Growing wings and taking flight: What we have learned about Community Engaged Research and Learning

By Catherine Bates, Sinead McCann, Caroline McGowan – TU Dublin

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In 2020/1 and again in 2021/2, the team working on TU Dublin’s Programme for Students Learning With Communities ran a new online professional development module for lecturers across five different universities in Europe, on building Community Engaged Research and Learning (CERL) into their teaching. This blogpost is a reflection on what we have learned about CERL from this process, and will be of interest to anyone involved in CERL, whether as a practitioner, coordinator, or policymaker.

We designed and developed the professional development module in collaboration with colleagues in the 4 other universities involved in the CIRCLET Project. We were also guided by an Advisory Board which we set up for this purpose. Our work was enhanced by regular informal and formal feedback from the module participants. At regular intervals, we individually and collectively reflected on the module as facilitators.

Drawing on all of this learning, we have produced a guide for facilitators which will be published on the CIRCLET project website in summer 2022. It will contain all the module materials, including pre-readings, assignments and marking rubrics, webinar plans and slides. The guide introduces potential facilitators to the materials, and how to use them, and explains the educational philosophies that underpin the module.

So what have we learned about CERL from this experience of working intensively with lecturers? Although we have spent many years coordinating and supporting CERL projects, working on the module brought new learning. The process of developing a formal curriculum forced us to clarify the different dimensions of coordinating and running a CERL project within a module or course. These include:

  • understanding the principles and philosophies of CERL
  • rethinking assessment and feedback in the context of CERL
  • identifying a suitable community partner; understanding their context, goals and capacity
  • clarifying and articulating each stakeholder’s roles and responsibilities in a CERL project
  • co-developing with the community partner a project plan that is both ambitious and achievable, for mutual benefit
  • confirming support from line management within the university
  • supporting students to work in respectful partnership – with the community partner, the lecturer and their peers
  • building students’ capacity for reflection
  • developing one’s capacity for reflection
  • using technology to support collaboration and learning
  • finding ways to evaluate the process and outcomes
  • disseminating the learning and new knowledge created.

We learned (or maybe re-learned) that the norms and practices of different disciplines, and lecturers’ individual characteristics and experiences, have a huge impact on how they experience CERL. Depending on their individual and subject backgrounds, lecturers can find some elements of the CERL process easy, even instinctive. But they might really struggle with others, which can lead them outside their comfort zones. We got feedback from some participants that some of the module content felt too obvious and too familiar, and from others that the same elements felt very challenging. Everyone’s CERL experience and journey is different. Everyone will experience some anxieties, challenges, and a sense that this process involves taking risks – but hopefully they will see them as valuable, worthwhile, manageable risks, and bravely take the leap.

We saw yet again the extensive skillset that lecturers need to build, for and through this work, as our module participants developed their plans to run a CERL project. The literature on CERL emphasises that lecturers’ roles change from teacher to facilitator, as students learn to step up and take responsibility for the work they are doing with and for the community partner (e.g. Tassone and Eppink, 2016). Being open to this is very important, as it involves stepping into a different role, and becoming a learner alongside the students. Lecturers running CERL projects need to listen carefully to the goals of the community partner, to ensure that the project being developed will meet their goals. Community partners find it easier to make the time to actively engage with students on a project if it supports their objectives. Lecturers running CERL projects also need to be able to facilitate collaborative working and regular open communication. They need to support students to develop skills in project management, time management, presentation and writing, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, and reflective practice. They need to help the students to acquire discipline-specific knowledge too. Crucially, they need to ensure that students meet the module or course learning outcomes, and that the project outputs or outcomes are useful to the community partner.

We were reminded that while lecturers can find parts of this process challenging, even intimidating, it is also an exciting and an innovative way to work. Dialogue with the community partner brings new ideas and perspectives into their course or module, and expands their professional network. Building this relationship is vitally important and enhances the project process and outcomes. Students become energised by working on a real-life project which they feel has a tangible purpose, and may align well with their values. This can motivate students to identify and address the challenges that every well-designed educational project brings. When they do, they grow in confidence, and blossom as learners.

We were reminded of the importance of dialogue – among peers, and among people from different countries, from different disciplines, and from different sectors of society. These kinds of conversations generated rich learning within our module. This mirrors the rich learning which students experience on CERL projects, as they collaborate with their peers, lecturers and community partners. Effective lecturers work hard to create the conditions for open, critically reflective dialogue between participants in their CERL projects. This is another essential skill that they acquire or further develop through this work.

Finally, we were reminded of the importance of our own small role in supporting CERL projects. The module addressed the different dimensions of CERL projects in a thematic way. While participants appreciated this approach, the main focus for first-time CERL practitioners was ‘what partner could I work with, and what could my students do with them that could be useful?’. It’s essential for a lecturer to have access to a CERL coordinator, or Science Shop structure, to help them answer these questions, in one-to-one tailored conversations focusing on the modules they teach. CERL coordinators generally have a bank of ideas for CERL projects suggested by community partners with whom they have ongoing relationships. Coordinators can bring these ideas into the conversation as concrete, useful possibilities, and help the lecturer to think about building their own relationship with a community partner. Lecturers really appreciate having experienced coordinators to introduce them to partners, and facilitate project planning meetings. In these meetings we can ask practical questions about what the students can realistically deliver, to meet module learning outcomes and further the community’s goals. We can also clarify communication processes, including when and how the community partner is going to meet students, share knowledge and give feedback on work in progress and final outputs. Our process expertise is invaluable in supporting lecturers and community partners to plan these projects so that they can deliver positive outcomes for all participants. And then we enjoy the privilege of watching these collaborative projects grow wings and take flight, enhancing the work of both universities and communities.