providers noted that they were having a hard time keeping up with the demand for access to courses. As one participant stated, “now we’ve a massive waiting list.” For many this came down to space and the ability to support learners given the additional resources required in times of COVID-19. Community education centres became sites of critical supports during lockdown, being asked to support the delivery of practical supports such as food delivery and health promotion. As one participant explained: “Our domestic violence support group is so busy. Guards are in and out several times a day. Delivering required support is a huge shift for the organisation.” All of these challenges inevitably resulted in inevitable strain on practitioners, who noted that the workload of tutors was not sustainable and that more consideration needed to be given in regards to how to support tutors, who are facing burnout, in this period.
Concerns around funding also emerged as a prevalent issue; participants in the session had varying funding models with different concerns emerging in connection with various structures. For groups who were fully funded by a government body, a number of the charity emergency grants were off limits, meaning they did not have access to grants necessary to deal with immediate concerns like IT needs or PPE requirements. Other groups described facing targets that were simply unattainable in times of COVID-19.
Participants in the focus groups highlighted a number of requirements to support learning in the immediate term, particularly the need for further flexible investment that allows them to address immediate financial challenges (eg the need for digital devices, the loss of revenue from room rentals, etc). They will also need supports to allocate time to staff and tutor wellbeing, to avoid real threat of tutor and staff burnout during this period. Additional resourcing will also be required to help deliver the wrap-around support services that are now more necessary than ever.
These findings will be combined with the findings from the CEN Census, the Virtual Community Education Learner Focus Group and Learner Survey, and the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Community Education Report to inform our study of Community Education in a Time of COVID-19, to be published in January 2020. To participate in this research or to find out more information, please contact Eve Cobain, AONTAS Research Officer, at email@example.com.