Teaching & Learning


Designing Community Engaged Learning (CEL) in a digital learning environment

How to collaborate with external partners during social distancing.

Image with text: Teaching Toolkit: UCL Digital Education

30 June 2020

 1. How to collaborate with external partners during social distancing  

Creating effective online Community Engaged Learning experiences requires a process similar to that used to create traditional, in-person Community Engaged Leaning (CEL) assignments.

CEL projects should be designed in close collaboration with external partners to ensure that all activities are:

  • accessible
  • promote community goals
  • further module learning objectives

The below considerations are primarily for modules with existing CEL practice, but they can be useful to module leaders interested to develop new online CEL activities.

[Re]connecting with your external partners

The best way to start making contingency plans is to reach out to all external partners.

In detail:

  • Reach out to your partner contact

    E-mail is likely best at this time. Anticipate delayed responses as community agencies and programs establish their own new protocols and levels of operation.
  • Ask if your partner has any urgent needs you can plug into. Consult the partner for ideas for continued remote collaboration if your partner is capable of continued engagement.

    For example:
    • What kinds of products could students generate that would be of value to them and would still advance their learning?
    • Grant research  or grant writing
    • Reports, summaries and analyses
    • Policy briefs, persuasive arguments, legal preparation
    • Data sets or analyses
    • Videos, documentaries, TedTalks, vlogs
    • Articles, op-eds, blogs
    • Maps, concept maps, network maps, system maps
    • Pamphlets, guides, manuals
    • Presentations, exhibitions, demonstrations
  • Is continued engagement reasonable for them, you, and your students?

    Respect their limits in working with your students at this time. This is a difficult time for many people, especially those in the Voluntary and Community, creative, freelance, and patient care sectors.
  • If the partners can continue collaborating with your students in the digital learning environment, what support will they need?

    Could they engage in synchronous collaboration or asynchronous activities are preferable? Will they need any training or support?
  • If your partner declines continued engagement, how can you stay in touch for future collaborations?

Tip: External partners are facing disruption in their day-to-day operations.

Here are some things to keep in mind when reaching out to them: 

  • Read their website and social media posts to see what they have already shared about impacts. They may be closed entirely or operating with limited services.  
  • Have an open conversation and respect their limits in collaborating with students at this time. Be mindful of the additional burden planning for students might cause as well as the additional support that might be beneficial. What is reasonable on their end? Do they have different needs now?
  • Try to be flexible and plan for the long term. 

Exploring your options

  • Deciding to transition your CEL project in a digital learning environment:

    If your partner agrees that some kind of virtual collaboration on a project or activity is possible (synchronous or asynchronous), develop a plan with the community partner, factoring in the new realities for your students

Check: How to Develop your Plan on Community Engaged Learning in a Digital Learning Environment

  • Deciding to suspend temporarily: Set a time with your partner when you will check back in and keep plans flexible for shifting impacts for both UCL and the community partner. 
  • Deciding to connect with a different partner: Consider other community partners and efforts that might need remote support.  Follow the same steps to check in with them and make plans. 
  • Deciding to suspend your CEL activities for the third term of the academic year 2020/21: You might decide with your partner that conventional face-to-face CEL activities are the only ones suitable for meeting your module’s learning outcomes and the partners’ needs. 
  • Deciding to incorporate real-world learning activities without online community engagement:

    Your students can find out about the local community and work on projects and activities, without actually engaging with community partners, i.e. they can visit the partners’ website pages and conduct secondary research, engage in case studies from around the world, engage in scenario-based learning on real-life examples etc.

2. How to design Community Engaged Learning Activities in a Digital Learning Environment  

This section should be used with Toolkit(s): Design Community Engaged Learning activities  and the UCL Connected Learning Baseline

Transitioning your Community Engaged Learning in a digital learning environment is possible. After your communication with your external partners, you can start exploring how to teach your students and continue addressing/learning from community issues without in-person, face-to-face contact.  

Example of transitioning a CEL project online: 

Conventional CEL Project

Psychology students with a focus on autism spectrum disorder were supposed to meet with a local school for individuals with developmental disabilities, before beginning work to create learning materials for children with autism.

Students created interactive materials connected to children’s books that were accessible to students with autism with a variety of different communication profiles.

Online CEL Project

In the new remote learning environment, the teachers from the local school could be invited to join the class via Microsoft Teams so that the students and partners can collaborate ahead of the students beginning work on their curricula projects.

