A CED Experiment in Community Organization

Posted: May 23, 2014

Grace Emmerling is a senior majoring in Community, Environment, and Development (International Development option) and Economics. She has yet to determine her career focus.


In the Spring of 2013, one graduate student, one undergraduate student, and two faculty members designed a course for the Community, Environment, and Development (CED) program that greatly differed from a conventional classroom experience. Emphasizing co-creation of knowledge, agency in education, and the importance of constructive feedback and assessment, they developed a course intentionally with a blank syllabus. On the first day, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members would participate equally as students and would co- create the syllabus for the semester. The intention was to collaboratively develop an egalitarian classroom experience in which participants had an equal opportunity to be creative and take agency in their education and to decide collectively what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. The only requirements for the course restricted the subject matter to a theme related to those within the CED program, required participants to provide evidence of their learning, and to determine grades and assessment in some fashion. This course would ideally simulate a community experience, and its ambiguity would provide freedom and challenge for all those involved. The course was deemed "experimental," titled CED 496A: Community of Practice, and ultimately had six, consistent participants during the Fall 2013 semester--five CED undergraduates and one faculty member. In order to enroll in the course, students briefly responded to a prompt asking them how the structure of the course would allow them to both explore their individual interests and assist others in exploring theirs. Most applicants were attracted to the opportunity to decide what they wanted to learn, confessing that they observed gaps in the CED program; they perceived CED 496A to be an opportunity to learn about subject matter they felt was missing in the program. At first the large amount of freedom was intimidating, but ultimately the course evolved into a hugely beneficial experience for each participant. As participants in CED 496A, we intend to share some of our experiences and learning as well as explain why the CED program would benefit from consistently offering this course.

What we did

The first few weeks of the course were spent getting to know each other, and understanding each other's values and motivations for enrolling in the course. We came to learn that each of us valued agency, the opportunity to determine what we would learn and to have equal authority in that process. On the first day of class, we came together with ideas, passions, opinions, and apprehension about how the course would evolve. We knew we needed to choose a topic for the course, be it a project or general subject matter, but without authority (the class was egalitarian) or set of guidelines (we had no syllabus) the options were limitless and this was intimidating. We brainstormed ideas, came up with various options, and ultimately we decided where we wanted to go with this unique freedom. Collectively, we chose to establish a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide experiential learning opportunities for students of all disciplines that would focus on community engagement. We felt that as CED students, many of us would be working for similar organizations in the future, and experientially learning how a nonprofit was created and operated would be invaluable for us. From the beginning of the semester, several of us voiced our desire to increase the connection between the community and the university. We perceived a disconnect and wanted to find a way to repair it. After a few weeks, we were able to incorporate this value into our nonprofit, potentially achieving the goal of increasing community and university connectedness. The process of creating a nonprofit organization challenged us to learn a great number of things throughout the semester. We needed to develop a strategic plan, articles of incorporation, bylaws, a mission and vision statement, organize meetings and necessary government identification. None of us had any experience with this process, making every step new to each of us. At the end of the semester we decided to apply for a grant through the Sustainability Institute. This challenged us further to manage our time and schedules in order to develop a clear and thorough proposal, another unique experience for most of us. Through the application process, we gained insight into grant writing as well as experience collectively writing a document with six authors. We ended the semester having completed the proposal and having finalized individual assessments and grades. The nonprofit work was left partially complete awaiting the decision of our grant proposal.

Our Experience

As we were establishing a nonprofit organization, our class was simultaneously engaging in a community of practice; we were simulating an egalitarian community experience through learning how to create a nonprofit organization. This was unique and new to many participants and provided the opportunity to learn about community by experiencing the process of a community developing -- we were learning by doing. It was challenging for us to recognize how our learning was occurring simultaneously. To facilitate this, we set aside time for class reflection every other week. We found that while establishing the nonprofit we were learning relatively concrete information, by participating in the community of practice was teaching us valuable lessons we would apply beyond this course. Our reflection sessions were rich with conversation that lasted hours and culminated in some specific insight into what we learned throughout the semester. As a class, we created a list of topics at the end of the semester that each of us reflected on individually in order to capture the uniquely personal nature of the learning we engaged in. The topics were agreed upon as a class and reflect general themes we encountered throughout the semester as well as the values upon which the course was based. This section will discuss our reflections on those topics in an effort to articulate what we learned while engaging in our community.

