Exploring how a “class-free week” and community-based learning could enhance McMaster’s overall student experience

Campus is often viewed as a community of its own. But Forward with Integrity (FWI) urged the campus to look outside McMaster to understand what constitutes our commitment to community.

Campus has been abuzz with various initiatives that seek to enhance our internal, local and global engagement. The Community Engagement (CE) Task Force Report noted the need for reciprocity in community partnership, fostering bilateral and mutually beneficial relationships between McMaster and community agencies.

Specific initiatives mentioned in the report include establishing a community opportunities infoshare database, a network of community champions and a possible CE course.


Student experience in the community through flexible learning

The Student Experience Task Force (discussed in last week’s FWI feature article) also proposed a “class-free week” which would feature community-based learning experiences.

The “class-free week” concept comes on the cusp of recent student interest and concern over the attempt by the MSU to secure a Fall Reading Week for students in 2013.

While the Fall Reading Week was part of Siobhan Stewart’s electoral platform, the Class-Free Week was proposed independently by the CE Task Force as a method to more flexibly approach student learning and ensure opportunities for community-based learning.

Susan Denburg, VP Academic (Health Sciences) and Strategic Advisor to the President, noted that this week would eliminate classes but provide supplementary opportunities for student learning, through seminars, service-learning and other activities.

“We want to increase opportunity for students to expand their horizons, we want the environment to be flexible, people learn in different ways and at different rates. So we want to create that flexibility so students can get to where they want to go, in different ways.”

Denburg mentioned that the goal is to eventually guarantee 100 per cent student participation. She noted that the faculties have been receptive to the idea of a class-free week with supplementary and possibly accredited activities outside of the classroom.

“We want to have this week, want you to step back, think about how could you use a week? What do you want to experience in that week and how would it enhance your learning…and what skills might it enhance?” said Denburg.


Where McMaster Stands

McMaster has been increasingly more involved in the community, with events such as MacServe, providing opportunities for thousands of students and staff. However, long-term exposure and involvement in the community has not been an institutional priority at McMaster.

Mary Koziol, Assistant to the President, Special Community Initiatives, explained that community engagement is a slow-moving and long-term process, because of the need to both protect the University’s brand and to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.

“Making sure that community engagement is mutually beneficial is at the forefront of the decision-making process. Especially when we ask community partners and consult with them before simply creating things,” she said.

Generally, McMaster has strong elements of short-term service learning and industry partnerships but has lagged behind other universities in community-directed research and community-based education. Most students have limited awareness of Hamilton’s realities.

Huzaifa Saaed, MSU VP Education remarked upon this trend. He stated, “ I don’t feel that…we’ve made a strong commitment to the City of Hamilton, as our city and that’s what we need to go towards. It’s more of a culture shift.”

The CE task force has looked to examples of American schools to model a strong long-term, community-university partnership from.

At the University of Minnesota, the Public Engagement department tracks all the various initiatives and tries to quantify and evaluate the levels of engagement.

McMaster is part of the Canadian Association for Service Learning (Ontario Branch), which has allowed McMaster to exchange ideas with other universities about their best case practices.

McMaster does not stand-alone in its commitment to the community. In the latest Strategic Mandate Agreements submitted to the provincial government, University of Guelph and Queen’s both pledged to incorporate community engagement into their institutional priorities.

While McMaster is still in the brainstorming process, Guelph has pledged to create a certificate in Civic Engagement and establish a School of Civil Society. Queen’s is in the process of developing a Co-Curricular Opportunities Directory to capitalize on student involvement in community and experiential learning opportunities

Other universities such as York and UBC have reallocated resources and received significant funding to create community engagement centres and departments.


What comes first?

A major priority for the CE task force has been finding a channel to share and discuss the various community initiatives. McMaster hosted an “Idea Exchange” day where faculties were invited to share how they were engaging with the community.

The current focus is to familiarize all units of the university with all the ongoing projects. The Task Force report proposed creating an infoshare or database of community opportunities to organize the information for both faculty and students.

The report also proposed both a network of community champions and a community engagement course. However, both of these are fairly intertwined initiatives and on some level may vary faculty to faculty.

The network of community champions could be part of a larger community engagement office. Alternatively, these could be designated individuals within faculties.

A community engagement course would seek to immerse students across the University in community learning and meeting community members. Koziol noted that the University is currently contemplating, “what are the big initiatives which would allow a cascade of ideas.”

Koziol reiterated that it was equally important to ensure meaningful engagement and a certain commitment to the community.

“The crux of community engagement is that you are trying to both create and strengthen a network which can be difficult to measure.”

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