During the period from November 2012 to July 2013, a team of staff and student researchers undertook an institutional scan of Community-Engaged Teaching, Learning, and Research at Wilfrid Laurier University (Laurier). This project was initiated by the Centre for Community Service-Learning (LCCSL) and emerged from the need to better document the depth and breadth of community engagement at Laurier.
Laurier’s commitment to community engagement
Laurier’s Values, Vision and Mission statements and its Academic Plan 2010-2015 stress the importance of community engagement and experiential learning. In these documents, Laurier articulates a commitment to valuing new and integrated communities of learning and application, diversity, and a culture of inclusivity. Key priorities are the development of the whole person, community focus and global engagement, a life of purpose and citizenship, and learning through experience.
Previous evaluation of Community Service-Learning
The Centre for Community, Research, Learning and Action conducted a study of the Community Service-Learning program in 2010/2011. Although the past study differs in scope and purpose from this current project, the key findings of the previous study are documented in Appendix II of this report. In essence, the 2010/11 study found that
- community partners have varying opinions about their partnership with Laurier and typically want stronger connections;
- faculty members see many benefits in community-engaged teaching and learning but experience a lack of recognition for Community-Engaged Scholarship during tenure and promotion to be limiting. Contract Academic Faculty face additional challenges due to the precarious nature of their employment;
- students experience community-engaged learning to be beneficial but also reported challenges with unclear expectations and logistics;
- Laurier administrators recognize the benefits of CES and see the relevance of community engagement to university’s values, vision and mission.
Purpose of the project
This project was aimed at increasing awareness and institutional capacity for Community-Engaged Scholarship (CES) at Laurier by providing increased clarity of what CES means, by identifying various facets of related activities, and by providing resources and recommendations to strengthen community engagement at Laurier. Specifically, this project pursued three main questions:
- How can CES be defined at Laurier?
- What CES activities currently exist?
- How can CES at Laurier be strengthened?
Through literature and document review, online survey, focus groups and interviews, information was gathered to capture the breadth and depth of community engagement.
An electronic survey was shared with students, faculty and staff, and generated 308 responses. A total of 30 students participated in six focus groups which were held on both Waterloo and Brantford campuses. Nine semi-structured key informant interviews with faculty were conducted on both Waterloo and Brantford campuses.
Defining Community- Engaged Scholarship
To ignite discussion and to increase conceptual clarity of Community-Engaged Scholarship at Laurier, several definitions of CES were discussed with participants of this project (see 6.1 and Appendix I). In addition, survey respondents were asked to share their own preferred definition of Community-Engaged Scholarship. The resulting key themes are
- mutually beneficial partnerships;
- applied learning;
- knowledge co-creation and mobilization; as well as
- purposeful and active engagement.
It is important to note that, among many participants, the term scholarship evoked the monetary meaning, leading many to believe that CES describes a financial incentive given to those who are engaged in community work. In response to this ambiguity, the term Community-Engaged Teaching, Learning, and Research has been used in addition to Community-Engaged Scholarship (CES).
Civic Responsibility of Higher Education
The role of higher education in addressing complex issues affecting communities in a global society has been stressed in both the Canadian and American higher education landscape. In the Canadian context, a group of eight universities along with Campus Community Partnerships for Health have formed an initiative to integrate CES more broadly into the culture of Canadian Universities.
Through the Presidents’ Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, more than American 400 college and university presidents committed their institutions to renew the role of universities “as agents of our democracy, catalyze and lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education” (Boyte & Hollander, 1999, pp. 3-4).
Community-engaged activities at Laurier
Through a scan of web and print material, a list of over 100 community-engaged programs and activities at Laurier was generated. These are coordinated by academic and non-academic departments and range from public lectures to intensive community placement experiences, both locally and globally. In addition to listing the activities in this report, an electronic overview of Laurier’s CES activities has been created on this project’s homepage at wlu.ca/csl/ces.
Awareness and Involvement in CES
A common theme among students, faculty and staff members was the limited awareness of both the concept of CES and opportunities to become engaged in Community-Engaged Teaching, Learning, and Research. Many participants commented on the limited information available concerning CES and particular forms of engagement, such as Community Service-Learning (CSL).
Student Awareness and Engagement
54% of students surveyed felt that they did not have a clear understanding of what community-engaged scholarship actually means. The majority of students (58%) felt that they had time to invest in community-engaged learning and the same percentage (58%) indicated that they did not value academic success more than community involvement.
A vast majority of students (83%) reported experiencing community members as guest speakers or co-instructors in at least one of their Laurier classes. Almost two thirds (63%) of students surveyed had participated in co-curricular volunteering (no course credit associated) at least once since becoming a student at Laurier. Students surveyed reported participating in a range of CES activities, including trips to community organizations (28%), participating in an internship or placement through Laurier (22%), and conducting community based research as members of the Laurier community (20%).
A large majority of students (72%) suggested that the idea of combining work in the community with university coursework should be practiced more in classes at Laurier and 75% of student respondents were supportive of paying a small additional fee if required for community-engaged learning.
Faculty Awareness and Engagement
Laurier faculty members and Contract Academic Faculty pursue Community-Engaged Teaching and Research to varying degrees across a wide spectrum of activities.
