Adult Learning Options: Degree in Local Studies – Interview

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Is there a history/geography buff in your life that can’t stop regaling you with facts about the area? Perhaps someone you know didn’t have the best experience in school but loves learning. Maynooth University has the perfect programme for anyone who’s curious, committed and interested in local studies. We got the opportunity to chat with Dr. Derek Barter about this innovative Degree in Local Studies.

Dr. Derek Barter is the Continuing Education Co-Ordinator in the Dept. of Adult and Community Education (DACE) Maynooth University. As if there wasn’t enough on his plate, he also manages BA Local Studies and BA Community Studies. Completing a PhD in modern history in 2009, his dissertation focussed on Irish nationalist identity construction, social and constitutional relationships through the competing discourses of popular culture.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your role in Maynooth University?

I am the Continuing Education Co-Ordinator in the Dept. of Adult and Community Education (DACE) Maynooth University. The aim of this area of the department is to facilitate the entry into higher education of mature students who may or may not be first-time entrants to university and foster a culture of lifelong learning for personal, community and professional development. I work with different statutory, voluntary and especially community organisations in order to fulfil the university’s strategic goal for Community Engagement (Campus Engage).

Involvement with different communities and widening participation to non-traditional students are two areas of my work for which I have a passionate interest. Delivery of our Outreach, Part-Time, and Out of Hours courses function as de facto alternative access routes for students into Maynooth University. Initiatives such as the ‘Communiversity’, which brings higher education out of the campus in a partnership arrangement between MU, Leader Partnership Companies, and Local Public Libraries, is a good example of this process in action. However, it is not enough merely to recruit students into the university; I consider the main purpose of education is to accommodate the student’s ability to engage with their own world and to allow the student to succeed and flourish in an array of domains. I have been in the fortunate position, as continuing education coordinator, as a lecturer on the evening degree in Local Studies and Community Studies, and more recently on the University’s Critical Skills, to witness such development.

How do you think your research into Irish history helped you in your work as an adult educator today?

The PhD looked at the topics of nationalism, the media, and personal identity. These topics have probably never been more in focus as they are now in light of Trump’s ‘America First’, the English nationalist Brexit campaigns, and the rise of the right across Europe. The research looked at propaganda and how language shapes the way we think and feel about things like country, who belongs and who doesn’t belong. A big part of historical research is to try to get as close to the source of an idea or an event in that way eliminates as much ‘Fake News’ as possible.

How did you switch from History to Adult Education?

While I was completing my PhD, I began working for the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee as an Education Development Worker in the Soilse Drug Free project in Dublin’s north inner city. I contacted Josephine Finn, the then head of the department of Adult and Community Education in NUI Maynooth as asked if I could run a Return to Learning Programme in Soilse with Maynooth’s backing. She agreed and this helped the programme to win two Aontas Star awards and a NALA ACE award. At the same time, I began working with the Canals Community Partnership managing, designing and developing community-based educational programmes in the south inner city in Dolphin’s Barn, Fatima Mansions, Rialto and Inchicore. It was during these posts that main areas of interest around Adult Education and later Community Engagement and Widening Participation within Higher Education began for me.

Degree Local Studies


What do you see as your main objective in your role as Academic Co-ordinator in the Department of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University?

My main aim is to facilitate the entry into higher education of mature students who may or may not be first-time entrants to university and foster a culture of learning and development. I’ve been working with different organisations in order to fulfill the university’s strategic goal for Campus Engage. More recently I played a role in developing Maynooth University’s new curriculum for undergraduates with input into the design and delivery of the First Year Critical Skills programme. I was also part of the successful HEA PATH 1 funding bid for initial teacher education ‘Turn to Teaching’ for people from under-represented socio-economic groups to enter the teaching profession.

As we are looking specifically at the part-time degree in Local Studies could you tell us more about your role as BA manager?

As BA manager I look after the administration and co-ordination of the degree. So that means working across 8 of the university’s academic departments including History, Geography, Nua Ghaeilge, Sociology, Anthropology, Applied Social Studies, Classics and, of course, Adult and Community Education. I also lecture, or rather facilitate, on the introduction to programmes Study Skills/Student Support module.

What does this entail?

This means that I get to meet and work with new students on the degree in their first months in the university. The first thing I like to do with new students on the BA is to create a learning-environment where they can feel at home and start to think that studying at university at this time of their life is the right thing for them.

How do you do that?

For many of our students, school – and particularly the Leaving Cert – is where enjoyment and fun in the learning process are not words that easily spring to mind. Not having completed the ‘Leaving’ myself, the mixture of anxieties that Leaving Cert ‘survivors’ experience is something that I am not familiar with first hand. However,  we as a group of adults can look at this event and other school, educational or learning activities with a degree of objectivity that we get with the passage of time. So we examine and reflect on our past personal experiences and then broaden these out to look at academic questions such as: ‘What is the purpose of education?’ Once you give adult students a chance to think about questions, the opportunity to carry out research into the subject, and a place then to discuss the issues they have raised, you can see they are ready to take off.

