“Housing Estates in the 2020s” was a research-based but practice-oriented urban studies course arranged at the University of Turku in autumn 2021. The students worked in small multi-disciplinary groups to carry out a small study analysing either one or both of the two predefined housing estates, Runosmäki and Uittamo in Turku. Before that, they had learned how housing estates have emerged along with urbanisation, how their development has been studied, what kinds of reforms have taken place, and what the new and old advantages and challenges are for these neighbourhoods in the 2020s.
The topic of housing estates was chosen for a pilot course due to the great interest in the regeneration of housing estates, as well as the excessively problem-oriented approach to them in both research and policy-making, which the course sought to question. Most of the 18 students participating in the course were postgraduates (MA students) with Urban Studies as a minor subject. Their major subjects varied greatly, including geography, social sciences, political sciences, cultural studies, history, and teaching. The students were encouraged and given intellectual resources to drop their possible prejudices and to take a fresh, analytical look at housing estates and their potential courses of development, collaborating with the local stakeholders.
“It’s an exercise for the students, not trying to take over the whole world, but to learn mutually.”NGO stakeholder
Most of the feedback received from the partners was positive. However, NGO representatives also made some critical comments, including the flimsiness of (some of) the students’ work in not addressing all the issues the NGOs would have wanted. Furthermore, one of the NGOs was disappointed that they did not have a chance to present their own activities to the students, including even a wish for further co-development. These experiences suggest that expectation management is needed to clarify the aim of an engaged learning course and the character of the results it can provide for the community partners.
Suggestions and recommendations
On the basis of our experiences, we compiled the following suggestions for Engaged Learning initiatives. In our opinion, new insights and new points of view are all that universities can definitely promise to the stakeholders.
Managing Expectations in Engaded Learning Initiatives—7 Issues, Reasons and Solutions
- “What is this all about?”
WHY. Unfamiliarity with the concept Engaged Learning (EL) and possibly academic collaboration in general.
SOLVE. Clarifying the concept of EL. Being aware that this is a learning experience rather than full-scale academic research.
- “What is expected from us?”
WHY. Stakeholders’ uncertainty about their role.
SOLVE. Discussing and communicating the tasks and contributions.
- “What will we get out of this?”
WHY. Uncertainty of outcomes stakeholders may expect.
SOLVE. Clarifying the characteristics of outcomes.
- “How can our voice be heard?”
WHY. Different (even conflicting) expectations between partners.
SOLVE. Clarifying that the project cannot accommodate any individual partner, or produce pre-specified information or results. Making sure partners can voice their topical issues and concerns.
- “What exactly are the students doing?”
WHY. Varying readiness for working with academia.
SOLVE. Walking partners through the process and being ready to answer questions.
- “What’s in it for me?”
WHY. Varying interests between individuals in NGOs.
SOLVE. Communicating that the results are likely to give several new insights to familiar issues.
- “What happens after this?”
WHY. Uncertainty of how stakeholders can use the results.
SOLVE. Being aware that EL is research rather than co-creation—but partners can themselves turn the results into activities.
Managing Expectations in Engaded Learning Initiatives—Building, Carrying and Meeting Expectations: 3 Recommendations
- Setting the basics
- Research-oriented or practice-oriented EL?
- Clarifying basic terminology (what is meant by, for example, “fieldwork”)
- Working with stakeholders
- Identifying stakeholders
- Analysing and accepting the differences between and within stakeholders (resources, interests, ambitions)
- Approach, course structure, contents, outcomes
- Participants—both stakeholders and students
- Timelines—what happens, when, with whom
- Keeping everyone informed about possible changes
Feedback and insights
We asked two people who have participated in engaged learning initiatives in the role of a community partner to evaluate our suggestions and recommendations on the basis of their experiences, and to share their thoughts about meeting expectations.
The manager of St Nicholas Priory in Exeter, Judith Morgane participated in the Hidden Exeter initiative. Listen to her thoughts on the following podcast.
