How An Cosán is bringing life-changing skills to the community

19 Sep 2016

Sinead Kelly (centre) leads a Techmums lesson at The Digital Hub, Dublin. Image: Connor McKenna

An Cosán is celebrating its 30th birthday. One of their recent successes has been the Young Women in Technology programme. Claire O’Connell finds out more.

Having confidence with technology – whether you are sending an email or building a website – can open up lots of opportunities. It might help you grow a business, to access the information you need for day-to-day life and to connect with your family and community.

That’s, in part, why community education centre An Cosán runs programmes to build up digital skills and confidence – especially among women – and the results speak for themselves.

Since launching their Young Women in Technology programme in late 2014, each of the 120 women who took part have become more confident with technology, 70 have progressed to further education and four have either set up or grown their own businesses.

‘I am working with women exactly like myself to help them find what they need’

Inspirefest 2017

Education empowers

The programme is one of several that An Cosán offers, explained education programme coordinator Sinéad Kelly, who is based at the organisation’s ‘mothership’ in Jobstown, Tallaght. “We run a variety of programmes from non-accredited community education – the likes of personal development, basic literacy, women and wellness – and the courses go right up to degree level with Carlow IT.”

An Cosán, which is celebrating 30 years on the go, currently sees around 600 people through courses each year, noted Kelly, herself a graduate of its programmes.

“I came here as a lone parent looking to do a course,” she recalled. “I started on the lone parents’ programme (which is about building confidence, personal development and parenting) and, in that process, I got really empowered by education, and passionate about it. I started to realise there was a lot of inequalities out there, especially when you are a lone parent, and I started to realise the power of education and how it could transform people.”

Kelly went on to do a degree in community development and leadership and, now, part of her work at An Cosán involves coordinating and delivering the lone parent programme she herself started out with.

“I am working with women exactly like myself to help them find what they need,” she said. “It works because they are aware I have been through the same thing.”

Boosting technology

To boost digital skills, An Cosán launched the Young Women in Technology programme and, according to Kelly, it benefitted from a strong advisory council including representatives from Coder Dojo and Accenture, and Silicon Republic’s own Ann O’Dea.

“These 10-week courses are trying to give people a taster of anything you can think of around technology,” Kelly explained. “That might be app design, employability skills, setting up social media accounts – Snapchat is all the rage now, and it is good for bringing parents and children together – and also bringing in guest speakers from organisations like IBM and Bank of Ireland.

“The impact of the courses has been big. We have seen people get jobs at the end of the programme, and some have gone on to set up community groups.”

‘From the day I walked into the programme, my life changed in so many ways for the better’

Jenny Wickham went to An Cosán in 2013 after her daughter was born and health professionals were asking her for an email address to set up appointments.

“At that time, I had no idea what an email was. I could not use a computer in any way,” she recalled.

“It was the baby nurse that told me about An Cosán and the Young Women in Technology programme, and they had childcare, which was a great help.”

The impact of going on the course was instant. “From the day I walked into the programme, my life changed in so many ways for the better. I’ve come from having no confidence or self-esteem and not believing I could better myself and my life to having the confidence to do public speaking at the Science Gallery with Sinéad and Dr Sue Black about the Young Women in Technology programme.”

Wickham has gone on to do more courses. She now volunteers as a facilitator and is part of the new Tech Army of women who are training with An Cosán.

“Quite a lot has changed for me and getting better every day,” she said. “If I had not gone to An Cosán and received the support and opportunities that I’ve been given, my life would still be the same.”

Keep on learning

The Tech Army – a group of 10 women who went through the technology course and were motivated to enable others with digital skills – is an example of how An Cosán can multiply the positive effect in communities, said Kelly.

Kelly also continues to develop her skills. She has just started a master’s degree in teaching and learning, and she encourages everyone to keep on progressing.

“We have lots of courses, including ‘Computers for the Terrified’ and drop-in workshops, so take that step outside the comfort zone. Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication