Student Stories

Student Story: Suzanne Yarker

14 October

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Student Story: Suzanne Yarker

Can you introduce yourself and your role?

I’m a further education teacher – and I teach communications, research and study skills, English as a second language and word processing. I’ve been teaching for 20 years and I’m really interested in TEL (technology enhanced learning). I was interested in TEL prior to Covid and the lockdowns – and I’m even more interested in it now. I’m also a TELMS Mentor (Technology Enhanced Learning Mentoring Support) for City of Dublin Education and Training Board. In addition, I have an Assistant Principal post for marketing at Pearse College of Further Education. 

Can you tell us about your organisation?

The City of Dublin ETB includes youth reaches, community education, adult education, post-primary schools and further education colleges. I work in one of the further education colleges in the south side of the city, in Crumlin. We offer levels four, five and six courses in everything including horticulture, architecture, archeology, and university access in the fields of science, engineering and the arts. 

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Can you tell us about some of your TEL projects that you’ve previously worked on?

From 2017, I was part of an Erasmus Plus project where we mentored teachers on how to incorporate and introduce TEL into their classrooms. Usually when we complete CPD (continuing professional development) you have to give your evenings away and you think it’s amazing, but then you try to use what you’ve learned and you’ve already forgotten. But you can’t ring the instructor up because they’re long gone and then you end up not using what you had learned. So the amazing technology that you thought was going to revolutionise your classroom is gone. 

But with TELMS, you have a mentor, whom you meet with to set goals. These could be introducing technology, increasing active learning or learning about different ways to give the students a voice. You then come up with a plan with your mentor and complete three training sessions and three classroom sessions. In the first classroom session, the mentor teaches your class, which is great because you can see how they’re using the tool. Next, you ‘team teach’, which involves using the tool together. Then in the final classroom session, the mentee teaches the class, but the mentor is there to help you should something go wrong. 

Since you have all these training sessions and in-class sessions, you’re more likely to use the technology when you finish the mentoring program – which is great. We’re hoping to have a TELMS Mentor in every City of Dublin ETB Centre. Currently, I’m working with adult education. But we’ve also worked with youth reach and prison services as well.

It was great that we already had TEL mentors in a lot of the centres because they were able to then take on courses and train teachers who aren’t used to using TEL at all. Some were only checking emails and using PowerPoint – nothing else. So it was brilliant that we were able to get them on board really quickly using TEL tools, as well as things like Zoom – which they never would have used before. 

What were some of the challenges as you started to transition online during Covid?

I think learner engagement and learner learner buy-in was a big issue. It was also hard for the teachers, particularly when you’ve never used technology and did not have anyone there to train you. So these were challenges that we all had – even myself. Interaction and interactivity were challenges as well. Also Wi-Fi going down, microphones not working, and being on mute were all challenges. But the students that were purely in lockdown and were always online for that year, they did incredibly well. Some hardly had any technical ability, but they learned pretty quickly. So we did things like instructional videos and worksheets – step by step approaches. This way, we were appealing to both visual learners and auditory learners.

When your organisation offered the DLI course to employees, what were your drivers to join?

I have a background in communications and journalism, which is what I did my degree and masters in. So I worked for a while in the design office at a women’s magazine. I wouldn’t have had any skills or learned anything in terms of design. But I’m really interested in design and how things look. I’m also really interested in creating resources for the learners – be it paper-based or digital. I just wasn’t sure whether I was doing it right and whether I was doing it 100% to my best ability. I wondered if they looked visually enticing. 

So I heard about the course and was aware that a lot of the Moodle administrators were going to be put forward for it. And my Moodle administrator actually said to me that she thought I’d be interested in this because I’m doing the marketing for Pearse College, which includes designing the website and leaflets. I think she also knew that we would be able to talk about it together and help each other out. So I asked if I could sign up – and because I’m a TELMS Mentor, they said yes. 

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I’m so glad I did it. From day one, I think it started making a difference. It started making a difference to my PowerPoints, and made them a lot more engaging and interesting. I could even see that the students were starting to pay more notice and comment on the designs. And it was directly because of the course. I also started becoming a lot more confident in my approaches to design. Prior to the course, I designed posters for social media, like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter – but they didn’t look that great. But then from the course, I really started working on how to get more confident, and began designing videos for social media, which I wouldn’t have done before. We’ve increased our following, which may be a direct result of the course. I’m planning on putting a survey out to

all incoming students about our social media posts to learn what they like, whether that be videos or generic posts. 

I also think that in terms of educational content, we sometimes put too much text on the page. And if the content is too much, it overwhelms the learner, and could be cognitive overload.

So that’s another thing I really picked up from the course: the importance of micro learning. Delivering short bursts of information is certainly an approach I’m going to take up this year. 

In what areas did this course support the advancement of your career and daily work?

I think it’s improved what I already do. Even though it’s a lot of work to begin with, it’s made things easier. Although it might take me a few hours to do a video, once it is done, it’s there. Currently, I’m creating a heavy blended learning program for communications with the TEL team. So myself and another instructor are working on this and it’s something that I’d like to map out into the future. 

I’m not a teacher that believes that I have to be there giving face to face instruction, and that they’ll learn from just my voice. I feel that they could learn at home from my voice being recorded. It could be set up the way that we were taught in the course. And I think that would be very beneficial for students that can’t come into college because they’re working, or they’re carers, or they’re single parents. And this way, they can still do the communications element, which is mandatory for a lot of QQI courses. They can do it themselves online by having a somewhat of a flipped classroom approach, which is what we did in the DLI course. This involves going online or meeting face-to-face every two weeks like a flipped classroom. You then have the opportunity to ask questions, which I think would be beneficial for our learners – especially for our Skills to Advance program that offers modules to people already working. These learners tend to be in the healthcare sector and logistics. They are all online, but it’s a traditional online class at the moment, which involves them logging in and having instruction delivered by a teacher through PowerPoint. 

