The Next Generation of Community Engagement

Using a structured online platform to build trust with stakeholders

Community, faculty and student engagement are important components of college and university strategic and facility planning. But many traditional methods of gauging opinion or gathering input—such as surveys or town hall meetings—are flawed and can be misleading, often being disproportionately influenced by the loudest or most negative voices. 

In this web seminar, presenters discussed the next generation of far more effective and accurate community engagement methods in higher ed. The president of Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia, outlined how her institution employed a structured, online platform for two recent community engagement efforts, and saw thousands of stakeholders share their thoughts and learn from one another about what matters most regarding the future of the college. Through these efforts, Camosun’s leadership built trust with the community and gained rich insights that informed their planning. 


Kevin Skelcher

VP Client Engagement


Sherri Bell


Camosun College (Victoria, B.C.)

Kevin Skelcher: Thoughtexchange is about bringing people together. And in order to bring people together, there are a few things that we need to overcome. One of them is the idea that loud voices can dominate face-to-face conversations. We want our work to be about hearing from as many people as possible, and then allowing a safe, thorough process to take place where people get to feel that they’re part of a conversation.

The other thing we’re addressing is the question of how to move beyond a shallower, polarizing survey. How do you get to the underlying interests of the group, and how do you allow people to share what’s important for them? Finally, we’re addressing the idea of building consensus in extremely time-sensitive matters. We want to make sure that we can bring a group of people together around a change, and build consensus in a way that expedites the process.

We bring people together to participate in a three-step process:

1. Share: People get a chance to share their thoughts independently and confidentially.

2. Star: They get a chance to review some of the ideas of other people and rate those thoughts.

3. Discover: We get to learn together about what’s most important.

Part of the service we provide is real-time moderation. In a public process, it’s important that nothing rude or hurtful or inappropriate is shared out, because that undermines the exchange that you’re running. So our team will read through every single thought that’s submitted by the participants to make sure that nothing goes forward that shouldn’t.

The visualization tools we have constitute quite a robust suite, and a lot of the tools we provide can help you look at the information, make decisions and make sense of it in a timely manner. Other kinds of analysis we focus on are things like shift analysis, and looking at how people change their mind after they’re exposed to different ideas.

We know that all of our partners are using surveys and polling, and doing face-to-face meetings. So why use Thoughtexchange? We’ve been finding that when you run a survey, it’s about the leader having a conversation with many—it’s one-to-many, where the participants are giving the leader the feedback. In Thoughtexchange, it’s about the one facilitating a many-to-many conversation, so the group is actually learning together. The group is actually a part of the process, and it’s also a part of the result.

The many-to-many conversation is important because it allows for certain things to happen. The leader can invite the group into a conversation in a respectful way, where they can demonstrate listening. The group can learn and listen from one another. They have the experience of being heard, and because they’re helping to drive the process, they can take more ownership of that. And then the group is able to reflect back to the leader the common interests.

Sherri Bell: When I arrived here 2 1/2 years ago, the board made it clear that they wanted a new strategic plan. So I spoke with our institutional research department and some of my VPs about wanting to make sure that we had lots of voices and lots of opportunity for faculty, students and staff to engage in the new strategic plan. We have two campuses with over 1,000 employees and almost 20,000 students. To engage everyone can be pretty complicated, so I pitched the idea of using Thoughtexchange to start our process.

We created some questions that we could send out to our community, and we worked a fair bit of time on those questions. For the first round, 375 faculty and staff participated, with over 1,000 thoughts contributed. The people who took part enjoyed the process, too, because it was like having a room full of people putting their ideas up and then going around with little sticky notes and putting 40,000 stars beside the thoughts on posters. The most exciting part was that they could star other people’s ideas, and they could also see their own ideas being reflected and starred as well. We collected the information from Thoughtexchange and created a first draft of our goal areas. We then sent the draft to the college community and did some face-to-face sessions. During those sessions, people were looking at the draft and giving very specific feedback from their perspective. That led to our second draft, which went to our board of governors, then out to the college community again, then back to our senior leadership council. Then we created a third and final draft.

During that process we were able to tweak things, and the faculty, staff and students could see how transparent the process was. That was key to them, because this is a very engaged community with a very positive culture, and people want to see themselves reflected in the strategic plan. In our next engagement we reached out to our community to gather feedback for updating our campus plan. 

After trying a few other options to acquire feedback around updating our facilities, we decided to use Thoughtexchange again. We went back out to our college community with three open-ended questions. The answers to these questions gave us a lot of information that we could cluster because the responses were so varied and broad. In this process we really wanted to hear from the community and impart what was most important to staff and students. 

By collecting that information, we wanted to be able to tell the college community, “We listened to you, and this is how we’re going to structure the work of the decisions that are going to be made.” For the second round, the participation rate went up. And I believe it went up not because the topic was important, but because people trusted the process. People found it very easy, and there was an element of fun involved. Over half of our employees ended up participating, and that gave us a lot of data.

One of the conversations we’ve had is about where this all fits in with leadership. When you think of the processes that we all engage in to bring our community into the decisions that we make, it speaks to respect, as well as to valuing the views, thoughts and experience of the people who work here and learn here.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, visit


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