Public engagement in professional education: a new approach for Covid-19 lockdown

updated on 09 Oct 2023
4 minutes

The Comensus group at UCLan was set up to embed service user and carer voices within health and social care practice. Since lockdown they have had to adopt new, creative digital approaches to their engagement activity. 

The Comensus group at UCLan was set up to embed service user and carer voices within health and social care practice, but lockdown has meant they have had to adopt new digital approaches.



Janet Garner and Stevie Seymour are facilitators of service user and carer involvement at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. The Comensus group of service users and carers attend campus to participate in teaching and learning sessions, meetings and interviews. Since lockdown began for us, however, we have had to adopt a different approach supported by our fantastic digital team LIS (Learning and Information Services).

The Comensus group

We are fortunate to have our own space on campus with a coffee room, soft space area, volunteer office and staff offices for our team. Our community of 100 volunteers, 70+ community group partners and academic colleagues regularly drop in to visit us and take part in activities relating to health and social care education.  This enables us to nourish and sustain healthy, productive relationships with those who choose to engage, generating some truly inspired approaches to public engagement.

Lockdown: a 3 step model to engagement

Use the digital resources already created

Engage people in real time via Teams, Zoom, Adobe connect

Create new films and content using Flip grid, padlet, own computers

Fig 1. Comensus 3-step model to digital engagement.

Faced with a huge challenge to work from home and teach remotely, we had to think differently about service user and carer involvement in teaching and learning activity. Fortunately, during the summer and autumn of 2019, we created a digital resource library of our members’ video case studies and written accounts, to enhance academic teaching. Whilst the digital library was full of rich resources, we wanted to find ways to support people to engage online, to answer questions, and to allow further discussion with students. For this reason, we developed a three-step model to support this work.

We began by ensuring that volunteers who had access to smartphones, tablets and computers had University accounts (to protect personal information). This process was challenging, but massively rewarding when a week into lockdown we were having our first video calls with our volunteers. It’s quite hard to try to describe what something on a computer screen should look like over the phone! We were then able to invite Comensus members into live teaching events, create new resources for staff on software such as Flipgrid and Padlet, and engage members in stakeholder meetings. It’s fantastic to see that the volunteers have also replicated the coffee room feel in a digital way, by having their own Microsoft Teams space where they can share what they are doing, post pictures of their projects and most importantly stay connected with each other.

But what about those without computers or access to the internet?

You’re right, we thought about the same thing. We feel it’s important to stay in touch with everyone as regularly as possible to maintain the healthy relationships we have fostered. Some people have chosen not to engage online or by phone during this period and have promised to return when we can meet face-to-face.  We still hear from people via email and phone, letting us know how they are keeping going through difficult circumstances. We have trialled phone conferencing in meetings, which isn’t perfect, and used email to seek the views of others for curriculum development and approval events. After 6 months of working in this way, and the arrival of a second wave of Covid-19 impacting on face-to-face teaching, we have now secured funding for equipment which can be loaned out to those service user and carer colleagues who have been unable to engage up till now. Our volunteers continue to show as much dedication, commitment and support for the student experience as staff colleagues at the University. However, we all understand the need to keep each other safe by limiting the amount of people on campus during the autumn and winter of 2020-21.

We know we won’t go back to the same way of working, and lockdown has empowered us to aspire to a more blended approach in the future. Engaging people who have struggled to come onto campus, or who live further away is now possible. The lockdown provided us with the impetus and motivation to think differently, with the added pressure of having to do something, and quickly!

What are other people doing in their organisations to stay connected and how will you work differently in the future?

By Janet Garner and Stevie Seymour
Service User and Carer Involvement Facilitators, University of Central Lancashire, Email: Twitter - @UclanComensus

For more please visit:

A digital approach to public engagement – presentation and blog post 

DigiLearn Champions Podcast, Episode 4