Fulbright Chair at National College of Ireland

NCI IrisMy Fulbright Distinguished Chair position is hosted by the National College of Ireland, a third-level institution in Dublin. The College is very different from my own University of Illinois in terms of size, history, student population, local community, and emphasis on postgraduate education. And yet, I sensed from the position description and confirmed through subsequent interactions that there was an excellent fit with my own interests, experiences, and values.

The College was established in Ranelagh by Jesuits. Initially known as the Catholic Workers College, it was designed to serve workers and to fulfill the social justice mission of the Jesuits. It was also a response to the threats of totalitarianism revealed by the leadup to and aftermath of the Second World War, seeing education as the means to preserve a democratic society.

In 2000, the name was changed to National College of Ireland, and in 2003 the College moved to the International Financial Services Centre in the Dublin Docklands area. Over its history the nature of work had changed from manufacturing to service, digital technologies had become ubiquitous, and Ireland had grown into a wealthy nation. But not everyone participated fully in the Celtic Tiger; in the Docklands itself, one sees high-rise buildings for multinational banks and insurance companies next to housing for families who see little chance for success in schooling or in the economy. In this context, the College has maintained its social justice commitment, but renewed that in the context of a changing economy and demographics.

It was clear from my initial meetings in the College that there was a strong desire among both the leadership and the staff to bring social action together with academic excellence. There was a commitment to foster social responsibility along with new economy skills. There was an openness to seeing social commitment as an integral part of the learning experience and of scholarship in the College. Because of this, I saw a real opportunity to connect my work on community inquiry. My work came to focus on widening participation, enriching the learning environment, and promoting an active research culture, which were also key aspects of the College strategic plan.

Public engagement and widening participation. Much of my time has been devoted to what might be described as exploratory activities with the President’s office around the widening participation goal. These include investigations into the desirability and feasibility of activities such as post Leaving Certificate programmes, a digital access centre, service learning, or support for schools in the area of technology. A side benefit for me has been that I’ve come to know a variety of organisations and individuals in Dublin, who are doing related work, including Liberties College; Institute of Art, Design, and Technology (IADT); Dublin Institute of Technology; St Patrick’s College; Suas Educational Development; National Centre for Technology in Education; Chester Beatty Library; Trinity College; Ballyfermot College of Further Education; NUI Maynooth; NUI Galway; Department of Education and Science; Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative; and Education Research Centre. I feel confident that some of these initiatives will result in viable, self-sustaining programmes for National College of Ireland.

These discussions relate to a significant change within the College, the creation of a third school, the School of Community. My interests and activities in community-based work have been only a small addition to that effort, but I like to think that they have helped support the process.

In connection with two funded proposals (see below), I have been fortunate to visit schools in the Liberties area and in the Docklands. Most of these are officially-labeled as DEIS (disadvantaged) schools. Working with Abigail Reynolds, I’ve now visited 14 primary and secondary schools, some several times, and plan to visit at least another 16. The visits include interviews with principals, learning support staff, and teachers, as well as observations of classes. The goals of this work include enhancement of learning opportunities for students and teachers, new forms of collaboration with the schools and local communities, publishable studies, and potential for further funding. The visits have already resulted in networking schools to address specific needs, for example, finding a school librarian to help with a school’s plan to establish a library, or connecting one principal with another in a similar setting, who is using technology in an innovative way.

Research. When I applied to the Fulbright program, I had proposed a seminar for faculty on Inquiry for Action and Understanding, along the lines of the Inquiries into Inquiry seminar, which Kim Graber and I had led at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 2006-07. The seminar idea evolved somewhat, and in the end contributed to the weekly Professional Development Series, which Paul Stynes had been coordinating.

Working with Nick Rees, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, I’ve helped to add to the Professional Development Series and presented in it regularly. Participants have come from both the School of Business and the School of Computing (formerly, School of Informatics), as well as from other units, such as Student Services and the Early Learning Initiative. Topics include discussions of specific research projects, practice conference presentations, proposal writing, research methods, development of writing skills, and discussions of concepts such as digital literacy.

I’ve also helped with writing proposals for research funding. These include successful proposals for research on Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools (DLIPS), for Technology in Docklands Education (TIDE), for a computer usability lab, and proposals pending or under development on a computer system for teaching Irish language and a dialogue system for online teaching.

Presentations and publications. During the year, I presented at seven conferences, including several keynotes at international events. My work at the National College of Ireland contributed to these presentations and I hope that I was able to return something to the College as well:

On March 5, National College of Ireland hosted an event to consider the relations between third-level education and the communities around them. I was asked to speak on ÒA Radical Vision for Third-Level Education Today: Re-Connecting with Community.Ó The lecture was followed by a panel discussion, guided by President Paul Mooney, then questions from the audience, and finally, conversation over wine in the PresidentÕs office.

I drew from two examples in the Chicago area, Hull House and Paseo Boricua, to examine how educational institutions can re-connect with community. There was a little about current work with the College and the local schools in the Docklands community around widening participation in higher education.

The real focus of the evening was on how these experiences might inform education and community work in Dublin today. An excellent panel took up that topic:

  • Ken Duggan, School Principal, Westland Row CBS
  • çine Hyland, former Professor of Education and Vice President (Academic), UCC
  • Seanie Lambe, Director, Inner City Renewal Group
  • Michele Ryan, Head, School of Community Studies, National College of Ireland

I also presented at St Patrick’s College, Trinity College, National Centre for Technology in Education, around 30 presentations in all.

I have several writing projects underway related to the Fulbright. Informal stories with photos are in my blog, chipbruce.wordpress.com. I am working on articles, or a possible book, based on the Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools project and the assessment of technology for learning in the Docklands schools projects. I’ve also met with various National College of Ireland faculty to advise them on their writing and in a couple of cases to plan collaborative articles.

Teaching, advising, and programme development. Although I have not had direct teaching responsibilities, I did offer orientation sessions (six in total) in September for all incoming National College of Ireland students in the School of Business and in the School of Computing on Becoming a Successful Learner. This was also my own orientation to the College. The students were forgiving of this foreigner, who couldn’t always understand their accents or cultural references, and many still say hello when passing in the coffee shop or attending College events.

I’ve also observed in classes, advised on teaching methods, and participated in School of Computing meetings related to teaching. An especialy rewarding activity has been to advise several postgraduate students and faculty who are working towards advanced degrees. This has been a time-intensive process of reading and commenting on dissertation drafts or helping to set up research designs. These interactions include advising about academic and career goals, writing letters of recommendation, and related tasks.

I’ve also been involved with a variety of administrative and planning initiatives related to teaching or to the overall mission of the College. One was preparation for a (successful) review by the Higher Education & Training Awards Council (HETAC) of a proposed PhD programme in Technology-Enhanced Learning. I’m also participating in self-assessment reviews for the Higher Education Authority. This includes one for the School of Computing and one for Community and Widening Participation. I worked with Anne Breakell, Vice President for Academic and Administration, and faculty of the School, around issues of semesterization and modularization. I was also involved with the strategic planning process and with the development of a new learning and teaching framework.

Collaborations. These activities have already involved a variety of Transatlantic collaborations. For example, the schools and technology work, as well as the public engagement projects, fit well with the Community Informatics Initiative at the University of Illinois, especially the Youth Community Informatics project. We have already been able to have productive two-way interchange of ideas and links to resources. Discussions are underway now, not only about publications (see above), but also about joint conference panels, and other collaborative research activities.

I also anticipate continuing collaborations with other organisations in Dublin. For example, in the course of the widening participation explorations described above we discovered FÍS (meaning “Vision”), a film project for primary schools, based at the National Film School at IADT. Its aim is to explore film/video as a medium of expression in the arts and to introduce children to aspects of the film-making process. They have a web-based resource in which students create and share online video book reviews. I can easily envisage FÍS resources being used in future College projects or teaching, in the Docklands schools, as well as in the US. For example, the book review site addresses a recognized need in our school media program at the University of Illinois.

Host institution. National College of Ireland has been a very supportive and friendly host. The facilities are modest, given that it is a small and growing college, but I have a fine office, good computer and library support, and all the basic needs for my work have been met well. Significantly, every person in the College has been gracious and helpful. Paul Stynes was my first contact in the College and provided helpful orientation even before I had left the US. Pramod Pathak, as Head of the School of Informatics, provided my initial academic home. Leo Casey, Director of the Centre for Research and Innovation in Learning and Teaching, has provided major support and guidance as well. I’ve worked closely with Paul Mooney, President of the College, as well as others mentioned above, and too many others to name here.

In addition to supporting my professional work, staff at the College have been very helpful in introducing me to Irish history, language, culture, and current events. I’ve especially appreciated the way the College links with the local Docklands community through events such as the production and premier of Round Here.

I also have to mention the extraordinary Fulbright Ireland office, which has made the year into an integrated program with a series of warm, enlightening, and thought-provoking events. They’ve offered ample opportunities to learn about Dublin and Ireland, to share experiences, and to address logistical issues. The year would still be worthwhile, but has become far more so because of them.

Transformative personal experience. My time at National College of Ireland has been a pleasure in terms of people I’ve met, projects, and events. I feel that I’ve been a part of the transformations within the College, so that my personal growth has paralleled that of the College and of the individuals within. I’ve made many discoveries, such as learning how students’ organizing and presenting of a fashion show is a prototypical example of inquiry-based learning. As you can see from my blog, https://chipbruce.wordpress.com/, there have been many significant connections, events, projects, and other interactions, centered on the College, but involving other organizations in Ireland as well.

Living and working in Ireland has also given me a deeper understanding of a set of issues related to difference–across religion, nationality, language, gender, and race. There are strong similarities with the US situation, due to a common history and language, but also many contrasts in the way that these issues play out in public discourse and everyday life. Each country offers lessons for the other, both positive and negative, in how to address these issues.

I see these issues most clearly in the schools, as teachers and children interact, and in the ways that people talk about schooling, which is still the primary public process shaping the future for young people, and hence, for all of us. Personally, the experiences this year have greatly enhanced my understanding, and will contribute significantly to my future teaching and research.

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