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Community based learning


“Higher education should be a transformative process that supports the development of graduates who can make a meaningful contribution to wider society, local communities and to the economy.” Professor Craig Mahoney, Chief Executive, The Higher Education Academy

Embedding Public Engagement as part of the teaching and learning of a particular module, course or discipline can provide a ‘real world’ context for linking theory and practice. It involves experiential teaching and learning approaches, and requires the facilitation of dialogue between students, members of the public, community organisations and university staff. This method is an introduction for people thinking about embedding Public Engagement as part of a specific course in Higher Education.  

Getting started

Ability to facilitate active learning and reflection in your students: Developing active learning strategies within the class will provide the opportunity to smooth out the transition between the class and the ‘real world’, enabling students to discuss and reflect on their experiences with others, and become increasingly accustomed to their role as active learners.

Partnership work: Students, academics, and community partners are all central to the success of the module. The views and needs of these different stakeholders must therefore be negotiated and explored as part of the continued development and refreshment of the course. 

Flexibility: The theories which are taught as part of your course may be contradicted by the challenges that students experience on the ground. An ability to work flexibly with these challenges and support student learning is crucial.

Ethical and Social Awareness: Issues of diversity and inclusion could form a major part of any community based learning module, this awareness is essential to ensure effective partnerships with marginalised and excluded communities.

Method Description

There is no single definition or name to describe the role that public and community engagement play within the taught curriculum across UK higher education. Service-Learning, community-based learning, civic learning, scholarship of engagement, learning-linked volunteering are all frequently used terms by academics and practitioners in the UK. Whilst Public Engagement can take place with a wide variety of audiences and partners, it is typical for public engagement within the taught curriculum to relate almost exclusively with community groups, charities, schools and voluntary organisations, rather than the public at large. It can be described as:

“A form of experiential education where learning emerges through a cycle of action and refection where students work through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.” Adapted from Eyler and Giles, 1999

How to do it

Focus on accrediting the learning part of engagement: As in more traditional forms of learning, accreditation is still based on the student’s demonstration of their learning, and not on the actual activity itself. 

Reflect and develop your learning objectives: You could use a placement to enrich the existing learning objectives on your course – however there are many new learning outcomes that could emerge as part of a placement. For example: how to extract meaning from experience; ways to apply academic knowledge to real world problems; about a specific community, population, geography; about expectations, quality, negotiation, client relationships; about self, society and context; about collaborative working. 

Establish criteria for agreeing placements: This can be done in a variety of ways, and will be influenced by a host of factors - including the purpose of the module; goals for the engagement; number of students; the nature of the university-community partnership; resources and support available. Some placements may not be right for your course, and vice versa your students may not be right for some community organisations.

Facilitate reflective practice: Provide support for students to reflect on and learn from their experiences.  Reflection should occur throughout a programme (not just at the end), and it should be challenging - encouraging students to consider experiences in light of complexity and multiple perspectives.

Evaluation, reflection and renewal: It’s important to explore how well the programme is meeting community objectives, in addition to supporting student learning. Building in space, time and resources to evaluate, reflect upon and renew your project will help keep it on track.

Case study - The CoCo Approach

Academics and practitioners at the University of Birmingham found it helpful to conceptualise two types of placement for community-based learning, which became known as the CoCo approach. The first where students were explicitly applying the lessons learnt from a subject theory and putting it into practice (Coats On). The second mode is where the agenda is to facilitate a broader range of people centred, communication skills and enhancing a wider understanding of the social and economic contexts of the communities in which the students would work with following graduates (Coats Off).

Examples of coats on could include a Business School student undertaking a marketing project may develop materials for use by community organisations or IT students may develop websites for use my community partners. Examples of coats off include the Dentistry course where community placements were developed as part of the ‘patient centered’ and leadership agenda, where course leaders wanted to facilitate greater understanding of contexts and the communities in which they may one day practice their profession.

This was activity was designed to test the observation that “Some of the most powerful service-learning experiences occur in a non-clinical setting, where the artificial barriers of the "white coat" do not interfere with communication and where students can critically examine and question what they know as they reframe their understanding of the impact of social issues on health (Yoder 2006:116).” Yoder, K.M. 2006. A Framework for Service-Learning in Dental Education. Journal of Dental Education 70, no. 2: 115-23.

Cathy Bonner, formerly project manager for the Embedding Service Learning project at the University of Birmingham, now delivering a Service Learning module and undertaking a PhD in the subject.

Top tips

  1. Work with other departments in the University: Utilise other parts of the University that might be able to provide support for your programme – such as a placement office, careers or volunteering department
  2. Start small and work from there: You do not have to review your learning outcomes at the outset, many people start with their existing learning outcomes and look at how a placement can enrich them
  3. Work in partnership with community groups: The community partner will have an active stake in the students learning and development, often providing formative feedback.  Do not make assumptions about their needs, but work with them to develop a shared understanding
  4. Expect projects to evolve: If your students work with a community partner around a particular project, you should anticipate that their needs will evolve over time
  5. Communication: Develop a clear shared understanding of project goals among community partners and students, and an appreciation of the support needs of both communities and students 

Case study: CONNECTing with the community

Case study: The York Award