A course on community engagement

I’ve recently returned from the Engagement Australia conference on university-community engagement.  Penny Crofts and I ran a roundtable on “Community engaged learning in an online environment: What happens when the subject is community engagement?”

It was based on one of the courses (or subjects) I teach: HLSC2241 (Engaging Communities: Cross Disciplinary Perspectives). The course started in semester 2008 with 35 students from nine different degrees. It has been run every semester since and has been slowly increasing in size. Last semester there were 119 students from 21 different degrees, and overall there have been 547 students from 35 degrees.

As can be seen in the following graph, the most common degrees are teaching and disciplines related to human services.
Other degrees include:

  • B Construction Management (Building) (15)
  • B Environmental Science & Management (9)
  • B Business (8)
  • B Science (6)
  • B Medicine (5)
  • B Commerce (2)
  • B Design (Architecture) (2)

The course modules focus on:

  1. Introduction to community engagement (e.g., the concept of community; social capital, levels of participation)
  2. Building on community strengths
  3. Strategies for community engagement
  4. Case studies of community engagement
  5. Summing up

It is somewhat ironic teaching community engagement online – I don’t actually meet the students. It is not how I would choose to teach it, but it seems to be working OK. At the moment the teaching strategies include:

  1. Required and recommended readings. All the readings are available online and nearly all the required ones are in a book of readings available for purchase (two readings aren’t included because of copyright restrictions). The majority of the readings have a practical focus.
  2. Lectures. At the moment there are written introductory lectures for each module but I’m planning to introduce a range of short audio lectures (with PowerPoints) on key topics. I’m trying to keep them short (10-15 minutes) so students can download them and listen to them at their leisure.
  3. Blackboard postings and discussion. Blackboard is an online learning environment provided by the Uni. I use one of its features, a discussion board, to encourage some interaction between students. Students need to participate in discussion of four topics: the first is just an introduction, but the other three require students to provide a brief post (around 200 words) on a topic and then comment on two other students’ posts. The topics are: a summary of conversations they have with two people (in one they ask what is wrong with the community and what its needs are, and in the other they ask about the strengths of the community); an example of community engagement and reflections on the course.
  4. An online quiz. The aim of the quiz is to ensure that students actually read the readings in the first two modules. They test whether students can answer very specific answers about the readings (e.g., What are the “two solutions, two paths” identified by Kretzmann and McKnight?) rather than test their understanding of key concepts or their ability to apply theory to practice. I found some students weren’t doing much (any?) reading and this certainly encourages them to do at least some.
  5. Two major assessments. I have been trying to get the best balance of theory and practice I can for the two 1500 word assignments they have to do. This semester I think I have a good balance. The first major assessment requires students to choose from one of four questions (focusing on education, health, business or community development) which ask them to apply theory to practice. The second is to critique an example of community engagement.

As an aside, I think I need to provide a bit more guidance in the choice of their example for the second major assessment. Last semester our of 105 papers, 18 were on Clean Up Australia and 15 were on fundraisers. Although nearly half the students were studying teaching, there were only nine examples of community engagement by schools.

Because we are studying community engagement, it is pretty important we try to engage students in the course: we acknowledge each student individually when they make their introductions, we encourage the use of Blackboard for discussion, I respond quickly to questions (within 48 hours and usually much quicker), I try to create a sense of me as a person (so I keep a fairly informal tone in my emails, I make regular contact, I try to be very approachable) and we have adapted the course based on students feedback.

Essentially feedback suggests that students are positive about the course.

Interestingly, while 77% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that online delivery was an important factor for them in choosing the course, students were less likely to agree that online learning was an appropriate method for delivering the course.

Some students found that online delivery worked well for them:

  • This was the first time I have done an online elective and at first I was worried that I wouldn’t get much out of it because there would be no personal contact, but the truth is this subject has been more engaging than other topics where I have had lectures and tutorials.
  • I have completed other online courses, and this one was the best so far in creating a supportive online environment.
  • This is the first on-line course I have undertaken and felt that the content suited the online environment and allowed me to work at my own pace.

But other students did not like the lack of face-to-face contact:

  • Haven’t been a fan of the impersonal nature of the online course. This would have been a great subject to have face to face tutorial discussions and debates.
  • Not lecturers having one-on-one interaction with and tutors is also difficult as it is hard to get a rapport which I find useful to drive me to do my best.
  • This is my first online course, and although there is plenty of readings, I feel that is would be much more effective if employed in face-to-face style, allowing discussion to take place.
  • I found the course unmotivating and didn’t have a teacher to encourage and motivate me

I must admit I would prefer to teach it face-to-face, but the only way we could get the course approved was as an online course and it does allow students to do the course who otherwise would not be able to. Despite the fact that it is online, feedback is positive. The following graph shows the average response to feedback on the course where strongly agree = 5; agree = 4; neither = 3; disagree = 2 and strongly disagree =1.
While the course is quite practice focused, we are interested in exploring how we can increase the community engaged learning involved. There are a number of challenges in introducing this type of learning into this course.

  • Students have mixed motives for undertaking the course. For some students, community engagement is a key skill required in their discipline (e.g., social work, development studies) or they are really interested in the topic. For some students it is just an elective, they don’t appear to see much relevance to their future careers and do the minimum amount of work required.
  • Students do not have a common knowledge base. Some students have already developed skills and knowledge relevant to working with communities, whereas other students are undertaking their first social science course and struggle to write essays.
  • It is a standalone subject. This means there is not lead in or follow-up to it, and it does not form the foundation for further learning.
  • It is online. While there are examples of online community engaged learning, it is challenging and takes a lot of time and organisation.

I want to keep the practice focus of the course and encourage people to reflect on their own experience with engaging communities through the assessment tasks, but I think it would be difficult to increase the community engaged learning focus within the current course structure. I think there is the scope to develop a new course that would follow on from this course (or other relevant subjects) and would provide students with the opportunity to reflect on voluntary work they are undertaking with communities.

This course is only one semester and so it cannot cover everything to do with community engagement. Currently it provides a good introduction to community engagement, assists students to develop some basic skills and provides them with the opportunity to reflect on real life examples. As an introduction it works well and we can explore other ways to provide further learning for students.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

  1. Ethics and community engagement
  2. A course on community capacity building
  3. Masters of Family Studies

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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