Creating Community Engagement in Higher Education. Appreciative Inquiry into Developing an Action Learning Course at Utrecht University

22 February 2024

Educational project

Creating Community Engagement in Higher Education. Appreciative Inquiry into Developing an Action Learning Course at Utrecht University

The study provides the story of re-designing a community-engaged learning course – Action, learning and impact (ALI) – at Utrecht University. 

Project description

The methodology follows the principles of educational action research and appreciative inquiry (Coghlan, 2019, Noffke S. & Somekh, 2009). Data was generated via qualitative learning conversations with various stakeholders: participants, teachers, and partners mid-way through and at the end of the course.


The aim of the research is to analyze how to maintain engagement in the learning process of students and in the community. The research questions are as follows: (1) How can we maintain the good in the ALI course? (2) How can we deepen community engagement?


Students feel engaged in co-learning when they are in a safe environment that allows for sharing different perspectives and therefore facilitates free and equal collaboration. Recognizing the diversity of each stakeholder requires them to develop intercultural and
citizenship skills. The practice-oriented way of engaging with literature allows reflection and helps understand the significance of their project. Comprehending that change and learning by doing brings opportunities has implications also on their personal life and mental health
because they feel valuable agents in society. Seeing students and themselves freed from old habits, helping students deal with the discomfort of the unknown, and discovering possibilities outside of their bubble of thinking, as well as witnessing the principle of working with people makes teachers feel engaged. Partners feel engaged when lasting societal change occurs via co-creation in which equal relationships without hierarchy, the principle of not-knowing, and process rather than product-driven focus guide the learning in the community.


In line with the principles of Knowledge Producing Schools (Bigum and Rowan, 2009), our experience suggests that aligning the curriculum with CEL and AR principles, organizing action learning sets, creating diverse assessments based on AR methodology, and allowing the freedom to work on authentic tasks in cocreation with specialists in the communities help maintain and deepen community engagement. In line with the attributes of open pedagogy (Hegarty, 2015, Werth and Williams, 2022), (1) developing trust, confidence, and openness by re-negotiating relationships, (2) encouraging innovation and creativity by avoiding solution-oriented thinking, allowing the discovery of diverse perspectives and autonomous decision-making, (3) exchanging freely ideas by abolishing the traditional classroom environment and organizing learning sets, (4) using reflective practices in a connected learning community that focuses on the process rather than the product, and finally (5) having learning goals, assignments, and assessment that reflect these principles will make the engagement of each stakeholder a long-term success.


  • Bigum, C. & Rowan, L. (2009). Renegotiating Knowledge Relationships in School. In S. E. Noffke (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Educational Action Research (pp. 131-141). CA: Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
  • Coghlan, D. (2019). Doing Action Research in your own organization (5th ed.). London: Sage.
  • Hegarty, B. (2015). Attributes of Open Pedagogy: A Model for Using Open Educational Resources. Educational Technology, 55(4), 3-13. Retrieved from
  • Farnell, T. (2020). Community engagement in higher education: trends, practices and policies. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. doi:10.2766/071482
  • Noffke S. & Somekh, B. (Ed.). (2009). The SAGE Handbook of Educational Action Research. CA: Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

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