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Community Engagement in a Socially Distant World

19 May 2021
Figure 1: An Example of one group’s ‘in-progress’ Jamboard frame 

Community engaged learning and research projects by their very nature are typically carried out in person. The personable relationships established by working side-by-side over several weeks and months is a unique characteristic of engaged learning and research and is an essential component for success. However, owing to changes created by COVID19, it’s worth considering how to undertake CEL in an online environment. It might not always be as effective, but the outcomes might just surprise you (in a good way).  

An Established CEL Module

PG6025 is a purpose-built, standalone 5-credit module that any PhD student across UCC can take. The CBPR module was designed with the aim of building students’ participatory research skills and enhancing the democratic citizenship of our student population.  The module coordinators identify one community partner to work with per year whom the students engage with throughout the course of semester 2. The module sessions are structured so that students typically do a week on campus (UCC students and staff only) and a week in their community partner’s premises (all participants) or a neutral venue such as St. Peter’s, Cork City. The students are assessed based on their engagement in the classroom and community-based sessions and by submitting a reflective journal portfolio following the module’s completion (100% C.A., Pass/Fail). The module is hands-on, whereby the students typically co-design the teaching activities with the lecturers (and if appropriate the community partners) and lead out on the implementation of these strategies. It is a cycle of learning, modeling and improving.  

This type of approach is made possible because the module was designed from scratch and does not need to, for example, align with wider programmatic goals. For those who are new to CEL, this type of approach may be out of reach. The smaller, more manageable CEL initiatives may be more suitable until such a time as lecturers gain experience in CEL and there is an established culture of CEL developed in the School or Department. You can access examples of more accessible CEL approaches in the Learn with Communities section.  

Owen Jump (Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) lectures on a Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR) module for PhD students (PG6025). He tells us the story of the 2020 iteration of the module and specifically recounts the process of having to move from the module’s regular face to face mode of delivery to wholly online as a result of COVID19 restrictions. Google Drive and Google Jamboard (an interactive whiteboard) were instrumental teaching tools utilised by the teaching team. Both are part of the G Suite for Education and available to all UCC Staff and students by using their UCC credentials.

Community Engagement in an Online World by Owen Jump (CIRTL) 

Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is an approach to research in the community that seeks to democratize the research process by using a framework that taps into community resilience and resources to identify opportunities for growth. Central to the collaboration between the university and the community is co-learning and a reciprocal transfer of expertise between partners that promotes mutual ownership of the research agenda. PG6025 is a postgraduate module in UCC that allows students to learn the principles, policies and practices of participatory research in this context. For postgraduate students who take the module, it engages them in a co-creation research process with a community partner. For the community partners it is an opportunity to work within their community to guide and take ownership of a research process while sharing the lived experience and expertise of their community with the students.  

A Year Interrupted

2020 marked the fifth year of PG6025 in UCC and our community partners for the year were led by Green Spaces for Health in South Parish in Cork City. Green spaces for Health is a community led initiative that is working to maintain existing green spaces and seek out new greening opportunities to improve community health.  Maria Young of Green Spaces for Health acted as a community liaison to bring in other community members from the South Parish area. Our students and community partner group first met in February 2020.  

The first meeting of the newly formed collaboration took place in a large room in Nano Nagle Place in South Parish. The group, comprised of eleven students and twelve community partners, were led through the initial introductions and then guided through the first session, a community body mapping exercise [1], that aimed to identify assets and strengths within the community. The exercise has a dual role in this context, to act as an ice breaker and to identify some key locations important to the community. These locations were used in the second session, the community-led walk.  

In the second session, the students and community members participated in community-led walking interviews. Walking interviews [2] are used as a means of understanding how the places within a community are experienced by the community members themselves and provide rich and authentic data that is anchored in those contexts. The combined groups took part in the walking interviews in early March 2020 and in a following classroom session with all partners they reported that the exercise was successful and had generated large amounts of materials including photographs and audio recordings of the interviews. The third session was planned, and the group was scheduled to use the data generated from walking sessions, including the body mapping data, index cards, photographs, and audio to identify projects of importance to them in their community. The next session however would not take place as the first wave of COVID19 lockdowns interrupted the work.  

Making the Transition

The interruption of lockdown left our group in a difficult position. The work of the CBPR module had been, until this point, a very tactile and hands-on approach. Groups met, often in cramped rooms, and moved research materials around the physical environment - activities were deliberately designed this way to democratize the processes. Our experience to date as facilitators, students, and community partners had been entirely in this context until we had to move online.  

The first task was to digitize all the previously generated research materials. We had considered starting over but there was too much good work done to date. We photographed the index cards and maps and uploaded the photographs to an online platform. At this stage, the typical exercise would be carried out in a physical space. The index cards, maps and photographs would be spread around a room and the community partners would physically organise them into themes and identify actionable projects. This time the materials would be hosted on a Google Drive and Google JamBoard. The idea was to try to replicate the physical activity as closely as possible. Another characteristic of this stage of the module was that students take the lead on running the activities, so this session would be facilitated by students.  

In the first online session there was a recap of the previous sessions, and the community partners were briefed on the new online format. The students and partners were then split into groups and assigned to breakout rooms to work on their respective JamBoards.

Unexpected Benefits

Although there were some technical challenges, the session was very successful. The feedback from the students and partners was positive and the online session was surprisingly interactive - it even suited some of our community partners better, and in the context of the pandemic it had been the first community activity they had been able to participate in for a while. After a discussion to capture the student and community partner experience of the online format we planned the next session, and the community partners led the discussion on what outcomes they would like to see from the project.  

The final sessions, again conducted online, were a resounding success. The interactions between the students and partners, although very different, had all the rewarding characteristics of the face-to-face sessions. The group had designed a process by which they could conduct walking interviews, within socially distanced and public heath guidelines, and using the online tools, produce working actionable research projects.

More importantly, the sessions themselves had been beneficial for the community partners and we had inadvertently identified a novel way of interaction that allowed for increased accessibility for a cohort within the community group. Although the pandemic left us in a difficult situation initially, the tools and processes that were used have ultimately been beneficial and allowed us to integrate more adaptable methods in the module and future community projects.  

Further Reading 

  1. Skop, M. (2016). The art of body mapping: A methodological guide for social work researchers.Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work28(4), 29. 
  2. Kinney, P. (2018). Walking interview ethics. In R.Iphofen, & M. Tolich (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research ethics. Sage UK. Credo Reference: 
  3. Thomas, M., and O’Mahony, C. (2020) More Engaging Teaching throughVisualisingThinking  


For more on this story contact:

This Practice Insight is published by @UCC_CIRTL and @UCC_Civic as part of the CE Toolkit for embedding civic and community engagement in the curriculum. Discover more about How to Enhance Partnerships

To find out more about this CBPR module you can access information here or contact the module coordinator, Ruth Hally:

Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL)

West Lodge, Main Campus,