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Teaching Adult Learners How Little Victories Drive Big Change

  • 7 MIN READ

Colin Moran, National Training and Education Manager for the IRFU, shares his experiences as an adult educator in a sporting organization.

Colin Moran wanted to be a trauma surgeon. After missing the minimum score on his secondary school Leaving Certificate Examination by only a few points, he was faced with a choice: repeat his final year or pursue his second choice and become an English and physical education teacher. He went with plan B, and after one four-week placement in a classroom, he knew it was meant to be. “If I had been a better student, I might be in a trauma hospital right now,” he said. “So, things worked out well in the end.”

After teaching for five years, unforeseen budget cuts and a fluke of circumstance landed him in a role with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). Now, 26 years later, Moran is still with the organization as the national training and education manager, coordinating and supporting all of IRFU’s domestic rugby training and education programs. The D2L Champion sat down to share in his words his serendipitous path into adult learning, the challenges of digital transformation in a sporting organization, and the importance of strategy to learning.

From the Classroom to the Pitch

I absolutely loved teaching and would’ve still been there without the fluke that the school where I was employed at the time was running over budget. I was upset to be leaving the classroom, but this opportunity at the IRFU had come along the year before to work as a development officer—that’s somebody who is on the ground with coaches, training them to be better coaches. The whole atmosphere of being involved in a sport was exciting, and my friends thought all I did all day was walk around a pitch with a rugby ball in my hand.

Obviously, it’s a lot more than that, but I was lucky because at the time, the organization was realizing the value of proper education and development, rather than just finding someone who’d been a great rugby player. I had a fairly quick transition from working with youth and children to working with adults, yet the principles were similar, so it was intriguing. I was lucky again—it landed just right for me.

Colin Moran on a rugby pitch instructing development staff
[Photo submitted] Colin Moran, center, grey top, teaches development staff effective ways to work with coaches.

What’s rewarding about it is also what’s challenging. It’s people facing, and as anyone involved in education knows, you’re not making a table or something where you just put this piece here and that piece there and it works every time. There’s a whole emotional connection that happens, either as a coach working with players or as a developer working with coaches, where people can disappoint you and you can disappoint them. I think some people are uncomfortable with that, but I love the sense of achievement that comes particularly when something has gone wrong, and you work on it together to get over the line.

The other thing that’s really rewarding is that whereas in some jobs you effectively do the same year over and over, in my case, it’s been 26 years of different experiences. And the past two and a half years have been 20 years of experience.

From Crisis to Opportunity

Prior to COVID-19, e-learning for us was an idea. I was advocating and pushing for it because I saw huge value in it. But when COVID came, it exploded. The doors that I was trying to push open to get people to buy into e-learning were suddenly blown open when people rushed in saying, “How do we do this?”

Being a sporting organization, we are dependent on fans coming to the matches and paying for tickets, and on television rights to show the games. When everything stopped, it was an existential crisis for the organization.

We were under a huge amount of pressure because we were starting from scratch when I got a call from one of the directors to say that they’d gotten permission for one of the provincial teams to compete, but we had to come up with a COVID education course for the players on both teams. I got the call on Friday afternoon to say we had to have the course ready by Wednesday, and we didn’t have a slide, not one line of text, nothing. So, it was four or five days of 18 hours and lots of coffee and just unbelievable stress.

But it wasn’t terrible because coming out of that, I knew that Brightspace was going to be a useful tool, and I knew that I could make it work. I think we’ve got nearly 9,000 learners now in I don’t know how many courses.

In two years, to have adopted online learning in Brightspace as part and parcel of the organization is amazing. And I know we’re only scratching the surface in relation to the possibilities.

That’s not to say it was easy—it takes time to get there. When you have an organization that’s extremely traditional, you get both the best and the worst elements of that. The very nature of our industry has been face to face. We’re on a pitch with rugby balls and cones and whistles, and to try to convince somebody that they can achieve the learning outcomes with their learners online is difficult. But I heard a phrase on Twitter where someone who was talking about e-learning said that you need to respect the resistors. That’s a great way of looking at it because these people have a wealth of knowledge, and dismissing their fears or concerns will be self-destructive. You’ve got to work together.

Starting With a Solid Strategy

When you’re adopting any kind of new system, it has to fall into an overall strategy. It can’t just be a case of saying “we have this shiny new thing” without articulating what it’s for and how it fits the overall strategy.

Simultaneously to adopting Brightspace I was putting together an overall education strategy for the organization. We got each of the departments and our provincial offices to go through a process of determining the why, because a lot of the time we focus on what we produce. This is based on Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” which changed my thinking on a lot of things.

For example, why are we trying to develop self-sufficiency in people? Once we have that, I can easily point to how Brightspace can help us provide a pathway for learners to decide what they want to do, how far they want to go, and what kind of support we can give them from that overall strategy.

Something we’re trying to drive as part of our learning strategy is what I call StepStone. In a traditional curriculum, it’s set from one to 10, and if you only get to nine, you fail. The idea with StepStone is that there are core modules that we all agree are essential—so for example, if you’re coaching children, you must know something about safety and concussions and those things that are nonnegotiable. But once you’ve stood on that stone and you think, I’m interested in this or that, you step onto your own learning path, which might be different from mine or someone else’s. We are each on a journey that’s meaningful for us.

Providing that greater freedom of choice may even provide connections from our learners that we haven’t even thought of yet. Learning becomes about interest, rather than about what you have to do.

That self-direction, I think, is really, really important, and I’ve tried to bring that to our approach.

Adding Up the Little Wins

It’s important to identify and celebrate the wins along the way. All the stuff we’ve achieved with Brightspace within the IRFU is huge, but it’s done cumulatively. It’s all these bits like getting the first quiz done and uploading the first video. And I’d like to try to help people have those little wins within their own department as well. It’s all those little wins that are what really keep me going.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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