Transitioning to Online Community Engaged Learning

The pandemic has drastically affected our communities and our partnerships. Students’ engagement with community organizations has also shifted from in-person and on-site engagement to online platforms without a physical presence. Even still, at the Centre for Community Engaged Learning, we believe students can benefit from a virtual community engaged learning course based experience. We have developed a series of tools and resources intended to support instructors to pivot the delivery of community engaged learning to a virtual setting.

You can scroll through the entire series of prompts, tools and resources, or use the buttons below to navigate directly to the most relevant sections.

Questions for Consideration

You may be wondering whether a virtual community engaged learning experience will enable you to achieve course objectives and learning outcomes. The following prompting questions are intended to provide you the opportunity to reflect on this and related considerations before beginning course planning in earnest.

Purpose (What, Why)

  • What is your motivation for including community engaged learning in your course? 
  • What is the intended depth and scale of engagement for students? for partners? 
  • What is critical to a successful experience for you, your students, and community partners?

Participants (Who)

  • Who are your students? What skills, knowledge, and interests do they bring to the class?
  • What support will be required to keep students engaged, on task and feel supported?
  • What organizations/communities are potential partners? Are these new or returning partners? How has their capacity been affected by the pandemic? How might it affect your partnership?
  • Are you the sole instructor of the course? Will you have a co-instructor or teaching assistant? What skills, knowledge and capacity will each of you bring to the work?

Process (How, Where, When)

  • Will you be modifying an existing community engaged learning course? 
  • What are the course objectives? What competencies and learning outcomes will students develop through this course?
  • What specific learning outcomes will be demonstrated by specific activities in the online community engaged learning project?

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like to talk through how your course can transition to online community engaged learning

Meaningfully Transitioning From In-person to Online

Community Engaged Learning is a powerful pedagogy, allowing students to learn immersively, both from the expertise of the community and discipline and from the experience of being in a place itself,  especially through its sights, smells, history, landscapes, people and stories.  Students learn by doing, observing, applying, analyzing, creating and changing, alongside their community partners, using guidance from  disciplinary lenses,  primarily in place-based settings.

Thus, online space, by the very nature of being remote, can dramatically change the experience of community engaged learning,  in large part because it isn’t possible to recreate the embodied learning that occurs by being physically present in spaces and communities.

Nonetheless, online community engaged learning can still be transformative and immersive for students, especially  when the five core principles of community engaged learning are  forefronted and encouraged through thoughtful course design and with special consideration given to the unique ways students can meaningfully connect with a place and community in virtual spaces.

The Five Core Principles of community engaged learning are:

  • Connection to Discipline
  • Community-Driven
  • Community as Teacher/Co-Educator
  • Reciprocity
  • Critical Reflection

The following considerations can be used to guide your thinking to support meaningful connections to people and places, ensure projects support partner priorities and develop a balance teaching and learning space that optimizes synchronous and asynchronous work:

Connections with People and Places

  • What does the community  think is important  for a  student to know about,  and experience, about a place and its people? How can diverse opinions of what is important to know be highlighted? Who do you need to ask to find out?
  • How can you encourage first-person interaction with a community, so they can share their thoughts, feelings and experiences about their interaction with a place, initiative or concept?
    • Can community members share their thoughts and experiences directly with students through virtual tools (Zoom, Phone, Skype)?  Can you encourage diverse community members to participate?
    • Are there resources that already exist, like ethnographies, interviews or documentaries about a place and community you might leverage? 
  • What virtual tools can help students get to know a place, beyond its location?
    • Consider using google maps, for example, to help students create an asset map of a community, or take a virtual tour using street-view and then have students reflect on what they see and experience.  
    • Are there Youtube videos, or other primary source materials,  of a place or community that might be valuable tools?
    • Are their podcasts, documentaries or blogs which can help a student get to know a place and its people?
    • How can students explore and understand the limitations of getting to know people and places virtually?
  • Consider having students critically reflect on who and what they would want others to know about their own communities.  
    • What biases are embedded in the ideas, sights, and sounds they choose to share?  
    • What elements of their community are hard to capture without actually physically being there? 
    • Then, help students apply this reflection to the distance-based engagement with their community partner.
  • How can meaningful connections be maintained throughout the length of a course?
    • Ask what meaningful connection means for the community.  Is it regularly scheduled audio-visual check-ins?  Is it written communication?  Is it formal or informal updates?
    • Consider having students explore if, and how, their relationship with a place and it’s people has changed over time, despite being physically distant.  What are new questions that emerge, realizations that occur or desires that they have?

