Jason Slade, a Department of Town and Regional Planning postgraduate student, tells us about his work on the department’s Community Engagement Initiative which is supported by the Engaged Curriculum Funding Stream.
The Department of Town and Regional Planning’s (TRP) Community Engagement Initiative has been launched this year and involves staff and students working with residents in Westfield, a disadvantaged community in South-East Sheffield, to help them plan a sustainable future for their local area. Westfield has received £1m in Big Lottery funding to be invested in neighbourhood improvements over the next 10 years and Dr Lee Crookes and Dr Andy Inch have been involved in establishing what is intended to become an ongoing, long-term partnership between TRP and the community that endeavours to provide mutual benefits for local residents and both staff and students in the department. The initiative represents a means of exploring the potential contribution of engaged action learning and research as a core feature of planning education at Sheffield, and as a contribution to the development of the engaged university.
Since October last year a group of 20 students have been volunteering and working alongside residents to develop a range of consultation activities and events. Significant achievements so far have included attracting high profile international visitors, the development of joint student-community training events, and the joint development of key action research projects to contribute to planning efforts in Westfield. In the spring semester this activity has been supplemented by the introduction of TRP453. This module offered student volunteers the opportunity to engage in credit-bearing reflective learning through a combination of University based seminars and practical engagement, which has involved developing a schools outreach programme to assist the wider project. This outreach programme aims to encourage young people to contribute ideas for change and improvement in the local area whilst also raising their aspirations to the possibility of university study.
We are using funding from the engaged curriculum project to help us understand the extent to which we have worked towards the desired outcomes for all involved. In particular, however, we are concerned with the anterior question of how we even begin to evaluate the initiative, as current evaluation models in higher education seem inadequate for evaluating engaged learning and teaching. These models frequently rely on pro forma questionnaires to address two sets of questions, the first around the development and improvement of teaching and student experience, and the second – of apparently ever increasing import – around quality assurance and standards (Hounsell, 2003). These are, of course, important, but engaged learning seems to have a different emphasis, leading to other questions that are best answered in different ways. Turning to our departmental module evaluation form highlights this point, as it asks students to use a scale of 1 to 5 to express the extent of their agreement with statements such as, ‘teaching sessions were effective’, ‘teaching staff were good at explaining things’, ‘the module was well run/managed’. Any insight we gain from this is likely to be extremely flat given the emphasis of our engagement in Westfield on processes of mutual learning and providing mutual benefit – for students, residents and staff – and by implication on a set of obligations for those involved that are based in mutuality. What we seem to need by contrast is a form of evaluation that moves away from understanding students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by an instructor in a classroom, towards allowing all participants, including residents, to express meaningfully the extent to which the process has helped to facilitate opportunities for critical reflection – and especially in the case of students to develop critical faculties – producing benefits, both more and less tangible, that might be harder to quantify than how easy or not students found producing the assessment.
In light of the discussion above we are using the engaged curriculum funding to assess the initiative so far, but are doing this through the exploration of new forms of evaluation that speak specifically to the priorities and desired outcomes of engaged learning and research. This has involved engaging me, a postgraduate researcher, to:
- Conduct a literature review of best practice in the evaluation of engaged, inquiry-led teaching and learning;
- Conduct interviews with students and residents;
- Facilitate a focus group that involves module staff, residents and students in reflection and discussion of the points raised in the interviews;
- Produce a report that brings these strands together, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach and recommending improvements.
Looking to the future we hope that this work can help us and others to identify areas critical to the development of the effective and continuing engagement of students and local residents in projects providing opportunities for mutual and collaborative learning, with an eye on expanding and strengthening the University’s engagement with communities in the city-region.
This project is supported by the Engaged Curriculum Fund, and is led by Dr Andy Inch and Dr Lee Crookes.