However, I would like to introduce more of a heavy blend for them, so they could log on at any time – be it 12 o’clock on a Saturday night or six o’clock on a Sunday morning. They could complete the module and then every second or third week they could log in for an hour and ask the tutor any questions they may have.

I think teachers still feel that even though we have a blend that is synchronous, they will get into trouble if they do an asynchronous blend. But asynchronous is really good for the learner and they can pause you, rewind you and fast forward you if it’s designed correctly. I think this can really make a big impact.

How did the course directly support you in your role?

Definitely in terms of being a better teacher, but also becoming more confident in my design. As a marketing person, this included my leaflets and posters, which became a lot better designed than they were previously.

I’ve also now started using Genially, which is my new favourite tool. And even though we didn’t get specific instruction in these tools, I felt that just learning the very basics of them and then being forced into the projects to put the practice in place really made me go from complete novice to a bit more of an expert in these tools – which was brilliant.

I’ve done other courses and blended learning, which tended to be very theory heavy. They involved being in a classroom at a certain time, and although there were elements that were online, such as Moodle, they were different. I thought this course was great because it was really practical and it was a really good timeframe. The timeframe was tight, but I didn’t feel too rushed. I felt that everything was achievable, but also that it wasn’t stretched out and getting bored. I was forced to do those modules in a specific timeframe and couldn’t put things off, which I thought was brilliant. And the fact that we still have access to the portal is also really good. Now I can go back and have a look at a slower pace to see how I can perfect different things like podcasting and videos.

What benefits do you think the course has had for the whole organisation?

I think that we’re now looking at creating more blended programs as an organisation. Since I’m a teacher, I’m not in those talks at the City of Dublin ETB. However, I can see things being created for induction, orientation, and teacher training. This way, you can access the online courses and do the learning in your own time. And I can see it really working for teachers new to the organisation. We can give them an induction to the organisation, to different teaching methods, and to different courses. It has been really beneficial and I think there’s also a buzz around it now. We have a group of us who’ve done the course and we all collaborate, and we talk about different ways that we can use it – which is great. I have additional hours this year to explore and to create that course. And I can just see even in my own career how I could use it for communications, but also other projects in the future.

Since we have a community of TELMS Mentors, we’re also able to talk and share that knowledge on the design of resources to our mentees. I certainly have been singing the praises of the course to all my mentees and mentors. It was great and I would highly recommend it. It’s also great that the TELMS Mentors have priority. It’s great that the organisation is really supporting this kind of valuable professional development. And I think they can see that it will have its rewards both in and outside the classroom.

How much do you expect it to help over the next 12 months?

I think designing the course is what I’m going to concentrate on. I didn’t realise – and I think my students are the same – that sometimes you go to design something or write an essay and you just start. And I always tell my students that you have to plan. It’s almost like making a cake without the recipe and not knowing whether you have the right ingredients. In the end, it’ll just end up as a bit of a mess. 

So I think the course really made me realise how important planning was – particularly in terms of storyboarding and wireframing, which all takes time. When you’re designing something, you have to re-edit and re-design it with all students in mind, as some may have additional needs. So it can be a lengthy process.

So for me, the next year will be creating hopefully with another teacher a fully blended communications program that we will then be able to pilot and map out across the organisation. I would love to give that option. 

Can you describe your experience with Digital Learning Institute, and share which areas you received the most value from?

I really appreciated the design elements, design theory, and being able to create something that was visually accessible. I also really liked the introduction to Genially and the video with the guest lecturers. I thought the guest lecturers were brilliant – particularly the video that included Niamh discussing video. I thought that was really good; and it certainly got me more interested in video. I’m just using PowToon, and am not in the editing field. However, it’s certainly made me think about the importance of text, speech and graphics, and how you can blend them all together. I would like to go back and look at podcasting as well. 

I think the big thing I took out was the microlearning, design elements and gamification. These were the buzzwords for me. And just being able to create a full-on course and having been given the steps was great. I thought the templates were also amazing so that you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Now I have them all ready to go and I can just tweak them, which is great. I also think that being forced to do that project was invaluable to me because it made me sit down, think, plan and start the design. Then once I had the basic unit one, I could copy that unit for all the other units and keep a similar font structure and colour scheme, which made it more beneficial for the learners. I have to admit that I was inspired by a bit of the design from you guys as well. And when I’m designing I still go back and look at everything again because you’re not going to retain all that information in your head.

If another teacher is on the fence about signing up for the course, what would you tell them?

I think you should definitely do it. From day one, it’ll make you a better teacher. But in the end, you’re going to save time because you’re going to have learned these shortcuts and learned how to create amazing resources for your learners. The fact that you could do it on a Saturday morning or Sunday evening and do the resources and do the additional reading in a few hours is great. And if you couldn’t make the virtual classes, they were recorded so you can watch them yourself in your own time. 

I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was really accessible with the assignments. I thought it was really well done in that you saw other students’ work and knew what was expected and the basic framework of it. I thought the rubrics were brilliant too, so you could see where you could get marks. The feedback was also invaluable. It was really good in that you knew where you’re going wrong and where you need to improve. I thought it was really well organised with the community facilitators, lecturers and guest lecturers. I just thought it was an amazing experience and very doable.

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