Click here for the transcript of the interview.
Katri Arnivaara participated in the Housing Estates in the 2020s initiative while working for the City of Turku. Listen to her thoughts (in Finnish) on the following podcast, or click here for a translation of the interview into English.
Click here for a transcript of the interview in Finnish.
Background: working with stakeholders in the Turku project
The external partners in our pilot project included the City of Turku and local NGOs active in the two housing estates. The City of Turku representatives were experts in the fields of “district work” (capacity building, local democracy support) and urban planning, including the coordinator of the City of Turku’s own housing estate development programme. The NGOs included neighbourhood organisations, as well as one NGO focusing on multi-cultural social equality.
The external partners were involved mostly at the beginning and at the end of the initiative. Prior to the course, the teachers conducted interviews with all the external partners about the development plans, issues, and challenges in the districts. This information was used for designing the course focus and establishing the initial themes for students’ group work. The notes from the interviews were also delivered to students as background material. Moreover, the municipal practitioners took the students on guided walks around the districts.
The course combined lectures, excursions, student group work (with several rounds of teacher feedback), and workshops. Much of the work concentrated on the group work, in which the aim was to apply ideas from previous research in a small study. The idea was that most empirical data would be collected by interviewing local residents. Eventually, the students carried out local and expert interviews, as well as electronic surveys.
The benefit for the external partners involved was access to the student work on the familiar local issues, from a viewpoint informed by academic literature, and therefore providing potentially new insights. All the practitioners were invited to the final seminar, at which the students’ work was presented. The seminar invitation also included a gratitude party: a get-together with snacks along with informal socialising. The outputs were the results from the work of the five student groups. Each group presented their work at the seminar. Later, the partners also received a printed report compiled on the basis of the students’ work.
All stakeholders reported benefitting from the insights given by the outcomes of the pilot course. However, some issues were raised, too.
HEIs have academic tasks to carry out and academic criteria to meet: research-based teaching and societal impact. However, all external collaboration is dependent on the partners’ positive attitudes to academic education and interest in possible insights gained. This requires openness from the external partners on exactly what kinds of topics and viewpoints are processed.
What we promised was that the students would produce group work on contemporary developments concerning the two districts. We conducted background interviews with the collaborative partners to learn their topical issues, but we did not promise that all their concerns would be addressed as such.
Following the academic criteria, the groups were required to use the academic literature as a starting point to identify and frame the studied phenomenon, followed by empirical analysis on the sites. From our point of view, this is also the main benefit for the stakeholders: the very process that might produce new insights, with the limitation that the students’ tasks were to be training exercises, not fully-fledged academic studies.
When working with NGOs, challenges may appear if they have a strong agenda and expect to get help in legitimising it or pushing a certain case or aspect forward in a public discussion. In our initiative, one of the neighbourhood associations was mostly concerned with an individual issue (a bridge plan threatening a major green zone in the vicinity), which eventually was not tackled on the course. Although no promises were made, we could hear their disappointment in the final seminar and also in the evaluative interviews afterwards. On the other hand, other partners with broader agendas were pleased with the process.
Most of the feedback was positive. The theme of the course, housing estates, was considered interesting and topical. The stakeholders emphasised the importance of listening to residents in all kinds of development activities, and considered the student work, which included fieldwork in the area, to be a forward-looking approach, contributing towards this end. The city employees stressed the importance of practice-oriented learning and believed that this must have been a useful experience for students soon to graduate and enter the labour market. The multidisciplinary nature of the course also received praise, even admiration.
All the partners appreciated collaborating and networking with the students in general. Nonetheless, the greatest point of interest was the actual results of the group work. Invitations to a final seminar at which the work was presented were also very much appreciated. The partners felt that listening to the students’ presentations, and the opportunity to further discuss their discoveries and how the studies were conducted, gave substantially more information than simply receiving a report. The NGO representatives particularly appreciated the invitation to the university (the final seminar and the closing party were held on the university premises).