THE pandemic has forever changed the way we think about education and a blended approach to learning should be embraced for the benefit of everyone, says Cróna Gallagher.
Ms Gallagher is Director of Further Education and Training (FET) with Donegal Education and Training Board.
With many people in ‘back to school’ mode and school leavers thinking about progression and adults looking about a new skill or change of career the FET Service reaches into every nook and cranny in the county.
Over the coming weeks, thousands of adults and young people will avail of over 150 FET courses. This new blended approach to education has the potential to bring about great social change.
“It’s been a game changer,” Ms Gallagher admitted.
“The sheer size of Donegal has always been an issue when it came to providing Further Education and Training (FET) courses. In the past you might have had three or four people in Inishowen interested in doing a particular course and two or three others in south Donegal keen on the same course. The problem then was where to host the course. If you chose Letterkenny it meant that everyone had to travel,” she said.
While some people are now a bit tired of online calls, the pandemic has shown that what we once viewed as impossible is, in fact, possible.
“Blended learning provides an opportunity for everybody. Time is money and, for example, now all courses that we conduct for industry are online. It’s a huge game changer. People are able to do the theory element online and then they do the practical work in the centre,” Ms Gallagher said.
Up to 11,000 adults and young people avail of FET courses run by Donegal ETB each year. They have seventeen FET centres and operate out of 100 plus more community venues dotted around the county and its islands.
“With so many people having lost their jobs and the national conversation trying to move away from the obsession with third level, FET provides a great alternative for school leavers,” she added.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, many people were dubious about the prospect of moving the world online. However, before too long teaching staff were having to decide which course elements to teach face-to-face and which to address through online technology.
“Staff have been superb and I’ve been astonished at how well they have adapted to this new blended learning which, I believe, is now here to stay,” she said.
A former Adult Education Officer with Co Donegal VEC, Ms Gallagher has been Director of Further Education and Training for the past five years.
“There have been many changes in that time – especially the last eighteen months – but some of them have really presented opportunities. Teaching online has been the biggest one,” she said.
If you are unemployed or redundant or if you wish to update your skills or change your career, there is a wide range of training courses available to assist you.
Over the next two weeks Donegal ETB’s FET Service are hosting information sessions over on their YouTube account at 8pm each night.
This year’s Further Education and Training programme will open in two phases. Youthreach Centres will open for some practical courses in the coming days with apprentices also coming on site with other groups starting at the end of September.
“Everybody has been catapulted into a different landscape in terms of online learning. It has cut out child-care costs and travel expenses for so many as they’re now able to learn from home.
“Okay, it’s different for practical courses and apprenticeships – who were among the first we brought back into the classroom – but they’re together in much smaller groups. It goes without saying that face to face learning will always be important but blended learning gives us so many additional options,” she said.
A Donegal Weaving course – which starts in Kilcar at the end of the month and is the first of its kind in the country – is one of the new courses on offer this year.
Before the pandemic, staff travelled to the Outer Hebrides, to where Harris Tweed is made, to research possible training courses in weaving.
“Based on their findings, we worked closely with the likes of Magees, McNutts, Kennedys of Ardara and other weavers to develop a bespoke weaving course which we’re very excited about,” she said.
The ETB has also joined forces with KN Group to develop communication systems installation and network planner courses, while they’re also working closely with the engineering sector in Killybegs provide upskilling opportunities in welding.
Childcare, healthcare, computing, software development and social media are just a few of the other courses on offer.
“A lot of businesses didn’t have their products online before Covid and they needed to adapt quickly or they would no longer be in a position to trade. We ran a number of social media courses to help them trade online,” Ms Gallagher said.
“We’re very adaptable. We can develop courses and turn things around quickly and employers appreciate the fact that we’re so responsive in trying to help them.
“There’s a strong team ethos in Donegal and we’re here to serve the needs of the county,” she added.
Minister Simon Harris is expected to announce details of a new literacy, numeracy and digital skills strategy in the coming weeks.
“An awful lot of people still don’t have basic digital skills. More and more public services are going online and there will be a big emphasis on improving those skills over the next few years. It will form a central part of what we’ll be doing too,” she said.
“There’s admin and business and finance courses, five different apprenticeships, arts, crafts and hair and beauty courses. We also offer horticulture courses, while we’ve a new animal care course starting in Errigal College.
“There are also a lot of community based courses – like learning to use a computer – while others might want to improve their maths or their writing – in English and Irish,” she said.
“We had to reduce the number of night classes last year but they’ll all be starting up again over the coming weeks and months. There’s something in FET for everyone – from 16 to 96 years,” she added.