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As part of the Learnovate Centre’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Ciara Ní Fhloinn Flexible Learning Manager at SOLAS, a government agency tasked with funding, planning, and coordinating all adult further education and training programmes across Ireland, including apprenticeships, traineeships, upskilling and eCollege. 

SOLAS was established in 2013 under the Further Education and Training Act. It is operated by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and coordinates with 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) across Ireland to ensure they are adequately funded and staffed to meet the needs of their learners. The training body has a workforce of around 220 staff is headquartered in Dublin city. 

Ciara has been working at Solas for more than four years, two of those as Flexible Learning Manager. She has an undergraduate degree in Economics, Politics, Law and Governance from University College Dublin, and a Master’s in Public Policy, with a specific interest in citizenship and labour market policy. She also spent a year in Istanbul studying Human Rights Law and History of the Middle East at Bogazici University. 

Central to her role is the provision of more online, digital, and tech-based flexible options for learning and training. Ciara also manages the national online learning service eCollege, which is run directly by SOLAS, and the Technology Enhanced Learning function in which SOLAS supports the sector to improve training and technology to aid flexibility in learning. 

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

The only given is change – that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt. You can deal with change how you want but your career will advance a bit better if you act positively. 

I graduated into a recession, so flexibility and adapting to change was key, as well as access to education and training. I’ve ended up living in many different countries and doing many different things. The ability to roll with change has stood me well. 

What was the best advice you ever received?

A colleague advised me early in my career to look at less glamorous roles in areas that people aren’t attracted to. At the time, that was online learning, which was a peripheral part of the industry. That’s shifted hugely in the last couple of years. Now it’s where everyone wants to work because people now understand what it is and its potential benefits. 

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

I started my career in project and service delivery management in the private sector, which meant I was working to a lot of parameters like resources or profit. Switching to public sector, you’re engaging with more stakeholders, so you don’t have that same kind of quick, linear progression. You need to stop, listen, and work with other people more. A consensus is needed to make change so it’s much more collaborative.  

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

Teams are a delicate ecosystem. You have to get the right mix but the more diverse your team, the more chance you have of being successful. You need a bit of tension in teams. That can come from having people with different outlooks, skills, and backgrounds, and often leads to the best results. If you appreciate and celebrate the differences between people, individuals can perform really well. 

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

I like visual ideation tools like Mural. These collaborative workspaces allow my team to plot out their thinking visually. I find that very helpful. Our team often works at the intersection of detailed IT work, regulation, and ethics. Having something that everyone on the team can see and understand is important. 

In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish companies?

Further education and training is a growth industry as it covers one of the most important aspects of the future of work – adults upskilling throughout their life. More companies are coming into the market and there are opportunities for innovative products and services to help adults fit learning in around their lives and commitments. As the economy changes and grows, upskilling will become more important, a fact that’s backed up by the information we already have on digitisation and the pace of change. 

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

The world is complex and there are many options to choose from. R&D is key to making sure that whatever technological product or service you’re implementing is actually helping people learn. That’s not a straightforward thing to assess. It’s important to make sure that the resources we spend on these supports are realising the potential benefits. R&D has an invaluable position in helping us decide what’s effective, what’s value for money and what will benefit the economy and society overall.  

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning? 

People are time poor so they’re looking for shorter learning opportunities. People also have higher expectations of online learning since the pandemic. Many expect some online, remote, or digital option, while others expect a personalised experience across the board. The demand for shorter learning opportunities creates tension. Anyone who has had a learning experience knows deep learning is hard, it takes time and involves periods of reflection. Whether shortened learning is effective or not depends on the type of thing you’re hoping to acquire. If people already have a set of skills, they can potentially take on shorter bursts of information, but we can’t have short, sharp learning activities all the time. It’s not how people learn. There is more demand for it – but is that necessarily what people need? 

How should we prepare for the future of work? (You can choose the perspective of companies, government, schools, universities or individuals.)

Our Skills and Labour Market Research Unit compiled a report in 2018 on the digitisation of the workforce and found that one in three jobs is potentially at risk – not necessarily of job losses but of change. That’s a high proportion. There’s a huge range of industries that are potentially going to be displaced by digital technologies, not just in manual operations but also in sales and customer services. Unfortunately, research shows that automation and displacement disproportionately affects people with lower education levels, which is why equitable access to skills and training is so important. 

Digital changes that happened over Covid are going to accelerate and hugely impactful technologies like AI are coming down the tracks as well. It’s not just technical skills that are important, it’s people’s ability to retain soft skills and bring a human element to technologies. It’s a really interesting cultural shift. 

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

Mindstorms by Seymour Papert.

The book was published in 1980. Papert was writing about technology and how children learn, the basic idea of which is that they learn better when they’re in charge and actively engaged in exercises that allow them to construct knowledge. He was saying: if you’re playful and you’re trying to solve problems, you’re going to learn. Understanding and playing are the same thing. 

A lot of these concepts are modern. Papert was a bit ahead of his time by placing creativity and self-actualisation at the centre of learning. From the perspective of public education, the point is not to teach obedience but to show people how to be creative and flourish in society. 

More recently there’s a book called Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism by Mariana Mazzucato. She has a really interesting perspective on the role of governments in innovation. She looks at challenging commonly held beliefs around the role of the State and serves as a nice counterpoint to some theories that the State should be smaller and only look to rectify markets.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

As a public sector organisation, it’s not easy to know what’s going on in the market. Being part of the network is important to us. When we’re making decisions around technologies, it’s also important that we’ve access to high quality research on pedagogy, that we’re linking back to good research and that it has a strong evidence base for effectiveness. We can get those things from Learnovate. 

What does Learnovate do well?

Learnovate is great at mixing organisations around different themes. That’s interesting for us because we see different perspectives on different topics. For someone like me who’s in a State agency, it’s important that I understand the perspective of someone who’s out there trying to commercialise a product. 

What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?

The impact of Covid-19 on our learners has been profound, especially for those in work-based learning like apprenticeships or traineeships. And for people who were on other types of programmes, the digital divide was very real. Not everyone has access to devices or broadband which is partly the reason why certain learners disengaged during the pandemic, the other reasons being a lack of space or their own personal circumstances. We’re trying to reduce those barriers and improve equity of access. 

A lot of our learners are in jobs and had periods of unemployment during Covid. We can’t ignore the external factors that made learning much more difficult and I’m very interested to see what lasting effect it will have on the choices school leavers make – whether they go into universities or earn-as-you-learn type roles. 

For SOLAS, remote working was not the norm before the pandemic. We’re on a hybrid working pattern which is working well, it has even brought us closer to our stakeholders. We have 16 ETBs around Ireland and online meetings are here to stay now that we’ve realised that we don’t have a drive for two hours to have a good session. 

What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?

We all believe that we can work very effectively online. It hasn’t replaced contact and ideally some sort of a hybrid solution is probably best. It’s possible to maintain connectedness and deliver on all our commitments using technology. That was very much unproven for most of the world before Covid. It’s proven now. 

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