Besides working with the students on asynchronous learning environment, the teachers could alternatively record a presentation for the students to offer them tips and advice, prepare a brief and email it to the students etc. 

Online CEL Teaching and Learning can involve:   

  1. Case studies can bring the real world into the classroom: Case studies can be real or developed.

    They can provide students with an opportunity to apply concepts to a problem or situation in the local or global community. Students can be offered the opportunity to provide solutions on local challenges and make the connections on a global level. 
  2. Authentic or “real-world” activities can be an effective Community Engaged Learning tool. Example: Economics students in a programme on poverty have to create a budget using various datasets.
  3. Role-playing activities can be used in the absence of community partners in the classroom that also give students the opportunity to understand different interests and perspectives.

    Example: Architecture students work in a group in order to develop designs and recommendations on how to address the problem of homelessness in Hackney with each of them representing a different stakeholder and interest. 
  4. Scenario-based learning normally involves students working their way through a storyline, usually based around a complex problem that can come from the local or the global community.

    Example: Engineering students are given scenarios on global health issues in order to design prototypes individually or in groups.
  5. Community guest lecturer(s) or fellow(s) can bring their perspective and expertise into the online classroom to inform students’ practical and contextual understanding.

    Example: Local artists discuss with fine art students the landscape of art industry in the UK via Microsoft Teams.
  6. “Online Community” projects can enable students to be more actively involved with a project that a community suggests, but the students engage with the partner only digitally (in a synchronous or asynchronous format).
    These projects can be:​​​​​​ consultancy projects, research projects, design thinking projects, exhibitions etc.

    Example: History students develop an online photo exhibition in the classroom with the guidance of external partner(s).  

Ideas for online CEL Projects and Activities 

Below are some ideas for teaching and learning activities that can be completed when in-person community engagement is suspended. These activities can involve digital collaboration with the community partner in a synchronous or asynchronous format.

For example

  • Conducting background research or gathering best practices or other information that is useful to the partner(s). For example, classes have carried out remote research, such as conducting video or phone interviews, designing surveys, or analysing historical documents or existing data.

  • Taping, recording, or streaming performances or workshops to benefit community partner(s).

  • Creating marketing plans, digital and other social media content, print program materials, or other methods for information-sharing.

  • Undertaking assessment, evaluation, or feedback via phone or web-based services.

  •  Conducting virtual or phone-based educational support for youth and adults.

  • Developing and delivering online workshops, lesson plans, or class curricula.

  • Developing videos, digital and graphic design or artwork.

You can use this time with your students to learn about the impacts of the pandemic on external partners and organizations and find out more about them. 

Incorporate collaboration

In an online programme, it is important to build a sense of community and connection. Collaborative learning strategies and “flipped” classes result in positive student learning and development (Hamdan, McKnight, Mcknight & Arfstrom, 2013).

Moving to a student-centered learning experience places emphasis on student engagement rather than passively “receiving” information and knowledge. This is important for Community Engaged Learning where students are at the centre of their learning and co-create new knowledge with external partners.

One way to do this is by assigning group tasks and projects. Well-designed group projects help students connect to one another, learn programme content more deeply through discussion and debate, and build important skills for working in teams (an increasingly valuable skill in the global workplace). 

Group projects have their own complexity, so you might want to consider structuring specific roles for group members or having students evaluate one another’s performance to help ensure that everyone contributes fairly.

For example

  • In a nursing programme, students have an unfolding case study in which they gradually receive new information about a patient.

    They work in groups to collect relevant information from a range of digital and non-digital sources to devise and justify a treatment plan.

    As they progress in their group work, students also interview the patient themselves over the phone. 

Key UCL Tools:

Use students’ environments and experiences

One of the chief benefits of online programmes is the opportunity to bring together students from diverse backgrounds so they can learn from one another.

Depending on your teaching situation, you may have students from very different parts of your own country or from other countries. 

For example 

  • In an online civil engineering programme with students in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States, students create a video showing local social and infrastructural issues that would impact engineering solutions. Peer feedback is given though a Moodle Forum. 

General Tips 

  • Pedagogy should come before technology
  • Be prepared to re-think structure and content for the digital environment and provide lots of scaffolding, especially when you also engage external partners 
  • Don’t assume that your students are adept at online study because they may be experienced consumers of technology


As you prepare for online teaching, you might want to prepare a questionnaire to check in with students to ensure that your teaching is accessible.

