How to ... Learn in the community

July 23, 1999

WHAT

David Hall and Irene Hall explain how students can use research skills to help voluntary bodies WHY

Students discover some real-world applications for what they have learned

and charities benefit too

HOW

Two students sit side by side entering data on a computer, one at the keyboard while the other reads out information. What is special about this? It is obviously a team activity, using IT. But is there anything more?

The setting is not the university but the office of a voluntary organisation for single parents, and the data are being analysed for presentation in a report that the organisation can use to evaluate its services and to help it obtain funding.

This project, and others like it, comes from the programme of community-based learning that has been developed at Liverpool University and Liverpool Hope University College, where students are matched with voluntary organisations on Merseyside that have research needs.

The local community has become the location of experience, work and learning for these students, and their projects are assessed as part of their degree through two reports that they produce - one for the client organisation, which can be a team product, and one for their academic department, which allows individual reflection.

What is community-based learning?

The Liverpool model of applied research is part of a wider movement in Britain and other countries that brings together a number of different strands of educational development:

Independent learning

Work-based learning

Experiential learning

Development of personal skills and or key skills

University-community collaboration

Service learning and active citizenship.

For students, experiential learning has real meaning, as is clear from some of their comments: "Taking other people's feelings and limitations, as well as their inspirations, into account was an extraordinary experience. Working within the community was another great learning experience."

"Taking what has been learnt throughout three years of sociology lectures and actually putting it into practice was well worth the hard work that was put into this project Finally I discovered that I can work really hard and put 100 per cent into something when it really matters to me."

"I think the main way the learning in this research project differs from other academic courses is the placement of academia in the context of reality: the reality of beginning and maintaining a relationship with a client organisation and not a textbook, the reality of negotiating then renegotiating a research plan. The reality of looking beyond our wants and learning to listen to what the organisation wants. The reality of approaching members of the public without whose opinions the research could not take place."

What are the advantages?

It is attractive to students. Where the research project is an alternative to the final-year dissertation, as at Liverpool, there is the additional satisfaction of knowing that the information collected is going to be used.

Community groups and voluntary organisations find such projects attractive because they are negotiated to meet their research needs - unlike a more traditional model, in which students conduct research primarily for their own interest and there is little benefit for the organisation.

Organisations are asked to pay only expenses, and the research comes with some guarantee of quality through the students' supervision.

One coordinator of a charity for young people with learning disabilities identified other positive aspects: "The projects show funding authorities that we have a serious role in trying to develop facilities for people with disabilities and the development of these services is based on actual, practical, quality research This is perhaps the first time young people with learning disabilities have been asked their opinions, so it is an important part of their learning process."

For lecturers, there is reward in seeing students extend themselves to take up the challenge of applied research and of supervising fieldworkers to obtain a credible result. There is also the opportunity to work closely with the voluntary sector in the city in ways that enhance knowledge and may lead to further research.

Against this, however, is the cost in time and the effort of resourcing such learning opportunities, which many will see as the main drawback to introducing community-based learning. So what can be done?

How to get started

In some areas of Britain there are intermediary organisations for arranging projects, such as the Northern Ireland Science Shop, Community Exchange in Manchester and Interchange on Merseyside. Some universities, such as Middlesex, have placement officers for work-based learning in the careers service.

In other departments, lecturers may be assigned placement duties or students are expected to find the placements themselves.

To make a start, it is worth considering:

Investigating whether placement arrangements exist in the careers service or student community action

Developing contacts with local community groups and voluntary organisations and sizing up their research needs

Basing expansion on existing research methods courses and building up slowly with a small core of interested tutors and students

Negotiating projects.

Community organisations may have few spare resources and be resistant to traditional academic research. But an approach based on partnership is likely to be successful.

Such a model calls for negotiation between the organisation, the supervisor and the student so that what is agreed is relevant to the organisation's needs and is possible to complete in a limited timescale, within students' competence and with organisational support.

Access to information - people to interview, names and addresses for questionnaires - is crucial, so part of the negotiation will be to define the target sample and enlist the help of the organisation as "gatekeeper" in making access possible.

Finally, the research must be substantial and have potential for assessment and realistic limits.

Examples of projects include: evaluations of organisations from the point of view of their end-users and volunteers; feasibility studies for developments that organisations would like to provide and for which they are seeking funding; researching and producing publicity leaflets; and even collecting oral histories of local communities.

Projects have been done for local branches of national organisations such as Victim Support, Home-Start, Age Concern, Rape Crisis, Citizens' Advice Bureau, the Children's Society, Barnardos, Nacro and Phoenix House, as well as with a variety of local charitable organisations.

The project outcome

The outcome is likely to be a research report, but it can also be publicity leaflets, information booklets and videos - a very different task from the usual essay.

What is wanted from applied research is a report written directly for the organisation - in clear, accessible English, and illustrated with tables, photographs and charts - that will communicate the findings to a non-academic audience.

For the academic audience, the separate reflexive report describes the project, assesses the methods used in carrying it out and reflects on the student's own learning.

Assessment

Academic assessment of community-based learning should reflect the competences being practised and documented, not just through the project reports but also through research plans, research diaries and oral presentations.

Assessment criteria need to be developed

so that marking schedules take account of skills in communication, use of IT, problem-solving, teamwork and self-management of learning.

The Dearing report advocated active learning through practical experience. Experiential learning involves both action and reflection to qualify as learning. The evidence is that students can and do achieve this through community-based projects.

The CoBaLT project

The authors are members of the CoBaLT project, a partnership between Liverpool Hope University College, the University of Liverpool and the University of Birmingham.

The CoBaLT project is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England through the Fund for Development of Teaching and Learning to disseminate good practice in community-based learning in sociology and other disciplines.

The team has produced a video, which

is available to higher education institutions

in England and Wales. A second video will

be available shortly, and a third one is in preparation. Further details can be found on the CoBaLT website at: www.bham.ac.uk/cobalt

David Hall is lecturer in sociology, University of Liverpool, and Irene Hall is senior lecturer in sociology, Liverpool Hope University College.

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