Dr Sean Rowland – Hibernia College
Dr Sean Rowland a founder of Hibernia College, Ireland’s most successful e-learning institution talks to Niall Gormley about the college’s origins, how it fits into the education jigsaw, and future opportunities
FINDING a new way to to an old job is one of the oldest routes into business and helps keep the world moving forward at the same time. Many of the victims of the dotcom crash of the late nineties and early ‘zeros’ believed that they were involved in the creation of a brave new world. When the hysteria died down and a lot of speculative money had been lost, the received wisdom was that there was no new world to be had down the wires of the internet, just some very good ways of making the old world work better.
So it is both ironic and iconic that Dr Sean Rowland launched Hibernia College just when the crash was at its worst. Hibernia College was founded to provide not simply internet education but blended learning, a combination of classroom and online courses.
From a standing and controversial start in 2002, Hibernia College now provides full accredited post graduate education to 3,500 students from 23 countries around the world.
Sean Rowland has spent 25 years in the field of education. A native of Turlough, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. He attended De La Salle College in Castlebar.
He followed the well worn route into teaching through St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra. From there he spent five years teaching in a primary school in Beaumont in Dublin.
He really enjoyed his time teaching there while spending some of his summers in America. He decided the he would like to live in the US for a year. “At the time the only way to go there was to be accepted into graduate school and you got a visa to go there, so I applied to Boston College for a Masters in Education and was accepted. Having successfully completed the Masters degree I then studied for a Ph.D. which I was awarded in 1992.”
He worked at Boston College for a number of years and then took on a Masters at Harvard University at the Kennedy School of Government in Public Administration.
While at Boston he founded the Centre for Irish Management in the college. He had been asked to work on an Irish programme when he finished his Phd and it grew into a number of programmes in management training for people who were starting businesses and people working in business in Ireland to give them the opportunity to travel to America to work with their peers.
Initially the programmes were north-south programmes, all the people were Irish and the funding was secured from the US government. “As time went by, we grew this into the Irish Institute, which still exists, and the programmes took on a political, as well as a business character. By 1997 we had grown into programming that included people from the UK and the Middle East.
“One of the programmes we ran, actually suggested to us by the late Northern Secretary Mo Mowlem, was for young political leaders in all parties from across Ireland and Britain. We helped many of those attending to meet people in Washington -senators, congressmen and congresswomen.”
With all this transatlantic toing and froing the Institute was spending considerable resources on the logistics of running the programmes. Dr Rowland recalls that the Institute was looking over its shoulder at its fellow Boston college, the world renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the new means they were using to reach their students in America and abroad.
“We were noticing that as the internet took hold, it could be an option, particularly for business people at the time who had access to broadband at work. So we looked at how we could incorporate that into our work. As we moved forward we realised that blended learning, where you can blend together the use of technology and the use of on-site lectures, could provide access to education for people who normally wouldn’t have access.
“It opened up options for people who lived in particular areas or people with particular family circumstance who couldn’t necessarily go out to a local college or university, particularly adults. We were working mainly with people beyond the normal college age.”
So the methodology was coming into focus but where did the idea for Hibernia College come from?
“Two or three things were influential in the startup of Hibernia. One, I wanted to move back to Ireland. Two, we found that a few people were becoming successful in the delivery of higher education through the use of technology. And the technologies were being embraced in Ireland to a much greater extent in the late 1990’s.
“The fact that some of my colleagues at MIT were willing to help build a technology system with us was a huge factor for Hibernia because they were, and still are, world leaders in this technology.
“Also it was a time for me, having watched others take the plunge into business, to build something new. I wanted to put some of the experience I had running the programmes in devel-oping a project for myself.”
Of course, despite the concept being relatively simple, there were huge hurdles to be overcome in terms of the technology, the personnel, the acceptance for the courses and the prem-ises. It wasn’t a quick process.
“It took three years from the time we started to the time we accepted out first student. But we gave ourselves five years to develop an organisation that would be self-sustaining and we did that”
The arrival of Hibernia College, particularly its teacher train-ing courses, was controversial. Students from some of the present teacher training colleges took to the streets to protest against the internet slice of the course, claiming that teaching standards would be undermined and that the practical class-room element would be weakened.
He says that there was a broad welcome for the new college, that it allowed many of the unqualified teachers working around the country to get qualified. He thinks that the new competition may have raise some hackles but that it was the new internet methodology that probably raised some fears.
“People fear change. We all fear change a little and, I suppose, that there was this idea that we suddenly fell out of the sky.”
Another problem faced by Hibernia was in raising money for the project. The dotcom collapse had just happened and the investment community were still sore.“I don’t think we could have picked a worse time to try and raise money. But in fact the people who invested saw the potential. They saw in particular, a number of people in the project who were giving up significant positions to take part in setting up the college. So it was a shared risk”
In 2005 the college turned it’s first modest profit . However, the numbers are now strong. Dr Rowland points out that the college is still investing in new programmes and in new technology. Because Hibernia deals with an older profile of student and also due to the flexibility of the courses there is little or no dropout.
“We have an almost zero drop-out rate. It’s much easier for people to defer for a semester or defer for a year due to illness or whatever with us so we’d rather defer people than see them drop out. Our goal is to graduate anybody who registers with us.”
The whole project represented a huge risk for Dr Rowland. Were there any scary moments?
“Oh yes. It’s kind of like ‘buyer’s remorse’. You’ve left the job behind and you’re now in your first year and thinking ‘my god, what have I done here?’.”
The key to the possibility of success is to have the right people with you, he believes. “Hibernia College wouldn’t be around today if we didn’t have the people that we have and we really do have extraordinary people who work very hard and who were excited by the idea of working on a new frontier.”
Has he any advice for any budding entrepreneurs? “Get the best help you can afford and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”