Co-creation of Knowledge and Perception of Authority

The most fundamental, and most unique, aspect of this course was the emphasis on co-creation and egalitarian learning. Creating an egalitarian classroom was a challenge, and ultimately we learned that despite our efforts, authoritative roles arose in our group; however, in attempting to co-create the course, our community learned that each of us had valuable contributions and powerful agency in our learning. This type of learning atmosphere in which each participant has an equal voice in the learning process was new to every participant; not one of us could foresee how the course would evolve. Our educational experiences until this point had been hierarchical: students relied on instructors to provide information and assess their learning. We were used to passive learning, trusting our superior and their expertise, and waiting to hear what the expert had to teach us. The alternative learning structure in CED 496A challenged us, but we experienced benefit as well, as this student expressed:

Before entering into this course I wouldn't have even been able to describe an instance of practicing co-creation, or even a situation in which such an act would be appropriate and efficient. I am a student that has grown up in an educational system in which one person decides on the topics to be discussed and bestows information onto me, never would I have thought that people in a room together could collectively learn together without such a teaching figure. Due to the fact that this was an entirely new concept and activity for me it was a struggle to accept that just by talking together we could all learn so much from each other based on our individual perspectives and experiences within and about the world.

Because the course design was new to each of us, uncertainty and intimidation surfaced at first, yet once we decided upon a project topic, collaboration and co-creation emerged well among us. Slowly we realized that although this class structure was entirely different from any course structure we had every experienced, it resulted in a rich learning environment; we now had the opportunity to learn from everyone in the course, not solely the course instructor. This allowed us to design a course unique to us, to meet our needs and expectations and to adapt along the way to any concern or idea one of us may have had. Embedded in the process of co-creation were tensions surrounding the perception of authority. As stated previously, in a typical classroom the instructor assumes an authoritative position, dictating the structure, learning outcomes, and assessment of students. Students attend class sessions and their experience is largely dictated by the instructor's preferences and decisions. In our classroom environment, no such authority existed formally; however, we found that natural perceptions of authority arose. Age, educational experience, and confidence all influenced whether an individual was perceived as an authority figure or not. Often, undergraduate participants defaulted in decision-making situations to the single faculty participant, the absent faculty supervisor, or graduate student participants. This indicated to us that we were comfortable defaulting to a power structure in the classroom and that we were not used to being responsible for our learning.

These realizations were unsettling to some participants. Recognizing our tendencies to default to authority drove some of us to practice taking agency in our learning in ways we had not experienced thus far. For example, upon time to make decisions, participants would often wait for an authority to "approve" a choice of theirs. Additionally, if we came to a point where we had little information, we would naturally look to the faculty participant for guidance on how to proceed. These behaviors slowly began to cease, but never stopped completely; however, by developing awareness of them we were more able to make necessary changes in our behavior. As a result, we learned not only how to take agency in the classroom, but also how to develop a community who feels comfortable treating each other as equals. As one participant stated: "I think that despite saying we were all equal, it took time, arguments, discussions, and open comments to come to a level of comfort enough to [critically question] anyone in the class without feeling like there would be repercussions. I'm not sure everyone [felt] completely equal, but we [were] open about trying to achieve that." Our comfort levels with each other were essential in creating an egalitarian classroom. Ultimately, our experience without a designated authority figure taught each of us the value of our individual and collective voices. One student expressed, "This experience was constructive in that it taught me to rely on myself for representation and power." Another student stated, "One of the things that I hope we all learned is that everyone has expertise. And each is different. And that it is not weak or bad in any way to ask the expert in a certain situation for assistance, but that this does not mean the person doing the asking is of any less value than that expert." Despite relative expertise and perceived authority, we each learned that we were only as powerful as our perceptions of ourselves; if we were determined to have a voice, agency, or to make change, the only thing stopping us was our own self-perception of inferiority.


