“There is a huge history of adult education in Cork, and people have a great interest in education, and it does all kinds of good for the city and for the community; and it has flourished now in this learning festival.
Even on the phone, Dr Barry O’Connor’s enthusiasm for education is contagious as he highlights the connectedness that he says makes Cork such a great city to learn.
President Emeritus of the former Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and President of the Cork Access Network (CAN), he is a long-time champion of this week’s Cork Lifelong Learning Festival.
Dr O’Connor says this year’s festival will be all the more welcome, given the two-year hiatus since the last one.
“When Covid came around people couldn’t come together, and what I find with learning is that it brings people together, and people learn from each other, which wasn’t happening during Covid , so I think we have a great chance to kick things off again.
“Learning is not just about getting qualifications, it’s great if qualifications come from that, but it’s more about opening people’s minds, listening to each other, talking to each other and learning also from outsiders. he says.
“It’s a great opportunity, the festival, and it’s about learning, maybe developing new interests or new skills, but one of the key principles of the festival is that learning should be fun. , that people must really appreciate it, because it gets people going then too.
He says CAN, which has been operating since December 2020, grew out of the Cork Learning City forum which included the former CIT, now Munster University of Technology (MTU), UCC (University College Cork), Cork Education Training Board (ETB), and most importantly, he thinks, this included Cork City Council.
“For me to have the city council involved in education and to have the different sections involved in developing identity and a sense of belonging, that takes education outside of the classroom, or the hall of class, or of the institute, or of the university, and that puts in the community.
“You don’t get that in too many places, and for me, it’s the glue that holds it all together.”
He describes Cork as lucky in size, with MTU and UCC being so close and working together with joint degrees, which he says are not replicated anywhere else in the country.
“You have all sorts of ongoing relationships and, as I said, what’s huge for me is that Cork City Council is so heavily involved in education because they realize that it’s so important to the rest of the city,” he said. said.
“I’ve always believed that the student experience is extremely important, but again, going back to the idea of glue, people can learn math, they can learn poetry, they can learn drama, On their own, they can certainly read books, and learn to do math, but you can’t learn how to manage people, work in a team, and deal with people on your own on a day-to-day basis.
I mention something a Cork Life Center alumnus, William Cooper, once told me about his experience of leaving school at an early age and going to the Northside Center where, with private lessons, he discovered a completely new way of looking at education.
“The exams are great, and it’s good to have them, but it’s who you are and what you do that’s important,” William said.
“I had my Junior and my Leaving, but it was everything that happened in between that was important.”
Dr O’Connor says he wholeheartedly agrees, adding that Covid-19 has brought a lot of new perspectives to education.
“I really think that before the pandemic people thought it was just fluff, but when all that was gone and people were just sitting at home in their kitchen or bedroom staring at a screen and picking up stuff, and the lecturers and the teachers have done mighty work to make it happen, but it’s like your friend from the Life Center said, it’s everything in between that’s actually what is realised.
He says the festival has opened up opportunities for blended learning, and he goes back to the Life Center example.
“To return to work which [Life Centre director] Don O’Leary has done there, we say to people, ‘We want to give you access to education, but by the way, it’s available September to June, Monday to Friday, eight-thirty to half past four, and if you can’t take that bus, you’re leaving.
“It doesn’t suit a lot of people, and I think we need to be a lot more flexible, and I think that’s what the Lifelong Learning Festival is, it’s a chance that the festival gives people to put one foot on the education ladder,” he says.
“The French word for education is ‘formation’ and it’s about training people and forming characters, whether or not you can master the long division is by the way: if you can learn to discover things, and the good things for you in your life and in your work is what is essential, keep an open mind.
He says the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival is something very special, something unique to Cork.
“It’s unique, you don’t get it anywhere else, and there’s a great spirit behind the festival, it’s all voluntary, and people are so happy to be involved in it, and for me, that’s is just a great example.
“If education takes you down the narrow path to formal qualification all the way, fantastic, but if it actually keeps people alert and interested in what’s going on around them, and develops their own skills and interests at within the community, and for the community, of course you couldn’t buy that.
He says CAN has a hashtag, “Leaving No-One Behind”, but lately they’ve added a runner to that saying “Is Féidir Leat”.
“There is an element that you can put on all the courses you like, and you can make them very attractive, but you also have to have the learner be interested.
“It’s a partnership,” he says. “There has to be something that sparks interest, the learner has to be interested as well, and we try to facilitate that, and that’s where the fun part of learning has to come in.”
The Cork Lifelong Learning Festival runs from Monday 4th April to Sunday 10th April.
Details about corklearningfestival.ie