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4 November 2019
The Challenge of Delivering Community Engaged Teaching

On Monday, 28 October a passionate group of academics, scholars and activists gathered at the UWC Health and Sciences Campus in Bellville to interrogate the issue of Community Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL) in Higher Education.

Each of the attendees was there because they are driven to make institutions of higher learning more accountable to the communities in which they operate, and because they see the value of delivering real world solutions from the classroom into communities, and of informing academic pursuits with real world experience. In other words, the goal of the workshop was “to explore how teaching and learning pedagogies that include experiential, practical and community engaged types of learning may be clustered into a conceptual framework that is inclusive.”

 This workshop was part of a larger project that has been split into four distinct phases:

•       Developing a description of CETL;
•       Determining the theoretical grounding and practice of CETL;
•       Determining how CETL is supported in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs); and,
•       Identifying the challenges of scholars in CETL and their needs for capacity building.

Social Responsiveness

The ultimate goal of CETL is to produce socially responsive graduates, and to embed community engagement into South Africa’s social transformation agenda. It was broadly agreed that there are already pockets of excellence in most higher learning institutions, but that is not enough. It needs to be a campus-wide phenomenon in order for the benefits to really be felt.

That was the launchpad for the discussions, and when the attendees broke into groups to share their perceptions, they really began to grapple with the issues. Do we think this CETL is going to work? How do we take it forward? What are we going to call this “new animal”? Those were the sorts of questions that came up again and again.

Understanding Community Engagement

It quickly became clear that community engagement can take many forms. For example, when a guest lecturer comes to a university, that is community engagement. When a research paper is published and read by the community, that is engagement. And it’s not always about the academic institution visiting the community - sometimes the community comes onto campus as well.

Health services are often on the frontline of community engagement. From blood pressure and cholesterol testing to oral hygiene and mobile clinics, they experience a lot of interaction and are well positioned to talk about the challenges and rewards of CETL. Many of the attendees are out in the communities twice a week and they experience first-hand how much of a need there is from the people they serve. One of the participants noted that they are restricted to offering 250 hours of service per semester, and that is simply not enough.

Creating Social Change Agents

There was broad agreement that we are trying to shape students into social change agents, but how do we do that? Are we equipped to offer that kind of training?. “We need that capacity to be developed in us, so that we can share it with others,” exclaimed a UWC alumnus. More than a few people expressed reservations about how much of a real difference their research makes to the people on the ground. “We must ensure that the research has practical value,” they said. There was also an acknowledgement that while some people are very good community engagers, they may be not so good at publishing research, and are we honoring those engagers enough?

The fact is that community engagement is often given lower status than academic achievement. How can we change that? Perhaps through an awards system, someone suggested, so that we raise the status of and consciousness around community engagement amongst the academic community.


There was mutual agreement that university departments have a problem of often working in silos, completely unaware of what their colleagues on campus are doing. Blending departments would make a big difference, or appointing support people who would be able to facilitate collaboration and bridge the gaps. Capacity needs to be built on both sides of the equation.

People worry that CETL is not valued by the system. The tasks can feel thankless and overwhelming. That lack of perceived value affects morale and it affects the level of commitment that people bring to CETL. This is tremendously valuable work that should really be of great benefit to communities and needs to be valued as such. 

Safety was a massive issue and came up repeatedly. The whole move towards CETL breaks down when people are fearful or when incidents of crime and violence threaten the work being done. It’s difficult for young people to leave the safety of the campus and enter into stressful and volatile situations where their help is most needed. Naturally, these are areas where they face many threats. We need to negotiate around these fears, engage with the community to ensure safety, and build systems that really work to keep these young people safe.

Another issue that came up was indigenous solutions to the problems we face. It’s not helpful to simply import global theories around CETL and implement them - they need to be adapted for local conditions. Context is everything, and if you don’t ensure that indigenous knowledge is reflected, then you are not really ‘decolonizing’ and finding specific solutions.

9 Burning Issues That CETL Must Address

•       Failure to see links between theory and practice
•       Buy-in to the principles of Community Engagement
•       Student Commitment
•       A need for more opportunities
•       Doesn't transfer to the real world
•       People in university don't really know what their framework is
•       Safety
•       Lack of resources hamper people in what they need to do
•       Clear and agreed-upon timeframes

Finding Common Themes

The professors facilitating the day’s work, Professor Julie and Professor Smith-Token, were able to keep the focus firmly on solutions, and managed to gather all the concerns and ideas into themes for the day.

That issue of safety feeds into the theme of partnerships, both with the community and with other educational institutions that are practising CETL. The two-day event was a powerful opportunity to share ideas, form new bonds and learn from each other. Accountability also emerged as a theme, particularly with respect to impact indicators and how to measure impact.

At the end of the day, the discussions were profound and touched on many important issues. There was an immense pool of knowledge in the room, and a real desire to make sure that it is transferred to the community. Everyone acknowledged the importance of upskilling the communities where they work and ultimately, transferring ownership of the projects to the communities themselves.

With this much talent and commitment, there is a real sense that academic institutions are on the right track to creating positive, engaged students who have the right mindset to bring about positive change in whatever they do.