University of Pretoria: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic helped create a stronger hybrid approach to community engagement’, USRN webinar hears

Although community engagement requires physical on-the-ground interaction with the community being served, being forced to engage online during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns has created a stronger, hybrid online/face-to-face model for community engagement.

This was one of the recurring sentiments expressed during the most recent instalment in the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) series of webinars, hosted by Professor Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic at the University of Pretoria (UP). The webinar, which focused on community engagement using a hybrid approach, highlighted three UP faculties where innovative methods were implemented in order to continue with community engagement projects despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. The speakers highlighted that many of the new systems created to engage online have proved so effective that they continue despite eased restrictions. This, together with irreplaceable in-person contact, has resulted in a strengthened and more compelling hybrid community engagement model.

Eddie Hanekom, Director of the UP Law Clinic, which offers legal services to indigent and low-income community members, said the Clinic was fortunate in that it had implemented a virtual communication and file management system just a few months prior to the start of the pandemic.

“It really saved us, and meant that students could continue doing pro bono legal consultations as part of their community engagement elective, through the electronic filing of paperwork and the use of the virtual classroom tool, Blackboard Collaborate,” Hanekom said.

The Clinic learnt a lot from the hybrid approach and will continue with virtual training in instances where it can be easily translated to the physical environment. “I think the students gained more skills through online teaching, because of the additional burden of dealing with the electronic communication system. They quickly realised though that it is very useful and effective, despite the extra work involved.”

Helga Lister, a lecturer in UP’s Department of Occupational Therapy, said the pandemic meant rethinking students’ physical interventions in the communities of Daspoort, Mamelodi and the Tshwane inner city, which resulted in some interesting projects in response to needs identified by community members. Their paediatric service development, for example, moved from an in-person clinic to a tele-health environment, which involved the training of mentors and included inter-professional work. They also developed a digital storytelling project with funding from UNICEF, and conducted training with staff at homeless shelters via an online platform.

“When we began meeting in person again, the online student support continued,” Lister said. “It had created an incredibly therapeutic environment, even on the other side of the screen.”

While the Department will maintain virtual elements of its programmes going forward, Lister reminded attendees that hybrid community engagement cannot exist without students and staff being embedded in the community. “Some always have to be there in order for true community development and change to occur, because relationships need to be built and trust needs a period of time to develop,” she said.

“We need to train community members in online methods and ensure they are active participants in the dissemination of the work being done. Yes, this is a lot harder, but the rewards are just so much bigger and it is really incredible to see, once this extra effort is put in, how much more can be done and how much more the communities themselves are the owners of the process.”

Professor Antoinette Lombard, Head of UP’s Department of Social Work and Criminology, discussed a podcast project which a fourth-year social work student developed for older persons during lockdown.

“Having interviewed older people in the Lynnwood Ridge Dutch Reformed Church, the realisation was made that they needed some connections, and so a podcast series was produced in response to the needs of that specific community,” Prof Lombard said. “The content included daily inspirational messages from local pastors, health tips from doctors and nurses, and an exercise routine that they could download. After lockdown, group sessions took place in-person, where the podcasts were discussed, and isolation experiences shared.”

She agreed that community and professional partnerships can be strengthened through a hybrid model: “If one considers what it would take to get a few specialists together to come and speak to a group around a table, versus the ease of coordinating a group virtually, it is clear that there are numerous advantages. Furthermore, we learnt that our interventions can be more sustainable through this method, as members start engaging with the project immediately and then, when it is time for students to move on, it is naturally left with community members to continue.”

In concluding the discussion, Prof Duncan stressed the critical importance of social responsibility and community engagement, which has been a core element of UP’s teaching and learning programme for the past 20 years. “There are certainly more efficient ways of doing things online, and the COVID-19 crisis helped us to rethink many of the projects that form part of our curriculum. Hybrid means to engage with the other party in person and online; the one really reinforces the other. And, as we have learnt, online affordances can never replace a face-to-face interaction entirely.”

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