Sample questions: 

  • Do you have reliable internet and a computer?
  • Does your computer have a camera for video conferencing?
  • Are you familiar with the online teaching tools that we use?
  • You can signpost the students to: Student Courses & Training Materials
  • Do you have any accessibility requests regarding online teaching (for example, readings available in a different format, transcription of conversations, specific approaches to discussion boards, or a preference of video discussion vs. discussion boards)?
    Do you need help accessing any resources, including basic needs (food, shelter, medical care), psychological care and counselling, childcare, a ride, or access to technology?

Student Engagement 

  •  To keep the engagement with your students, you might want to create a question-and-answer forum on moodle in which students can post general questions about the programme, assignments and their work with the external partners.
  • If you think it would be helpful, you can also create a social forum for students to connect with one another, like a “coffee shop” where students learn about one another, support each other through life stresses, and celebrate personal accomplishments. You can think about extending the “coffee shop” also to the partners.
  • Signposting students to interviews, videos, podcasts, lectures etc that are relevant to their studies and encouraging interaction and exchange of ideas could maintain student engagement. 

3. How to design Community Engaged Learning Assessments in a Digital Learning Environment 

This section should be used with Toolkit: Design Community Engaged Learning assessment(s)

Community Engaged Learning activities offer students the opportunity to produce outward facing outputs for specific audiences.

Online learning harnesses the power of technology to help students interact with programme material in new and creative ways.

With online community engagement, students can collaborate with partners from around the world and receive valuable feedback. Assessment can be even more of an opportunity for exciting, focused forays into:

  • real-life teamwork
  • problem solving
  • knowledge building. 

When designing assessments, you can incorporate audio, video, social media, collaborative wikis, creative research techniques, and more to help students build valuable skills they can use in the workplace and beyond.

In addition, you can take advantage of convenient and far-reaching tools of communication to help students connect with one another and their own communities. 

For example

Students can produce various outputs from conventional ones such as reports and essays to more alternative ones such as:

  • Podcasts
  • Digital exhibitions
  • Training packages
  • Videos
  • Digital storytelling
  • Concept mapping tools
  • Prototypes
  • Project Plans
  • Interview an expert (video/forum/chat) 
  • Make and give a presentation (external)
  • Lead a group project 
  • Action plan for workplace 
  • Make an analysis (external) 

 ​Students might be anxious about a new form of assessment and be concerned about how it will be marked, and how and when feedback will be given.

When introducing the assignment, talk through your rationale and purpose with students and how it relates to the module Learning Outcomes.

You can also develop an assessment rubric, ideally together with the students and the partners, and share it with them to fully understand what the requirements and the expectations are.

Authentic Assessment 

Collaborating with external partners is an ideal opportunity to develop authentic assessments and receive formative feedback from external partners, i.e. students could present their work publicly or to a panel of expert reviewers through a live synchronous session. The external partners can offer feedback in many ways depending on their digital literacy and access to resources, i.e. through a Microsoft Team’s call, a phone call, a recording written feedback etc.

To design authentic assessments, think about what professionals in your field do regularly and then ask yourself how students can take the knowledge and skills from your programme and apply them to those tasks. 

For example

  • In an organizational behaviour programme, student groups work with local companies to research organizational problems and make recommendations for solutions.
  • In a software development programme, students get their assignments in the form of a memo from a manager. They must ask any questions about project requirements in a concise, professional e-mail. The manager offers students feedback in a synchronous or asynchronous format. 

You might also want to think about how you might design assessments that capitalize on students’ diverse environments and experiences to enrich their own and one another’s learning.

For example

  • In an online anthropology programme, the instructor asks students in a number of remote locations to map their own neighbourhoods, using audio, video, and images to highlight and explain places of cultural significance. 

Use both formative and summative assessments

In Community Engaged Learning, formative assessments help you better understand students’ instructive needs and help students know what areas they need to focus on.

Formative assessment is the vehicle through which the external partners can offer feedback to students to develop their practical knowledge and transferable skills, i.e. external partners can give feedback to the students on how they engage with a project and with each other, on how they address the actual feedback to meet the parameters of a project.

They should ideally complement any summative assessment on a Community Engaged Learning assignment.        

Formative assessments may include reflective and collaborative tasks using blogs or wikis, or assessment outputs for public audiences, including podcasts, recorded presentations, videos and animations (see above).

Each of these might be more representative of the kinds of outputs students may be expected to produce in the world beyond their university study.