It sounds exciting and different.

It is. Many of our students will have raised families of their own. It’s really interesting considering our own past educational experiences; adults who see their own kids going through the same process, with its attendant stresses, devise innovative and imaginative alternatives. The debates that are carried out in class around learning and education can be very challenging. It would be great to have the Minister for Education present at some of these classes. He could learn a lot. What you come to realise very quickly is that once the subject has meaning for the student, and is not just some distant academic subject divorced from the student’s reality, then the learning goes in and is an enjoyable transformative experience.

What’s the learner profile for a course like for the part-time degree in Local Studies?

For the BA in Local Studies, the profile is very wide-ranging. We get people who might be working in a job or have caring responsibilities that are a million miles away from the subjects that they are studying. They can range in age from in their 20s up into their 70s. The one uniting factor is that they all have a passion for history and geography and this degree gives them a chance to exercise this passion.

The course is pitched as adult learning, what supports are there in place for people going back to college after a break in education?

Besides the module outlined above in Study Skills and Student Support – where students are given the skills around research, writing and time management, the last is very important for busy, working people – the BA is co-ordinated by the Dept. of Adult and Community Education and supporting adult learners is at the very centre of our being. On a practical level, we have a dedicated Academic Support Officer, Dr. Fearga Kenny to give people help with assignments and understanding the workings of the university.

We also have admin support with Kay Loughlin (who is also a Local Studies student) who works with people when they need help with the university’s offices such as fees, registration, records etc.. Also our students are fully registered so they are entitled to use all of the facilities and services that the university has to offer. Also for the first time this year, the Dept. of Education has recognised that Part-Time students have costs such as childcare, travel, and bills. They have given the Student Budgeting Service a fund that people can apply to once they register to help meet these costs. There is also the 1916 Bursary and the University Busary. These will pay for up to 5 years of tuition, so eligible students could have their entire fees paid for, with a bit left over.


Maynooth University



There seems to be a great deal of flexibility with regards modules – how does this work?

The modules appear on a carousel and it takes about 4.5 years for the modules to come up. There are some recurring modules but these are flagged to the students as they appear. The only compulsory module is the Introduction to Programmes that the student takes in their first semester and this means that they have to attend both Tuesday and Wednesday nights for the first 12 weeks of their study. After that, they can decide how quickly they go through it by taking 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 modules over the two night once they go into semester 2. We also run Summer Schools in June and these change every year. These are really well liked by the students as it gives them a chance to study intensively for that week and spend time together.

You cover a host of topics such as culture, society, landscape, and politics. In your experience, which are the student favourites?

Each student is different so this is a difficult question to answer. I wouldn’t like to give the wrong impression but we have people who are really into archaeology and they love those modules. At the same time we have people who are interested in architecture, literature, art, language, folklore etc.. As the classes are small, the chance for a real, in-depth discussion to take place on these subjects between the students and the lecturers is one of the degree’s unique features. Many of the lecturers remark that this has been the best teaching experience of their lives because the students, by their nature, are self-motivated, and are the most engaged that they have every encountered. They talk about the buzz they get when they have finished the class.

What’s the academic workload like?

That depends on how many modules that you take in a semester. Like I said you only have to attend both nights for 4 modules in your first semester. After that, people can tailor it to suit their timetable (and their budget). The study skills module sets people up well for this. Then people know themselves how much they want to take on. All the modules are examined using continuous assessment rather than end-of-module examinations. However, the semesters are only 12 weeks long so the academic year is only 24 weeks.

What are the options for people graduating a course like this?

The BA in Local Studies is recognised by the Teaching Council as a teaching subject for History up to the Leaving Cert. So we get some people who do it for that reason. Others use it to go on to post-graduate study and some undertake PhDs. A number of our students have become lecturers in their own right and are presently researching and publishing in their respective fields.

What should someone considering this BA bear in mind when applying?

I guess if someone is considering the BA in Local Studies then they are at the stage when they are ready to try something new. We get a lot of students who have completed certificates in History, Genealogy, or may be members of Local History Societies. This gives them a place to focus and consolidate the work that they have done previously. We also get people who are completely new to the world of history and geography but would like to try something different; my advice is to go ahead, pick up the phone and find out more. For many adults, this is the most difficult part of the process, making contact and getting over the nerves involved. Kay, Fearga and myself would be very happy to have that initial conversation with you.

If you want to find out more about the Local Studies Programme at Maynooth University, click here. There’s still time to apply. The CAO will open again on Tuesday 21 August 2018 for available places and if anyone wants to make an application they just use the code MH803. Alternatively, you can speak with a member of their staff in person at our free Education Expo event.


Gemma is a nomadic writer, filmmaker, & journalist.
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