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Live and learn

HEART OF THE MATTER
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Live and learn

EDUCATION ON-LINE

Anton McNulty


AN OECD report has predicted that Irish class sizes will rocket by 19 per cent over the next ten years. With a student number increase in the region of 140,000 anticipated, unions have predicted that up to 10,000 extra teachers and staff will be needed to cater for the burgeoning schools’ population.
With primary school class sizes in Ireland already among the highest in Europe, this increase will create a huge demand for extra primary school teachers. Media reports over the past number of years have consistently highlighted the clear shortfall in qualified teachers and thus the high number of ‘untrained’ teachers that are being employed to educate Ireland’s children at primary school level.
This problem has led to considerable controversy, and raised its head in recent times in the Manulla NS dispute, which led to 40 children being withdrawn from the school at the start of the new school year earlier this month.
While the ‘untrained’ teachers in our primary schools may not hold diplomas in education, a significant number are actually graduates and desire to become qualified primary school teachers. Few, however, have the time to go to college full-time to complete the 18-month programme for graduates in the teacher training colleges. In order to facilitate these graduates who have a wish to become full-time teachers, ‘flexible’ courses are now available, as an alternative to the conventional college programmes.
One institution which is becoming highly popular with graduates is Hibernia College, a private institution which offers an 18-month teacher training course - on-line. Since 2003, the course has been given the Government’s seal of approval and has been accredited by both the Department of Education and by HETAC, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council.
Hibernia College was launched in 2000 by academic Dr Dean Rowland. A native of Turlough, Castlebar, he trained as a primary school teacher at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. After working for five years as a teacher, he went to University in America, earning a masters and a doctorate at Boston College and a further masters at Harvard University. While working in the US, he observed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology how the internet was being used to educate students.
Believing that such an initiative could be successful in Ireland, he and his colleague Sara McDonnell decided to leave the US and open Hibernia College in Dublin. Launched as Ireland’s first on-line college, it currently has 3,000 students from Ireland and abroad registered on full-time and part-time courses.
While the institute offers a range of courses - from public administration to preparatory law courses for Blackhall Place - the teacher training course is by far the most popular. It claims the standard of training is as high as in conventional colleges and includes a six-week training programme in the Gaeltacht.
Dr Rowland told The Mayo News that Hibernia is offering an opportunity for the high numbers of ‘untrained’ teachers to become full-time teachers, an opportunity they may not have been able to avail of previously.
“For several years, thousands of unqualified teachers have been teaching in primary schools on a part-time basis. Since our arrival that number has diminished and we are beginning to address the issue of the shortage of teachers,” explained Dr Rowland. “We provide adults with a second chance to re-educate themselves or upgrade their skills who maybe cannot go to university. They can study after work or at times suitable to their family circumstances,” he explained.
Since the teacher training course was accredited by the Department of Education, it has come under attack from the primary teachers’ union, the INTO, and established training colleges, who claim that any attempt to replace established courses of teacher education is ‘foolhardy’ and ‘damaging professionalism’.
However, for students who have completed the course it became a stepping stone to full-time employment. Martina Flannery from the Mayo side of Clonbur was one of the first students to graduate with a Higher Diploma in Education from Hibernia College. Although she qualified as a secondary school teacher in 1994, she spent the following ten years working as a primary school teacher. Not until she qualified from Hibernia College was she able to gain full-time employment in primary education, but now she has a full-time position in Ballinrobe.
“I was one of the guinea pigs and I saw the advertisement in one of the national newspapers. Most of the work I did since 1994 was at primary level in a substitute capacity. There was any amount of work at primary level but I could not take up any long-term position.
“It [the course] was quite tough because I have two small kids and I did not turn on the computer until ten any night. As regards studying on-line I became a night owl due to my own circumstances. That’s the thing about Hibernia, it allows for flexibility, facilitates people with different personal circumstances. There was a lot of criticism about the course initially but I have to be honest, I have a BComm and a HDip and numerous industrial qualifications and the Hibernia course was the toughest I have done yet,” she said.
While on-line institutions like Hibernia College are currently helping to solve the shortage of primary school teachers, they may also have a future role to play in tackling the lack of science-based and other graduates which the Government deems necessary to fuel our knowledge economy.
Learning now truly can be a lifelong experience.