Finding the community in sustainable online community engagement: Not-for-profit organisation websites, service-learning and research


Abstract


This article explores the use of action research (2008–2014) based on a case study of the Sustainable Online Community Engagement (SOCE) Project, a service-learning project in which University of South Australia students build websites for not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, to demonstrate that effective teaching, public service and research are interdependent. A significant problem experienced in the SOCE project was that, despite some training and ongoing assistance, the community organisations reported that they found it difficult to make effective use of their websites. One of the proposed solutions was to develop an online community of the participating organisations that would be self-supporting, member-driven and collaborative, and enable the organisations to share information about web-based technology. The research reported here explored the usefulness of developing such an online community for the organisations involved and sought alternative ways to assist the organisations to maintain an effective and sustainable web presence.
The research used a three-phase ethnographic action research approach. The first phase was a content analysis and review of the editing records of 135 organisational websites hosted by the SOCE project. The second phase was an online survey sent to 145 community organisation members responsible for the management of these websites, resulting in 48 responses. The third phase consisted of semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 18 of the website managers from 12 of these organisations. The research revealed the extent to which organisations were unable to manage their websites and found that the proposed solution of an online community would not be useful. More importantly, it suggested other useful strategies which have been implemented. In Furco’s (2010) model of the engaged campus, public engagement can be used to advance the public service, teaching and research components of higher education’s tripartite mission, but this requires a genuine and sustained process of listening to the community of which the institution is a part. The article argues that, with recent changes to government policy reducing funding to the community sector, an important role for universities is to engage with their communities in both teaching and research. Service-learning projects are often evaluated for learning and teaching outcomes and valued as aligning with university policy on community engagement, but there is potential to do more harm than good for community partners. The experience with the SOCE project demonstrates that effective community engagement must be based on research of what the community partners genuinely want and then assessed against those objectives. Research and community engagement should not be framed as mutually exclusive but understood as part of the same process.

Keywords


Service-learning; community engagement; not-for-profit organisations; websites; information and communication technology; ethnographic action research

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/ijcre.v10i0.5278