Celebrating the power of community in education and research

The latest cohort of Jisc community champions is an inspirational group of people who go above and beyond their usual roles in further and higher education to collaborate and share experiences for the good of all.

Woman talking in front of students

Their efforts to build communities not only cascades good practice, but also boosts wellbeing, by creating a sense of shared purpose, togetherness and support. In the words of one champion, Samantha Ahern from University College London:  

“Community recognises our humanity; we are stronger together than alone. Our realities are socially constructed, and if we want to change them then we need to work together to imagine and construct new realities.” 

Ahern is one of 17 champions selected by a panel of community representatives and Jisc staff from a pool of more than 60 nominations.  

Celebrating impact beyond expectation 

Paul Holland, associate dean for student learning and experience at Swansea University and a member of the selection panel, explains why community champions are so valuable: 

“Some FE/HE staff have a calling to work beyond the boundaries of their paid roles. They actively bring people together and find common solutions to the wider issues that all education institutes grapple with. Recognising them as Jisc community champions helps value that extra effort and willingness to serve.  

“As recognized leaders they are empowered to go further with the confidence they are doing the right thing. Emerging from the pandemic, the importance of such visible role models cannot be overstated.” 

The community champions were asked what motivates them, why community is important and what it means to be recognised. 

Creating a sense of belonging 

Chloë Hynes, who helped to develop PDNorth, an online community for practitioners in FE and skills, commented: 

“Community is necessary for professional development (and wellbeing) because it provides a sense of belonging within a sector that can very often feel disparate, isolating, and inconsistent.”  

PDNorth started as a programme funded by the Education and Training Foundation to facilitate exchange networks in the north of England. Hynes wanted to do more, so developed a space for practitioners to amplify their work via a monthly newsletter, YouTube channel and blog.  

When the funding ended in summer 2020, Hynes kept giving her time because she believed in the ethos of practitioners being in control of their own CPD. PDNorth now has 100% practitioner-led content and has been renamed as FE tapestry.  

Angela Dynes, from Northern Regional College, who was nominated for advocacy in the library sector, added: 

“For me, community is about having a sense of belonging and bringing people together to not only achieve goals, but to feel part of something that we all care about.  

“Community can help us to cultivate skills that we may not have realised we had. It’s also about being comfortable to express thoughts and generate new ideas about what we may value and how we can make things better for everyone.” 

Collaboration for the good of the sector 

Collaboration is also important for the champions. Joshua Vicente, who works at University of Exeter and was nominated for his role as a volunteer mentor in the Prospects Discord Virtual Careers Fair, explained: 

“Instead of working alone, we can achieve something far greater and more meaningful through collaboration, and that there are those out there who appreciate the work that goes into these communities.” 

Vicente’s contribution aided the career development and learning of hundreds of early careers leaners. The community encourages communication without boundaries, inciting conversation between people who otherwise may not have been able to engage. Vicente is credited with inspiring pre-students and motivating graduates in sharing his knowledge of the IT careers market. 

Enhancing education 

Ben Haddock was nominated for hosting meetups from Sandwell College’s ‘Fab Lab’. These live sessions and recordings share learning about teaching across a range of platforms and were a lifeline for practitioners through the pandemic. Haddock said: 

“I strongly believe that everyone deserves to have a fantastic and stimulating education - and I hope that, through our work, we can encourage more educators to innovate and experiment. Little changes are no longer enough - we must find ways to deliver education in profoundly different ways than ever before.” 

Recognising value, time, and effort 

Community champions show us that by bringing people together we can make a difference. They do not do it for recognition, but it is important that they are recognised.  

Head of community engagement at Jisc, Natasha Veenendaal, who founded the programme, explains:  

“We see the power of collaboration across all FE, HE, and research. Members are supporting one another to expand learning, solve problems and improve the lives of others. It’s a privilege to get to know and celebrate those people. We hope that the community champions programme goes some way to show them how much they are appreciated.” 

The benefit of recognition was echoed by champions. Matthew Deeprose, who works at the University of Southampton and was nominated for work related to accessibility, said: 

“For me, the benefit of recognition is the hope that it brings validation and credibility to the work and aims of the community in the eyes of decision-makers and budget holders. Communities can build momentum from the ground up, but sustaining change requires buy-in and investment from the top.” 

Building a community focused future 

The champions will be coming together at Jisc’s annual edtech conference in March, Digifest, as community facilitators. They will also be sharing their experiences in an online community fringe session in early April. 

Jon Hofgartner, assistant principal, digital technologies at Weston College and member of the selection panel, reflects: 

“As I read the wide range of nominations for Jisc community champions, I was struck by the breadth and depth of community building activities and commitment to creating better outcomes and experiences for our students. My hope is that our selection of Jisc champions will leave a lasting legacy in FE and HE sectors, demonstrating the power of ‘community’ in education.”  

Further information