As a group, we set aside two hours for reflection every other weekend. During this time we would focus on how we were working as a community, debrief on our accomplishments thus far, set new goals, and express and concerns or positive experiences throughout the process. Reflection sessions became extremely valuable to our community, giving us the opportunity to articulate problems, brainstorm solutions, and receive feedback from each other, ultimately building essential relationships. Through the integration of safe spaces for reflection into our learning process, we designated specific time to build relationships among each other. This built a strong foundation as a community, which led to us accomplishing even more than we had previously expected. When asked to share their thoughts, every participant stated that they felt we would not have been as productive as a class if we had not set aside time for reflection. One member expressed these benefits:

Reflection was useful for understanding. It provided a mechanism for class participants to verbally recognize their level of understanding of the class and project. We were able to 'get everyone on the same page' during reflection sessions. We were also able to address any negative energy between members of the community...Reflection helped in a setting of a non-hierarchy. Because we all collectively made decisions, it was important to make sure each member was understood and had the chance to express themselves.

Though at times it was difficult to share negative feelings, reflecting allowed us to build closer bonds among our community members, leading to greater levels of comfort and the ability to work more successfully as a group. Participants in the course found reflection to be important enough to incorporate it into their daily lives. One participant stated: "This class has taught me the utmost importance of reflection...I now find myself wanting to reflect on my own life, my week, my day, in order to continue improving. The word in and of itself, reflection, has become so fundamental to my life that I don't know how it was so easily overlooked before." Reflection proved to be an integral part of not only our class experience, but also each participant's personal experience, influencing their future practice.


At the beginning of the experimental course, one of the few requirements was to determine a form of assessment. As a community, we needed to determine how we were going to assess each other--what criteria we were going to use, and what grade each student would receive. We struggled to determine a method, the criteria, and to objectively assess community members who had become our close friends. After much deliberation the group decided to create anonymous surveys and rate the other members on a scale from 1-10 in various co-determined categories. Each community member completed a questionnaire about every other community member. After the surveys were completed, students received anonymous feedback from each of their peers regarding the criteria we had decided upon as a group. We developed this system as a feedback mechanism in order to be sure we all understood our community's common values and could gauge our individual and collective progress during the semester. Although we were able to observe numerical data about each other, and ourselves this process proved to be one of the more difficult aspects of the class experience, but also a rewarding one. The assessment process helped participants learn a number of things including how to develop assessment criteria, how to critique assessment methods, and what metrics they prefer to use in an assessment process.

Through this process, we learned that articulating what our grades were representing was very important. Questions arose such as: Were we measuring progress throughout the semester? How much of your perceived progress depended on your personal relationship with your peers? One participant stated that "ultimately we found numeric measurements to be impersonal and meaningless; however, subjective assessments depended upon how we perceived each other rather than an objective measurement of our individual progress. This proved to make the grading process difficult." Our assessment process evolved into a feedback mechanism. This way, the assessment was not just an arbitrary number we placed on each person, but a process for learning about yourself based on how you interact with your coworkers alongside your coworkers. Another participant shared that: It gave people an opportunity to voice their concerns clearly when they would otherwise not have that chance. Problems can be addressed when they otherwise would continue for long periods of time, exacerbating the problem. It was important to take it with a grain of salt. You don't need to take feedback literally. It is just good insight. And if you value working well with the group you are working with at the time, this helps the group work together better. Assessment became a mechanism for sharing our concerns about working with each other as well as an opportunity to address potential problems before they grew into significant issues. Final y, an important result of the assessment process was each participant's ability and willingness to critique the process itself. Because community members developed the mechanism for assessment, they felt they had a stake it in and were willing to adapt it to their needs as those needs evolved. Some participants expressed that previously they had always taken rubrics or other assessment criteria as given, not something to be changed or adapted, yet that after this experience, they were more willing to question an assessment method critically in order to be conscious of its appropriateness.

So what?

