Building a Program of Service Learning

I had a great meeting today with Anke Voss and Noah Lenstra. We discussed a number of points about effective implementation of service learning that will be summarized elsewhere. But one topic of special note highlighted in our discussion is the need for a more integrative approach to service learning implementation.

My service learning activities typically occur under the ESLARP umbrella, as has Anke’s. And while there certainly is some sharing between classes that occurs following dinner on Friday nights, this is fairly superficial. Some sharing also occurs through newsletters put out at the end of each semester, and through occasional joint presentations.

Our discussion did not dismiss or diminish the value of these experiences, but instead pointed towards a need for a more substantive interaction between participants in ESLARP that would deepen the learning for all involved. In my class, “Introduction to Networked Systems”, almost since semester one I have stressed reflection at both the individual and project group level. More recently, I have been refining ways in which the class comes together as a whole to participate in meaningful reflection during the course of the semester. At first, this was group presentations following the two trips to East St. Louis. This past semester, when we stayed nine days/six nights in East St. Louis, we had class-wide reflections on a nightly basis. By the final night, the depth of the reflections had grown considerably, as did the learning that occurred through them.

I believe the conclusion Anke, Noah, and I were coming to in our discussion today was the need to take one further step; to move beyond the rich reflective process that is beginning to happen at the class level and add a reflective process that occurs at the program level. We envisioned a process that would facilitate a more holistic approach to learning and public engagement that better emphasized the multifaceted approaches that are needed to facilitate social inclusion for members of disenfranchised communities.

In the book Expanding Boundaries: Service and Learning, Andrew Furco summarizes work by Robert Sigmon regarding types of service learning. Using capital letters to distinguish emphasis, Sigmon describes a range of implementations of service learning, from service-learning, in which the goals of service and learning are completely separate, to SERVICE-LEARNING, in which the goals of service and learning are completely balanced and integrated. It seems difficult or unlikely that the type of reflective process we were envisioning during today’s meeting could be accomplished by bringing together students participating in service-learning courses that completely separate the two components, or service-LEARNING courses that emphasize primarily learning, or SERVICE-learning courses that primarily emphasize service. Optimally, courses would be identified in which SERVICE-LEARNING fully integrates and balances both components. With this common approach to discovery and engagement, students would likely be primed to benefit from the broader contextual realm fostered through inter-class reflections.

We also discussed some of the environmental conditions needed to foster such an inter-class reflective activity. Both Anke and I have found that students working together on a project seem to naturally participate in a shared experience and reflection as they work on projects at their host sites. These sites are often in informal settings that feel relaxed and contribute to open sharing. This is often not the case when students are brought together in conference- or classroom settings. Of note, my Summer I offering of “Intro to Network Systems” was the first time I felt the class as a whole really came together and actively participated in a broader, but deep, reflective process. It is also the first time that we stayed at the Hubbard House, a facility in East St. Louis that has intentionally built spaces aimed at creating relaxed environments for meaningful sharing amongst groups. Can such class-wide reflections, let alone inter-class reflections, be facilitated at the Ramada, or back in Champaign? This is an open question that will require further consideration.

At the end of our discussion, we also brainstormed some on the concept of a “Community Informatics Studio”. The idea is to provide a place where not only the reflections, but the actual project work, could transcend a single course. Some of the newer projects we’ve started considering in East St. Louis do not easily fit into a single course, or indeed department, as a project, but move into a broader Community Informatics realm that requires a multidisciplinary approach. While similar to the current LIS490CIC, “Community Informatics Corp”, one possibility would be that this studio would tap into students who are currently taking other courses and would encompass their final service-learning projects within those courses. Another option would be that this course would be comprised of students who have come from other classes, whose projects are to design specific projects for these other courses, and thereby serve as a starting point for the creation of new service-learning opportunities for other courses. Both may provide a means for broader implementation of service-learning in GSLIS (and other departmental courses) and provide opportunities for students to participate in multi-disciplinary project teams. But if the course were to provide a place where students who are taking a range of students in a current semester come together to work on a multidisciplinary community informatics service-learning project, the studio might also foster the type of cross-class reflections that could further enhance the learning process for all students during the semester.

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