This research presentation provides insights from the Sustainable Online Community Engagement Project (SOCE), a service-learning action research project operating since 2001 in the School of Creative Industries, University of South Australia, in which students build websites for community organisations. The websites are then hosted by the School and training in management of the websites and help desk assistance for community members is provided by the project staff. The focus in this presentation is the training needs of organisations and how university staff and students can work with such organisations to initiate ongoing learning for their members.
Community expectations have developed so that not-for-profit organisations are expected to have an online presence providing free, up to date and accessible information. Yet to meet these expectations organisations face numerous challenges in maintaining an effective web presence. The majority of not-for-profit organisations are small, all-volunteer-based community organisations that create and support activities across all fields of life. In an era when social media and free website creation platforms should make maintaining a web presence relatively easy for these organisations, there remains high demand for assistance from university students and staff in developing and hosting organisations’ websites.
The research uses a multiple-method approach, incorporating quantitative and qualitative data. This data was gathered from seven years of training session surveys, responses from the community organisation project evaluation surveys conducted each semester, annual web managers’ surveys project application forms and observation. In addition to survey methodology, the research incorporates ethnographic and action research methods, which fits the nature of the SOCE project as one in which the researcher is able to be immersed with particular communities, and where the participants are actively engaged in the research as it is conducted. This approach and use of different data sources enables specific issues to be identified and analysed. It also provides a more complete understanding of not-for-profit organisations’ current and aspirational use of web technologies.
From the research findings the presentation argues that ongoing training for organisations is necessary for the effective maintenance of websites and social media, to develop and sustain good practices for knowledge management within organisations, and to establish understanding how an organisation’s online presence is accessed and used by web-based visitors.
In providing this training and development for community organisations, the SOCE project has developed relationships with not-for-profit organisations and extended these to offer a range of digital communication products. The benefits to university staff and students’ reach beyond service-learning and gaining understanding of organisations’ immediate web-based technology requirements. With an action research approach they are able to conduct community engaged research and service-learning in collaboration with the community partners, while supporting a sector that is under-researched and often under-valued.
The scope and scale of the project, and resource and time considerations continue to present challenges including managing and meeting participants’ expectations and the technical issues that arise with web technologies. However, these challenges also present opportunities to connect and work with communities, in the research, building and transfer of new knowledge.