Partnerships and Projects

Often, community needs are hands-on, project-based and time-bound. (i.e. giving workshops, planting a garden, creating a resource).  Some of these ideas lend themselves easily to online spaces, whereas others don’t. However, most projects can be pivoted successfully online, with long-term benefits, with just a few amendments and considerations:

Clarify Needs

  • When community partners decide to collaborate on CEL experiences, there is often a need that they are hoping to address.  Because virtual CEL limits how we can interact with community needs, it is imperative that the purpose and outcomes of projects are clearly delineated – more than normal – in advance of projects starting.  This is important not only to help clarify roles and expectations, but also to help collaborators think of creative ways needs might be addressed in physically distant ways. 

Focus on Sustainable, Hybrid Projects Outcomes and Deliverables 

How Can We Help a Partner Do This Long Term?

  • Rather than simply moving an initiative online (i.e. virtual workshops, which might address an immediate need) , consider how students might help partners develop the capacity and resources to deliver initiatives online, long-term. What templates, guides or resources are needed and how can these tools be accessible enough to be used by others beyond the current course?  Is it possible to create both online resources and in-person resources which are meaningfully different?

How Can We Help a Partner Do This In-Person, When Its Okay To Do So?

  • Consider how you might be able to help a partner address an in-person need better, when it is safe to do so.  Do they need a better volunteer recruitment strategy or tools? Do they need a toolkit or planting guide? Do they need materials translated into other languages or for people with different abilities?

What Are the Capacity and Resource Limitations, if any, of Our Partners, Long Term?

  • Although building digital resources might be intriguing for partners, consider the amount of work required to maintain websites, social media presence and digital resources.   How will these types of resources be maintained long-term?  In some cases, it might be better to focus on creating more useful analog resources (posters, plans, etc) for use in the future.

Technology Divides, Distance and Equity

Given that not everyone has equal access to technology or learning spaces, and that not everyone is working within the same schedule or time zone, there is abundant need to consider the diversity of ways virtual interactions impact students and community.  As you plan your courses, carefully consider how to create more equitable learning spaces by allowing for diverse ways to interact with the course and course materials.  For example:

  • Consider what actually needs to happen synchronously and what can happen asynchronously.  When considering synchronous scheduling, keep in mind the different time zones and scheduling needs of various participants.
  • Consider what  actually needs to be Zoom, what could be a phone call and what might be better as another form of digital communication. Ask students and partners what tools they already use to communicate (i.e. WhatsApp) and consider integrating those into your teaching approach.  
  • Consider that some digital things are not possible for all people because of the limitations of devices, bandwidth or skill.  Allow students and partners the opportunity to share these limitations with you without penalty.
  • Consider limiting your online meetings to < 1 hour with opportunities to interact for shorter periods, throughout the week.  It is challenging for people to stay focused, without interruption, for long periods of time at home, in front of a screen.

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like to talk through how your course can transition to online community engaged learning

Student Learning Outcomes

The Student Learning Outcomes tables are populated with some of the outcomes that are known to be possible from the literature on Community Service Learning and Community Engaged Learning organized by three thematic areas: intellectual growth, civic engagement and personal growth. Although the specific outcomes achieved in any one course are mediated by many factors, including course content, discipline, assignment design, type and intensity of community project and experience, and group vs. individual work, you should see links and parallels to your own course objectives and learning outcomes. 

