Practice Insights

Top Tips for Setting up a Learning Partnership

9 Feb 2021
ENTRE MUNDOS / BETWEEN WORLDS - Images of Life between Mexico and Ireland; exhibition of photographic images by members of the Mexican Community in Cork. Opened by Mexican Ambassador, HE Mr Miguel Malfavón, Community Week 2019. A partnership of The Centre for Mexican Studies, Cork City Library, Mexican Community in Cork (Mexicanos en Cork). Image by Ger McCarthy. School of Languages, Literatures & Culture, CACSSS.

If you want to integrate Community Engaged Learning into your teaching the best way to do this is with a community partner. Cultivating the relationship with your community partner is an essential ingredient to supporting positive learning experiences and outcomes for all involved. In practice this means incorporating time for planning with your community partner to establish clear expectations, mutually beneficial activities, and a shared understanding of what's involved for staff, students and community partners. Here's some top tips for setting up partnerships for community engaged learning initiatives.  

Get the Right Community Partner 

Do you have a community partner? If not, you might be considering which community groups or organisations are viable options for your curriculum area. Check out the Stakeholder Mapping exercisewithin this toolkit to record the wide variety of immediate and wider stakeholders connected to your disciplinary area. 

Synergy between the work of the community organisation and the disciplinary area of the lecturer is important. This could be an obvious connection such a lecturer in the area of Midwifery Studies working with a charity established to support families affected by stillbirth or neonatal death. Collaborations could also be based on a shared interest in an acute societal issue where both partners (the University and the community group) bring unique expertise to the table. Other logistical factors to consider in the early stages of partner identification might be:  

  • Who will you be engaging with during the proposed CEL initiative? Are they staff members, volunteers, members of the organisation or people brought together by a common purpose?  
  • Where will the engagement take place? You might imagine bringing students into the community or the community in to UCC. The geographical proximity of the partner might be an important consideration. Consider whether students and community participants will be able to walk or whether you need to consider transport arrangements. 
  • When? Does your partner have an established premises (meeting space) or do they meet informally in rented, community rooms? Do they meet within student hours?   

Agree your partnership goals i.e . what you want to achieve together 

So you have identified a community partner interested in connecting with you, or maybe you have a good relationship with a community organisation and want to progress ideas for how learning could take place within a community setting. It's time to get talking! Meet with your community partner and start discovering what you would like to work on together and the best route forward to do this. It goes against the essence of community engagement to pre-plan exactly what will be achieved and to stick to that plan throughout the partnership, especially as it is not possible for all participating individuals (for example community participants and University students) to be present in the preplanning stages. However, it is important to scope out the parameters of the collaboration with your community contact and have a general idea of your main goals and what you would like to achieve together. This is useful for many reasons but especially since most CEL initiatives are subject to the time constraints of the academic semester. If you have a broad idea of what you want to work on together you can begin to identify learning initiatives and select appropriate resources to support you in meeting your objectives for the partnership. You may work on more than one CEL initiative with the same community partner over time towards a longer term goal. 

Establish a consistent community contact 

It can be helpful to have a consistent community contact as a key liaison person, throughout the duration of the partnership or a specific learning initiative. Establishing this early on and agreeing what role will this person play when the CEL initiative is live provides for smooth co-ordination and will save you time in the long run when communicating with your community partner. It is important to consider if the presence of your key liaison person will affect the contribution of the wider group during planned engaged learning activities.  

Learning Agreements 

Once you have established a promising partnership and explored its possibilities, it can be beneficial for both parties to demonstrate their commitment to a partnership by signing an informal agreement. A learning agreement prompts both organisations to outline what is important to them and to underline the significance of the partnership to those involved. For example, the community contact person you are working with may feel anxious about the involvement of community members; what if this is more of the same, extraction-based research where the members do not feel valued or heard? For the university contact person, they may feel a responsibility to create a high-quality learning experience for students who have chosen this elective module for credit; what if it’s a flop and students feel the topics explored have no relationship to their area of study? These are very natural concerns and expressing these types of concerns with your partner are important. Putting pen to paper in a learning agreement provides an extra reassurance that each partner is committed to the partnership and signals a respect for the unique position of each organisation. Campus Engage detail the purpose of Learning Agreements and have compiled some examples here.   

Rules of Engagement 

In additional to your relationship with your community partner, it may be a good idea to establish rules of engagement for the learning initiative. This is separate to the learning agreement and usually done with all participants. For example, during the first community-based session, students and community participants make the decision to articulate and record their preferences for how the partnership should progress. This may include etiquette such as: respecting the diverse opinions and views, not talking over each other, keeping confidences within the group etc. 

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This Practice Insight is published as part of the Toolkit for Embedding Civic and Community Engagement in the Curriculum. Explore more insights for How to Cultivate Core Values or find out more About the Toolkit here.

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