Teaching Stories

The Civic University Online

A few months ago, I wrote a blogpost on urban spaces and the concept of the civic university. This topic is now reconsidered in the context a pandemic-affected world and has led me to ask some questions: what do civic teaching and learning activities look like in digital-only contexts? How can we engage our online practice with our city in meaningful ways?

‘How can students collect data and research without leaving the house?’

Data collection allows students to practice primary research (e.g. photographs, observations, air quality monitors, etc.). In digital-only settings, primary data collection could include online polls, questionnaires and crowdsourcing data from the public.  If you’re planning this, you’ll need to get ethical approval – you can find guidance, links and online ethics tools on this website.

The benefits of using primary data collection include improved confidence in handling primary data and conducting research, and transferable skills development through the process of data collection design and methodologies for data analysis.

If these options don’t fit your teaching context, use of secondary data is a great alternative while still allowing your students to respond to locally-relevant questions for the City of Bristol. A host of third-party data can be included as raw materials for teaching activities.

A good starting point to find this information is the Open Data Bristol website that is populated with data collected predominantly by Bristol City Council. Topics covered include transport, planning, housing, population, geography, democracy, energy, economy and education. This data can be compared against national datasets, such as the Centre for Cities that has a visual “cities data tool” alongside downloadable raw data.If you’re considering the use of historical information, you can find visualised historic maps of the city from 1746 via Know Your Place. This site is populated with crowd-sourced data, and your students can also contribute to the site directly.

If you’re considering the use of historical information, you can find visualised historic maps of the city from 1746 via Know Your Place. This site is populated with crowd-sourced data, and your students can also contribute to the site directly.

How can we communicate and reach out to communities during this period?

In 2019, the University of Bristol was one of 31 institutions to sign the The Civic University Agreement. One of its leading ambitions is to understand the local population and ask them what they want. Outward-facing engagement can take many different forms, such as festivals, public talks, exhibitions, research papers, blogs, videos, school educational events and resource development with many disciplines already engaging outreach activities as part of their degree programmes. Ideally, these projects employ two-way communication and co-collaboration – co-creating with the community, rather than at the community.

How can we embed this ethos into our teaching practice when we are constrained to the digital world? At this pandemic juncture, how do we adjust our teaching and learning approaches to be responsive to the current crisis, while also preparing students for a post-pandemic world?

We also need to consider equitability. How confident are we that the communities we engage with all have equal access to digital devices and reliable internet? If we only communicate digitally, does this exclude parts of the community? How can we circumvent these issues? These are questions that can be contextually situated within your degree programme, to fit your disciplinary boundaries and existing methods, and serve as critical prompts for your students to grapple with.

It’s worth noting that one of the recommendations made in the civic university agreement is to remove the suggestions that local research is inferior to international research. We can ask ourselves, is this something that implicitly or explicitly emerges in our teaching? Do we teach our students to value our civic ethos?


How does this relate to the curriculum framework? 

The University of Bristol’s curriculum framework includes six dimensions, one of which is global and civic engagement. We can see how this can take shape from both teachers’ and student’s perspectives: 

Ideas for what teachers can do Ideas for what students can do 
Make links to community projects and identifies opportunities for student involvement Work with stakeholders, identifies needs and contributes to novel solutions 
Partner with civic organisations for social good and mutual benefit, expanding and applying knowledge Participate in engagement opportunities such as careers fairs and internships 
Develop ‘live briefs’ with external clients for student participation Commit to actions and behaviours which align with values 
Teach about disciplinary conundrums and breakthroughs in relation to global challenges Sign up to relevant Bristol Futures units  
Work with employers, SMEs and voluntary organisations to shape aspects of the curriculum Conduct research related to grand challenges  
Create research projects which use the city as a lab for innovation Volunteer and feed external learning into curriculum outcomes 

Civic curriculum thematics and activities that resonate with the city of Bristol provide our students with opportunities to apply their knowledge to real world problems. This civic platform enables students to explore their local environment and communities in engaged ways, offering opportunities for them to make a difference.  

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – get in touch to discuss any aspect of our teaching and learning at Bristol: a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk https://twitter.com/IrishAshyT.