Blended, synchronous and asynchronous learning through volunteerism in a post-pandemic Ireland.

According to my late grandfather, who was studying in St. Patrick’s College in 1926, the faculty was deeply concerned that newest phenomenon – national radio broadcasting. This new way of communicating to all corners of Ireland would dispense with the need for classroom-based teachers. Instead, it was imagined, a technician would wheel a radio in to the classroom each morning and ‘some fella above in Dublin’ would read aloud the daily lessons. At the end of the school day the technician would return and wheel the radio back to a place of safekeeping under lock and key.

We arrive at a similar introspective moment in Irish education where we are re-evaluating the value of synchronous and asynchronous teaching methodologies. Synchronous education is learning that happens in real time where the learner and educator are present, typically done in a traditional classroom where discussions can take place and feedback in immediate, or it can take place via conferencing software or other methods of live communication. Asynchronous education is when learners can access content at a time and location that is convenient and it typically consists of prepared resources such as pre-recorded video clips. When we combine synchronous and asynchronous teaching methodologies, we get blended learning.

While all of this seems like scary ultra-modern pedagogy, I am reminded of asynchronicity my own school days in the mid 1990’s, we listened to cassette tapes in language classes, and we were giddy with excitement when the big telly was wheeled into our classroom. Not by some technician I might add, but usually by a weary teacher that had other things to be doing for 40mins. I am also reminded of how the Ancient Greeks heralded the end of the oral education tradition because of the proliferation of written language and readily available clay tablets. In the 15th Century the Gutenberg printing press and the mass production of educational text books raised similar concerns.

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is that teachers engaged in emergency online education. This took many and varied forms, as individual educators grappled with the technology and with computer programmes that shone a light on their computer literacy. While it was quite difficult for teachers who had little or no experience in the online space, the vast majority of educators excelled. Having worked in partnership with countless teachers in the last dozen or so years through our various Localise Youth Volunteering programmes, this is not in the least bit surprising. In fact, I think this exemplifies the resilience and adaptability of the education workforce in Ireland, a workforce I hold in the highest regard.

Emergency online education highlighted and exacerbated the digital inequality between those who can afford the technology, coupled with access high quality broadband, and those who can’t. It also brought into sharp focus the reality about unstable homes and how they equate to unstable learning environments. Consequently, emergency online education benefited one cohort of learner, to the detriment of others.

We’ve seen emergency online education before. In South Africa between 2015 and 2017 students protested educational equity, as there appeared to be widespread exclusion from the education system based on financial and cultural grounds. In this highly politically charged environment, some Universities decided to use blended, synchronous and asynchronous learning to enable the academic year to be completed [i]. When viewed through the lens of history the consequences are very familiar to us now. The measures put into place overcame many practical hurdles while highlighting important socio-economic factors that hinder educational attainment. It also found that educators were exhausted and stress levels were high because this way of working was not planned for. Most significantly however, what was once viewed as an inferior pedagogical approach had gained an acceptance, and many educators, when properly resourced, supplemented their educational practice with blended learning.

It is this point that fills me with excitement, while blended learning has been viewed as a temporary solution, it has begun a rethinking of the educational process, we can see now that there is real value in using technologies in bringing about learning. Tantalisingly, it also allows us to rethink assessment and put to bed for once and for all the idea that extended written work in exam-hall conditions is the most reliable assessment methodology.

At Localise Youth Volunteering we are firmly of the view that volunteering – doing something for others in response to a need while expecting nothing in return – is a valuable learning experience. The skills and attributes gained throughout this process are recordable and measurable, using the educational software available to us, and, these skills and attributes should be considered when accessing higher, continuing and further education. Such an initiative would free the curriculum from the backwash effect of the Leaving Cert points system and give learners and educational institutes a much broader view of each candidate for each course.

If the aspiration for Irish education is the Aristotelian idea of Eudaimonia – the bringing about of human flourishing through education – it is time to embrace the technology available to us to this end.

It is time to wheel in the radio. 

By Harry Keogh, Education Coordinator with Localise Youth Volunteering