3. How to develop your plan on Community Engaged Learning in a Digital Learning Environment  

Before you develop your Plan

Before you start developing your plan on online Community Engaged Learning, consider these guiding questions to help shape your projects and activities:  

  • What are your learner needs?

    Involve your students in a discussion about restructuring the class. Ask them for their ideas about how to continue CEL activities or projects that also support their learning.
  • Do any of your students have any accessibility or literacy issues?

    Some of your learners may have disabilities that will affect their ability to access and benefit from online resources. If students speak English as an Additional Language, they may need extra support. [also: see above]
  • What are your community needs?

    By talking to your communities, you will understand how their needs have shifted in the current pandemic situation. [also: How to collaborate with external partners during social distancing]
  • What level of digital skills, knowledge, and competencies are needed by students and community partners to collaborate on an online CEL project or activity?

    Students and community members need to have access to and an understanding of the hardware (e.g., a computer) and software (e.g., Microsoft Teams) required to engage with one another (Maddrell (2014). Ask your partner what technical resources and skills they have or need to fully participate in and benefit from the project. [also: see above] 
  • Does the teaching and the collaboration have to be synchronous / live?

    Your first reaction might be to host live sessions with learners and partners on web conferencing software, but instead could you head towards asynchronous, which can be more inclusive.
    Flexibility is one of the main advantages offered by online education and this is an opportunity to offer asynchronous education that is adjusted to the needs of students and partners. 
  • What digital resources do you already have available to reuse?

    UCL has recorded videos and text documents, or can you find Open Education Resources (OER) that have already been created on your topic?
  • Can you cultivate a Sense of Community?

    Consider creating frequent, interactive communication spaces for your student groups and partners (Lee, Kane, and Gregg, 2016). Frequent check-in points and effective communication could help sustaining community relationships online. Establishing clear channels of communication between professor and students is critical to prevent disengagement and confusion.
  • Can you cultivate a Sense of Place?

    Sandy and Franco (2014) recommend “introducing a virtual sense of geographic place (i.e., an abstract representation of the real, physical world in the online learning environment) as a way to infuse place-based approaches to online Community Engaged Learning. Such a sense can be cultivated through the use of realistic online mapping tools such as Google maps. Detailed photos of the physical spaces in which community members live and interact may also be helpful. These resources are likely most effective when they provide significant, detailed representations of relevant communities. 

To develop your plan

After answering the above questions, you might want to think what is your adjusted or new online CEL project or activity.  In detail, you might want to think about: 

  • The Skills or Actions students perform in the digital CEL project
  • The Outcomes    
  • The Learning Materials    
  • The Themes or Significant Module Elements    
  • The Week within the module when the project is likely to happen

Also, the technical aspects of the project: 

  • Is the project required, optional, or alternative to another assignment?
  • How will the class work on the project: Groups, individuals, entire class, mix?
  • What community will the project be contributing to?
  • What is the class time committed to the project?
  • What technologies will students and partners need to complete this project?
  • What materials and support do you have to make to ensure students and partners are competent and prepared to use that technology?
  • What value will the project provide the students and the community?


Please contact Marie Xypaki if you have questions or would like to talk in more detail about transitioning a Community Engaged Learning class online.  

This guide has been produced by The Community Engaged Learning Service (CELS) and the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education. You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit CELS and the UCL Arena Centre. 

We are committed to supporting Community Engaged Learning projects and activities, also during this unexpected transition to online instruction, to achieve active and collaborative student learning. 

This toolkit will continue to be developed. 

Germain, M. L., (2019). Recommendations for a successful e-service learning integration. In Distance education: Integrating service-learning and consulting in distance education, (pp.177-189). Emerald Publishing.

Helms, M. M., Rutti, R. M., Hervani, A. A., LaBonte, J., & Sarkarat, S. (2015). Implementing and evaluating online service learning projects. Journal of Education for Business, 90(7), 369-378.

Waldner, L. S., Widener, M. C., & McGorry, S. Y. (2012). E-service learning: The evolution of service-learning to engage a growing online student population. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 123-150.

Carver, Rebecca, Robert King, Wallace Hannum, and Brady Fowler. (2007). Toward a Model of Experiential E-Learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3).

Gaytan, Jorge and Beryl McEwen. (2007). Effective Online Instructional and Assessment Strategies. The American Journal of Distance Education, 2(3): 117-132.

Waldner, Leora S., Sue Y. McGorry, and Murray C.Widener. (2012). E-Service Learning: The Evolution of Service Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(2): 123-150