This resource is designed to focus your thinking on how to attend to these example learning outcomes and determine what is possible. As this list is not exhaustive, we encourage you to share your own examples with us, so we might continue to update this resource for use by faculty teaching community engaged learning online.

PDF iconCEL Online- Student Outcomes.pdf

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like support to think through your learning outcomes and how they can be achieved with online community engaged learning

Reflection Activities and Questions

In addition to the reflection tools already developed by CCEL, and in recognition of the importance of reflection as a key driver in supporting the learning process and enabling the achievement of learning outcomes, what follows are a series of considerations and resources to support reflective learning throughout a virtual community engaged course. 

Important considerations for instructors:

  • The desired learning goals and associated learning objectives in an online community engaged learning setting might be different from the learning objectives in a traditional community engaged course. Before designing reflection activities, determine your course learning objectives.
  • Regular or midpoint reflection assignments can be used as formative assessments to enable you to continuously learn about the student’s experiences, the efficacy of the reflection assignments, and their progression toward achievement of learning outcomes (Ash & Clayton, 2009). 
  • A final reflection (summative assessment) can help you evaluate the student’s achievement of the learning objectives.

Example Reflection Activities for Online Community Engaged Learning


  • Online journaling / blogging
  • 3 minute free writes
  • Sentence stems
  • Image prompts
  • Responding to relevant current events
  • Goal setting

Group Synchronous

  • Small group discussions through Collaborate break-out rooms 
  • Discuss scenarios / case studies through Collaborate break-out rooms 
  • Group polling
  • Group mind mapping (Google jamboard; Google draw)
  • Group check-ins

Group Asynchronous

  • Canvas discussion board
  • Image gallery space for posting and comments
  • Class blog
  • Peer review of written work/ editing of blog

Download the reflection question tool: 

PDF iconCEL Online- Reflection Questions.pdf

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like to talk through how reflection activities and questions can support students during online community engaged learning

Online Community Engaged Learning Project Ideas

CCEL staff are currently connecting with community partners to identify their most pressing needs. Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like support to identify partners and/or online community engaged learning projects:

In the immediate term, we offer some ideas below to support you in considering how to structure community engaged learning projects for an online course:

Community Issue Exploration and Engagement

  • Social Movement Collaborating – Students can join local/global social movements by engaging in dialogue and raising awareness through social networks, joining letter writing campaigns and/or hosting conversations/dialogues in support of issues
  • Jointly created case studies – Faculty and community partners can jointly create case studies for students to explore in depth how local organizations are tackling complex social issues.  Student reflections can be aggregated and shared back.
  • Community challenge responses – Faculty and community partners can jointly create challenges for students to explore the complex challenges local organizations are facing and develop research informed responses to support creative problem solving.

Capacity Building

  • Research – Students can conduct various types of research to support the surfacing of information for programming, planning and/or policy purposes
  • Literature reviews – Students can conduct literature reviews or background research to help strengthen a partners project proposal/exploration, reporting or grant applications
  • Asset Mapping – Students can help community organizations create an updated asset map in their community (including other organizations, grants, opportunities etc.)

Data Gathering, Analysis, Evaluation, and/or Reporting

  • Evaluation support – students can conduct interviews, develop and deliver surveys to support information gathering
  • Evaluation / Data Analysis – students can analyse program data to identify trends, strengths and opportunities
  • Project reporting – Students can create project reports from available program data to help partners communicate project mandates and better assess program strengths/weakness

Direct Service

  • Workshops – students can develop and deliver online workshops.
  • Digital content – Students can develop and edit digital content including newsletters and social media campaigns
  • Translation support – Students can translate stories, documents and other content into a second or third language

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like to talk through how reflection activities and questions can support students during online community engaged learning

Planning Worksheet

The following worksheet is intended to support the clarification of the relationship between activities, outcomes, and assessment strategies. The first document is a completed example for reference. The blank version that follows can be used in course planning.