Nearly half (46%) of faculty surveyed felt they had a clear understanding of what CES means whereas 8% of faculty strongly felt that they did not. Nearly two thirds (62%) of faculty surveyed believed that time was not a barrier to CES and a majority of faculty (58%) reported that working in the community is beneficial to their own research and teaching. An even greater number of faculty surveyed believe that community-engaged scholarship improves student learning, and helps link classroom subject matter to everyday life (73%). Similarly, 77% of faculty surveyed report a belief that community-engaged scholarship is beneficial to the community.
However, only 12% of faculty surveyed believe CES is adequately rewarded in Laurier’s tenure and promotion practices. 42% of faculty surveyed would like more support in linking their teaching and research with community issues, and 31% indicated they would be open to teaching a community service-learning course if they had support with course development.
Benefits of Community Engagement
- Applied Teaching and Learning - The most commonly reported benefit of Community-Engaged Teaching, Learning, and Research are enhanced skill development, and applied learning opportunities.
- Enhanced Research - In addition to improving teaching and learning, pursuing CES was found to provide research opportunities across a wide range of disciplines. Faculty members observed that relevance of research and effective knowledge mobilization are gaining importance when applying to research grants, in particular through SSHRC.
- Strengthened Community-University Relationships - The positive impact of CES on the relationship between university and community was reported by many respondents. In particular, the increased relevance of the university to the public and improved mutual understanding were found to be benefits of CES.
- Evidence-based and Transformational Change - Related to the previous theme, a fourth theme that emerged is the potential of CES to effect evidence-based and transformational change in community, as well as change among students and faculty.
Challenges with Community Engagement
- Limited Awareness of CES - The low awareness regarding the concept of CES and related activities, resources and supports at Laurier poses a challenge to pursuing Community-Engaged Teaching, Learning, and Research insofar as available resources may not be utilized effectively. Further, limited awareness of CES activities may result in missed opportunities for coordinating those activities and building synergies when developing community partnerships.
- Integration of Community-based Learning - Students acknowledged the intent of course instructors to link course objectives with community experience through CSL experienced. However, many students wished that there was a higher degree of integration between the course-based and community-based learning in CSL courses.
- Structure - Students shared that finding the right amount of structure when pursuing community-engaged learning can be a challenge, in particular CSL. Many participants hoped for a higher degree of structure and clarity.
- Expectations and Communication - A commonly articulated challenge was the theme of expectations and perception. Faculty members and students raised issues of unclear expectations, and identified gaps between expectation and reality of CES.
Time and Cost - Students and faculty members raised time and financial constraints as a key challenge when pursuing CES. It was agreed that engaging with community and the building of effective relationships requires substantial amounts of time and may also be associated with additional costs.
Support and Training - Several students commented on the importance of the support and training they received when pursuing community-engaged learning through CSL. Students stressed the importance of having consistent access to key support staff at the community organization and at Laurier. Some students do not feel adequately trained and prepared and suggested communicating expectations more clearly regarding support and training both at Laurier and the community partner.
Faculty Employment, Tenure and Promotion Processes - Consistent with research in the field of CES, employment, tenure and promotion processes were identified as challenges by faculty when pursuing community-engaged teaching and research. Some faculty members, including Contract Academic Faculty (CAF), feel that the “work in community engaged teaching and research is not adequately reflected in the tenure and promotion process” and that incorporating CSL into teaching “requires more time, energy, and may jeopardize the prospect of a full-time position.”For Contract Academic Faculty, there are particular challenges in pursuing CES due to the lack of job security, little office time and limited resources, such as office space.
Partner Organizations and On-campus Engagement - Several faculty members and students identified the availability of community partners as a difficulty, both in terms of finding suitable partners as well as maintaining close and consistent communication.
The community partners surveyed reported primarily positive but also some negative experiences in their interaction with Laurier and the Centre for Community Service-Learning. While most organizations derive benefit from their university-community linkages, several community partners also shared frustration regarding collaboration and communication with Laurier.
Encouraged by the generally positive experience of partnering with Laurier, many community partners expressed an interest in continuing and possibly expanding their current involvement with the university.
Based on the findings and the advice shared by faculty members, staff and students, 18 recommendations were developed. Although they are grouped by main addressee, several recommendations require coordinated efforts among various stakeholders at Laurier, i.e. faculty members, staff, students, and administration.
Centre for Community Service Learning
- Broaden and deepen opportunities for community-engaged teaching and learning
- Strengthen supports to course instructors who pursue community-engaged teaching
- Increase awareness of Community-Engaged Scholarship at Laurier
- Enhance supports to students
- Coordinate community-engaged activities
- Facilitate relationship building to link university resources with community needs
- Define CES at Laurier
- Clearly designate CSL Courses in Academic Calendar and LORIS
- Recognize and reward course instructors who pursue community-engaged teaching, learning, and research
- Develop a strategy and policy for Community Engaged Scholarship
- Find peers in the field of CES
- Create community connections before they are needed for teaching or research
- Articulate value of CES
- Creatively link community with classroom learning
- Be open to new experiences and get involved
- Develop clear objectives for learning and community impact
- Develop effective time management skills
- Increase awareness of self and others
The scan of community-engaged activities at Laurier indicates that many academic and non-academic departments creatively connect university and community in teaching, learning, and research. However, this study also suggests that there is potential to increase awareness of and support for community engagement.
Community engagement closely aligns with Laurier’s vision, mission and Academic Plan. It is hoped that this document serves as a resource for further efforts to strengthen Community-Engaged Teaching, Learning, and Research at Wilfrid Laurier University.