A beachhead for learning – Learning Conversation with Helen Zwicker, CEO Kiama Community College

Helen Zwicker Learning Cafe Conversations with Jeevan Joshi

We talk to Helen Zwicker, the Executive Officer of the Kiama Community College Inc. Kiama Community College Inc is a not-for-profit, volunteer managed, community based Registered Training Organisation . It has been operating since 1986 and is focused on delivering services to its communities along the South Coast of NSW including training, education and learning experiences that offer critical employability skills and contribute to the enrichment of the community, both economically, culturally and socially.

Jeevan: It is my pleasure to be interviewing Helen Zwicker, the CEO of Kiama Community College. Helen, welcome to Learning Conversations.

Helen: Thank you.

Jeevan: Tell us how did you get into learning?

Helen:  I have always had a huge passion for assisting people to assist themselves in the most leveraged way possible. When I first left school, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Business -Employment Relations,  as it represented the nexus between people and business, my two favourite things ! I had the opportunity to teach Industrial relations at a really young age and that made me realize that I really enjoyed the field of learning & development and its potential to assist people in a practical way, and have headed down this path ever since through a range of private, public and community based organisations.

Jeevan: Tell us your role as the EO of Kiama Community College and the services it provided.

Helen:  My role is to ensure the success of the organization as a business-financially, legally and ethically, to protect long term viability. I must also provide leadership to ensure that our organisation fulfills its purpose and utility to our community, whilst acting within our values. There are more than 40 Community Colleges across NSW and even more across the nation. Each Community College looks quite different as it will reflect the unique Adult Learning needs of its specific community.

Our Community College provides a really broad range of services.  There are 3 main types of programs that we run- accredited vocational training across a wide range of industry areas;  social inclusion programs designed specifically for various recognized disadvantaged groups  of people to enhance social participation and pathway towards employment and finally, we have our traditional leisure, lifestyle and computer courses.  The thing that’s unique about Community College delivery is the “how” we do it- with an absolute focus on a friendly and welcoming environment for all, a sharp emphasis on developing participants’ employability and providing wrap around support to our equity clients.

Jeevan: So, I guess a related question would be, how do you identify the learning needs of a community? Is there a regular consultation process or do you survey ?

Helen: We work really closely with a lot of agencies and network groups. So, for example, we liaise regularly with Local Council representatives such as social planners and economic development officers, participate in local business chambers and social services networks. We also have good relationships with Job Services, Disability Service Providers, Aboriginal organisations and the like. We have representation on our Board of Management from many of these organisations and have partnered with quite a few of them to collaborate in the delivery of projects.

Jeevan: I know you are very passionate about teaching English language, teaching English language. Can you tell us about the challenges that you are faced with, in terms of teaching English language ?

Helen: Particularly in rural areas where there isn’t always a large representation of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, if you don’t have good English language skills, it can cut you off, both socially and economically. So providing this service is really critical. Students also develop strong social networks with fellow student and teachers. The biggest challenge we face is to obtain adequate funding to provide a decent amount of face to face hours of tuition to students to help them move forward at a reasonable pace. It can take three or four years for them to develop their English skills at this rate. Competitive tendering for government funded delivery has driven the price to what we think is an unsustainable position for quality delivery.

We are currently focusing on how we can use technology between sessions to give students more practice opportunity. We have already used voice technologies such as Learnosity where students can access spoken material and record their responses for listening & pronunciation tasks. We are also investigating setting up an online facility where students can engage in structured conversation with other students any time online to practice their conversation skills. This will enable our students to make greater progress in a shorter time frame and within our funding reality. As soon as they are ready, we pathway our English students to a vocational qualification with language support and job readiness support. This accelerates their social and economic participation, which are inter-related.

Jeevan:  Tell us about the focus Kiama Community College has on assisting the indigenous community.