PDF iconCEL Online- Planning Worksheet Example.pdf

FileCEL Online- Planning Worksheet Template.docx

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like support:

Reaching Out to Community Partners

Reaching out and checking in with community partners early in the process is a critical step to ensure there is interest and capacity in collaborating.  Additionally, getting insight into what might be valued or needed is necessary to help co-create what the project or engagement could look like.  

Here are a few considerations and questions to support your thinking on how to approach a reachout to existing and potential community partners:

  • The not for profit world has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic and organizations are likely faced with a myriad of challenges from funding cuts, programming closures, to managing a smaller workforce and volunteer base. Checking-out their website may give you some ideas or offers of value to the partner organization.
  • Acknowledge that it is not business as usual but that you wanted to reach out to offer if there was something your students could do in support.  Ask if there is space to have an open conversation about what support or projects might look like that could support the immediate needs or planning for future needs.
  • Allow time for a response.  Once received, try to set-up time to have an open and honest conversation about mutual capacity and interest for possible student projects or collaboration.  Explore what is happening right now and determine what the priorities of the organization are.  Be prepared to get creative in supporting what students can offer.  Having the conversation with your partner is the win here.  In response to projects or collaborations, yesses, maybes and no’s are all ok at this time.
  • If there seems to be some interest in co-creation then here are some tools to start the planning process, surface the needed information, sketch out roles and timelines and document the needed details to share with students.
  • How can you continue to maintain and sustain a quality relationship and effective communication with your partners? 
  • How can you facilitate effective connection points between partners and students? 
  • How can you mediate the communication if partner capacity is low?

Other Recommendations

  • Steward relationships: Given the time and resources required to develop strong and sustained relationships, consider how to honor existing relationships even if those organizations are unable to partner due to current limitations. Consider how to maintain communication and be ready for a return to in-person engagement in the future.
  • Begin with an offer: Consider how to frame the discussion so that the partnering organizations’ need can drive the collaboration. Try to be flexible and adaptive to those needs by modifying assignments, student projects, and the agreed upon outputs resulting.
  • Seek to allocate resources and funding: Consider leveraging programs like the Partnership Recognition Fund to help offset costs incurred by external stakeholders working with UBC.

You can use this email template to help you craft your reach out to community partners.

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like support connecting to and identifying potential community partners

Project Planning Tools

Once you have reached out to community partners (Community Partner Email Template) and they have expressed interest in collaborating on a community engaged learning project, the next step is to plan the student project in more depth with the partner. This project description form can be sent to partners or used as a conversation guide to help clarify expectations and project goals and deliverables and will serve as the foundation from which students build their projects. For clarity on roles and responsibilities for those involved in community engaged learning, refer to this resource.

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like support

Student Collaboration and Group Work Resources

Supporting students to effectively collaborate on the complex series of tasks involved in community engaged learning requires an intentional approach. Included here is a Student Toolkit with resources to support students to work together on community engaged learning projects. Below are general considerations for creating the conditions for effective collaborations between and among students.

  • Forming a group can be a challenge, creating a sense of connectedness to the course and to the group to improve student persistence and engagement (Slagter van Tyron & Bishop, 2009). Consider having students explore and fill-out group norms and group contract documents in the Student Toolkit
  • Support students to divide the overall project into manageable tasks with key milestones. These project milestones can serve as coaching moments while ensuring the project remains on track and that students feel supported. The project planning tool included in the Student Toolkit can serve to support students to identify the discrete elements of a project.
  • Consider sharing the entire Student Toolkit with students and encourage them to use the tools to support their learning and group process.

Additional Resources for Student Collaboration and Group Work

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Student Preparation

Preparing students for their community engaged learning experience is an important element in supporting learning, fostering a supportive classroom climate and building the tools and resilience to help them work through the challenges of their engagements (Ash & Clayton 2009Umbach & Wawrzynski 2005 and Ngai, Chan & Kwan 2018) .  Our workshops can support productive and positive collaborations with the community and help students make meaning from their experience. To book a workshop or learn more about the topics and content available, please click here.

