Arden, Catherine and Cooper, Trevor and McLachlan, Kathryn (2007) Evaluating community engagement: lessons for an Australian regional university. Australasian Journal of University Community Engagement, 2 (1). pp. 18-27.
Community engagement, along with personal fulfilment and economic resilience, is an integral element of lifelong learning (Global Learning Services, 2001). This paper reports the processes and outcomes of a collaborative community engagement research project undertaken by university researchers, and local and state government and community partners that provides a testing ground for the principles and practices of regional and community engagement, lifelong learning and e-democracy in a rural community context. The purpose of the research project was to evaluate the Granite Belt Community Engagement Network (GBCEN) Project being conducted as part of Stanthorpe’s Learning Community initiative by the Stanthorpe Shire Council and the Granite Belt LEARNERS Group during July-December 2006. The evaluation utilised a participatory action research (PAR) approach to evaluation designed to foster as well as measure effective community engagement practices. The paper reports the evaluation findings in terms of the perceived benefits, limitations and challenges of using e-democracy for improving local government community engagement, and the potential for utilising school and community leaders, networks and interactional infrastructure to enhance lifelong learning and community engagement in rural and regional communities. Drawing on applications of social capital theory in rural and regional communities in Australia, lifelong and transformative learning theory and community engagement research, the paper also discusses implications of the evaluation processes and outcomes for the enhancement of university regional and community engagement through collaborative research and evaluation projects that build ‘bridging and linking ties’ between formal educational institutions and situated, informal and non-formal learning that occurs in communities and organisations. The paper goes on to make recommendations for enhancing the relevance of research and scholarship in a regional university to the needs of the communities it serves.
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