Helen: We work closely with the aboriginal communities and support organisations in the Shoalhaven. We believe this is some of our most critical community work. We have a 3 staged approach to training for our Aboriginal Community Members. The first stages of programs are designed as an introduction for people that have been disengaged from education and employment for many years.  These programs are extremely non-threatening, and  include transport to and from home, a mix of light and moderate content with the major focus being comfort in an educational context, raising of sense of self-worth, cultural connection, and articulating a dream for the way forward. The course “Subject” is always very attractive and fun. For example, one of our courses focuses on beauty and another is built around Bush Tucker.

Our most recent course included development of the Shoalhaven’s first women’s aboriginal dance group – we came to see the significance of this by seeing the emotions on the faces of the participants and the community members that watched and commented on their historic performance. The second and third stages represent a subtle scaling back of student support and a stepping up of the academic rigour of the work involved. Stage 2 is a full qualification in an aboriginal program. The past two years, we have run Cert II & III in Outdoor Recreation. Subject matter is still critical- our students love the outdoors and the delivery is culturally contextualized. Stage 3 sees a move to a scholarship-based mainstream program at Cert III or above where students determine their specific vocational direction and are much more self-supporting but still have access to the College’s range of support staff.

This approach works well. Our goal is to pathway all students to further study, employment or meaningful activity like volunteering. Its important to remember that every Aboriginal community is different and you need to be led by the local community to know what is appropriate regarding content and protocol.

Jeevan: What are the specially considerations when designing a course for indigenous people ?

Helen: I believe all successful programs for aboriginal people need to start with a mindset or attitude. Programs need to start from a place of humility, respect and empathy for the dislocation our aboriginal community members are still affected by because of the treatment of themselves and their ancestors over the past 200 years, including not so long ago. Some of our students had to seek permission to leave the mission to visit their families!

In the development of our course concepts and content, we are heavily guided by aboriginal support agencies, aboriginal trainers and our aboriginal support officer. For Engagement Courses, we infuse units of competency for employability and literacy support into it but they are not really visible. So, people aren’t necessarily, aware of their formal learning. They just get absorbed in the subject matter and then we fit those units of competency around it. When they get to the end of it, we can award students the certificate and they realize what they are capable of, which gives them confidence to move forward with study and employment. Using aboriginal  trainers is important, as is supporting them with culturally sensitive support trainers.  Trainers, the timetable and the whole organization needs to be incredibly flexible to support aboriginal learners. Our aboriginal communities are huge users of Facebook, so we use that as both a communication tool and a learning tool. I am absolutely inspired by our aboriginal students.

Jeevan: Helen, have you noticed any trends in the learning for seniors lately ?

Helen: There is a continuance of low disposable income for education which is a challenge . There is also a growing disparity in the computer know-how or knowledge of  mobile phones, smart phones know-how of our seniors. This is why we are developing a group of volunteers as seniors technology champions to assist the community on an ongoing basis in a cost-effective manner. So, you are utilizing those people with great knowledge and expertise over to share it with others. We are noticing that there is still a large number of people that have absolutely no computer skills as well and we’ve noticed that getting assistance from a family member is usually an extremely frustrating experience for all involved! We also have computer help drop in centres, so if people “hit a wall” with their technology, rather than putting it in a box in the cupboard, they can drop in on an “as-needed” basis, work through their obstacle and move forward with their IT journey.

Jeevan: The proportion of seniors is going to increase over the years and the retirement age is also being increased. Do you anticipate a lot more seniors wanting to keep up with the current skills?

Helen: Yes, with an ageing population, there will be more desire for learning. However it is very price sensitive. Our Governments need to decide whether they want to fund such learning critical for quality of life which anecdotally improves health outcomes and reduces need for other support services. It currently receives virtually no funding. In terms of computer training, hopefully, as people that are currently working retire, the skills will become actually better. So, if there is no interruption to their technology journey from work to retirement, it should be easier for them and all we need to do is keep them across new technologies as they emerge. So, in a way, that should make our job easier. But I guess, the goal is not to give them a break between when they leave the workforce to enjoy themselves with the technology.

Jeevan: Thanks for your time.

A beachhead for learning – Learning Conversation with Helen Zwicker, CEO Kiama Community College