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Community Engaged Learning Course Assessment

Assessing student learning for online community engaged learning requires an intentional balance of formative and summative assessment strategies to both support student learning and to determine how well students are achieving intended learning outcomes. The documents included here are intended to support course planning, implementation and assessment. The Assessment Planning Guide will take you through the key steps in designing your assessment strategy.

Assessment Planning Guide

Stage 1: Course Planning

What evidence of learning will I collect?

  • Review your desired course goals and objectives and design specific assessment tools and criteria that align with intended goals and learning outcomes.
  • Be specific and provide clear instructions for students, instructors and community partners on the use of the tools (such as rubrics, rating scales, reflection prompts, assignments, etc.) and assessment criteria. Provide students with the criteria before activities so they know what to expect and understand how they are being assessed.

When, how and what will I assess?

  • When: During which stage of the course/term will specific learning objective(s) be assessed? What is the intended duration of the assessment activity?
  • How: What will be the format (verbal/written/role play etc.) of the assessment and what activities will facilitate it? What assessment activity will students engage in and what are the tasks?
  • What: What skills do students need to have or to develop to complete the assessment activity? Will it be an individual/group assessment? Who is involved in the assessment? What role will the community partner play?

Identify a clear purpose. Why am I assessing students?

  • How and for what purposes will the outcomes of the assessment be used? Consider the use of both formative and summative assessment techniques:
    • Is it “assessment for learning: formative”? Is the key purpose to provide feedback to students about their learning and how to improve?(examples: Quizzes, concept maps, instructional interventions such as introduction of new strategies, review of concepts, etc.) or
    • Is it “assessment of learning: summative”? Is the key purpose to evaluate students learning against learning goals and provide them a grade? (examples: Final Projects Presentations, Reports, etc.).
  • How and in what ways do the assessments inform and/or connect with what students are learning?

Stage 2: Course Implementation

  • Communicate clear assessment expectations and processes with the students at the beginning of course.
  • Invite students to review the shared rubrics and share any questions/concerns that they may have about the rubrics or the assessment process.

Stage 3: After the completion of the Course

  • Review overall evidence collected through students’ formative and summative assessments.
  • Review the formal and informal feedback received from the community partners.

Assessment Tools

Critical Reflection Rubric: The purpose of this rubric is to help you, as instructor, evaluate the students’ ability to reflect on their experience during their online community engaged learning experiences. The rubric provides you the opportunity to direct student learning by giving feedback on their reflections while supporting students to identify the importance and relevance of their experience. The rubric can be used as is or can be modified according to the changes you make to the reflection assignments.

FileCritical Reflection Rubric.docx

PDF iconExample of Critical Reflection Rubric AL & CEL.pdf

Student Group Project Rubric: This rubric is adapted to help students evaluate both their own and their peers’ contributions to group projects. The group product and the group process are important pieces to assess. This rubric can be used as both a guide for expected behaviours, as well as, a way to assess contributions and performance with the group project setting.

FileStudent Group Project Rubric.docx

Assessing Students Community Engaged Learning Survey Questions: This survey will help instructors assess common academic, personal and civic student learning outcomes. The survey needs to be used as a pre and post course assessment tool to compare student learning before and after their community engaged learning experience. Once instructors gather data from students’ surveys, they can analyze them using the Pre and Post Student Survey Guide to inform their teaching practices.

FileAssessing Students Community Engaged Learning Survey Questions.docx

Pre and Post Student Survey Guide: This guide enables you to analyze the data from the pre and post course surveys. The survey guide provides information on the steps needed to use an excel sheet and to make meaning of the information.

FilePre and Post Student Survey Guide.docx

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Other Resources to Support the Transition to Online Teaching

Here are additional resources to support you think through, prepare for, and successfully transition your community engaged learning course online.

Reach out to us at CCEL if you would like support