The Community University Portal

Posted on Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Written by Dan Gillis

Introducing the Community University Portal - a collaborative project between the SoCS and the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship.

During the summer of 2013, the School of Computer Science partnered with the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship (ICES) to develop a website and database designed to facilitate community project intake and tracking. With a working name of the “Community-University Portal (CUP)”, this project is funded by the University of Guelph's Learning Enhancement Fund, and directed by Assistant Professor Dan Gillis.

The CUP has been designed to facilitate communication between community groups and students, staff, and faculty of the University of Guelph. In the short-term, the CUP database will allow ICES to pilot test a new process for brokering and matching community-driven research questions to students and faculty with research capacity, and for tracking projects milestones and impacts over time. According to Gillis, "by simplifying the communication pathway between our on- and off- campus communities, we can provide students across campus with projects that pair them with community experts. Students will be able to apply their knowledge beyond the textbook - making decisions that have an immediate impact on our community." The CUP aims to create a space for community-campus relationships – a space where on- and off-campus communities can create research and action partnerships to address the challenges that affect the City of Guelph and surrounding regions.

The goals of the CUP align with the work of ICES, which since 2009 has operated as a strategic hub for community-engaged research and teaching within the College of Social & Applied Human Sciences and beyond. ICES works to develop and sustain community-campus collaborations and partnerships to support community-driven and community-engaged research agendas. An intermediary organization, ICES develops opportunities and capacity for three constituencies – faculty, students and community. According to ICES Knowledge Mobilization Coordinator, Anne Bergen, “When ICES first started, we had a short list of projects and partners, and it was easy for us to keep track of project requests and updates. Since that time, ICES has participated in over 100 research projects with diverse community partners. We are rapidly reaching a point where our current systems are not sufficient for managing and tracking external demand for projects, or for following projects through from creation to impacts. What we need is a database to track projects and a portal that facilitates access to university research capacity. This will be particularly helpful in creating community-engaged learning opportunities at the undergraduate course level.”

In addition to supporting the work of ICES, the CUP project is providing a valuable experiential learning experience for senior computer science undergraduate students. Justin Templeton, student project manager, reports:

“I became part of the Community University Portal project after working with Professor Dan Gillis on the Farm To Fork project. The idea of the tool that could collect other helpful and interesting ideas like the Farm To Fork project is very interesting. I think I learn more from the applications of skills than I ever do just learning about techniques that I don't apply, so I look at taking on the projects from Professor Gillis as a rich learning experience in addition to the potential benefit the work we have done could actually have for other people.

Working on a project like CUP is exciting because it is almost entirely a practical application of what I have learned in other courses combined with a great deal of self-learning on the industry tools we have used. I think I have benefited greatly from going though the project from the start of our software development life cycle model and followed it though so that I can be a part of all the phases for the project. Often courses will study each component of a project like testing, requirements gathering, and development as separate entities allowing us to falsely believe that we understand each component as they work together when really there is so much we don't realize we have missed because we didn't get to put them all together where the metric for success is end user satisfaction, not just a grade to represent expressed technical ability. I find working through an entire project like CUP more useful than any assignment in terms of skills, experience and understanding gained.

During my time on the project, I’ve been surprised to find that some of the skills and ideas that I has assumed would be the most important when working on an actual project are irrelevant, and also many things I disregarded as not core concepts in my education are absolutely pivotal to working together to create an great product. There are so many important things to learn that you can only get from actually doing the work – with space to be wrong at first – followed by feedback to learn why it was wrong and improve, and then improve again until it is immaculate, rather than just taking a mark and disregarding the comments and carrying on until you get your slip of paper.”

The CUP will be officially launched in 2014. Stay tuned.

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