Our experience in CED 496A was dense, filled with collective and personal learning on many different levels, as evidenced above. We feel this experience was one that truly incorporated community, making it essential to incorporate into the Community, Environment, and Development program. This course allowed the participants to take full control of their own learning. In an educational system, students can often feel powerless in their education, directed by authority figures. This opportunity allowed participants to control their learning while also taking agency in their work, grading, and output. We feel there are many reasons this course should be included regularly in the CED program. Below are some responses from participants in the class after being asked why the course should be offered again:

"This experience has allowed for not only new thoughts, but new thought processes. Instead of expecting direction and guidelines, as I have for most of my life through schooling, I am able to take [agency for] my own view on an assignment or task and think of a solution that may not be expected. Asking harder questions and making discussion an integral part of the problem-solving process has helped grow the skills I need to be a better student, professional, and most importantly, person.

Working with a true community is EXCITING! Something new could and did happen every meeting that left me feeling completely different than I did going into it. This experience overall had a large affect on feelings. Whether it was understanding and working with others' feelings in the decision making process, or understanding others' feelings when reacting to something they said or did, or simply understanding my own feelings in a tight-knit group and what sort of impression I was emitting to others."

"This class provided a great learning experience to me as a student and reflected future work environments in a way that was very beneficial. I did struggle with the lack of traditional structure and organization which is something I learned I crave. I get frustrated with a lack of focus or a goal line to work towards. I learned a lot about myself and how I work in groups. This class challenged me to my core more than any other experience in my educational path thus far."

"The class fosters community, taught me team building and working in a dynamic environment with different voices and opinions, was the most "real world" experience I've had in a CED class, gave individuals a voice, allowed students to control their own learning environment and path, [and] allowed for success or failure to be determined by each student not an authority figureā€¦The class proved to be difficult and rewarding. The freedom we experienced was not always enjoyable, as we realized the difficulty in managing multiple tasks, as well as assessing ourselves and each other...However, this experience would not have been the same without those 'mistakes'. Ultimately, we developed the skills of time management, scheduling, division of labor, group writing, analysis, strategic planning, and assessment. These are skills that are not always gained in a traditional course...This experience can not result in failure because even if we have perceived failure, we have succeeded in learning from it."

"Why take this class? We all began with it because we wanted to take control and decide what we wanted to learn...This class is a perfect opportunity for students to fill in the gaps. To decide, as a group, what is relevant for them to learn that CED is not offering at the moment...Everyone has complaints, but part of higher education is learning how to take responsibility for yourself and your learning.

This class also functions as a way for students to put new ideas into practice. From our class, we got a nonprofit, but from other classes who knows what ideas will develop. Simply by creating a space for sharing and creating, more ideas will happen...I also feel like faculty would benefit from this. Their students would be developing creative skills, leadership skills, and community organization skills all while coming up with innovative ideas for the CED program and their education in general. It's co-creation of knowledge not just among students, but between students and faculty."

This class provides an opportunity for students to learn, without severe consequences, how to work in a "real" community setting. It provides a unique and critical space for reflection on community development processes as they occur. It also provides an outlet for student ideas about the CED program by allowing them to address perceived gaps in their education. This course also helps participants develop communication, organization, planning, and engagement skills, among many others. Due to the open-ended nature of the subject matter, specific topics to be explored are limitless regarding CED themes, providing a unique opportunity to explore something new.

We envision this course being offered each semester. Certain participants could engage in the course twice, creating an opportunity for that individual to help in facilitation during their second experience. Graduate students could also act as facilitators, providing them teaching experience and building community between undergraduate and graduate students. This course could also be incorporated into a "community organizing" twelve-credit specialization, paired with CED 375H, Community, Local Knowledge, and Democracy and other appropriate courses. Each student, upon completing the course, was extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate. The course challenged each of us uniquely, and all of us finished the semester having learned invaluable information about community. One of the students called this course her "community development class," it being the course that she learned the most about the process of developing community. This experience will be one that we each refer back to many times, having inspired us to integrate all that we have learned into our future practice. Because of this, we hope to share this opportunity with our peers, recognizing that it could impact them in a uniquely positive way as well.


Horton, M., Friere, P., Gaventa, J., & Peters, J. M. (1990). We make the road by walking: conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.