Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Civic Engagement and Online Learning

Yesterday’s post was about the contradictory pressures facing many colleges.  Today I was confronted with another dilemma.  Colleges are being pushed to increase “service learning” and “civic engagement” initiatives at the exact same time that they’re being pressured to move online.

These don’t have to be opposed, necessarily, but in practice they generally are.

Service learning and civic engagement projects -- I’ll float between the terms, though they aren’t identical -- are high-touch.  They’re labor-intensive, and they require close community connections.  In fact, their labor intensity and rootedness in place seem to be keys to their success.  To the extent that they tend to pay off in improved rates of retention and graduation, that seems to be tied to a sense of belonging to a community.

Online instruction and service provision are built specifically to make place (and, to some extent, time) irrelevant.  Good online teaching is labor-intensive, to be sure -- some of its major boosters, and major bashers, don’t know that -- but it’s still based on the assumption that students can be anywhere, including in their homes logging in after the kids are in bed.

The former is about doubling down on place.  The latter is about escaping it.

Both are presented as forward-looking alternatives to the traditional classroom experience.  Civic engagement is supposed to help make theory seem real by embedding it in lived experience; online learning forsakes place altogether in favor of disembodied speech.  Civic engagement is seen largely as a public good; online education is seen as a financial necessity.

In a way, of course, they’re two sides of the same coin.  As the panoply of educational options continues to grow, it makes sense for each option to play to its unique strengths.  The traditional classroom has its strengths, and I don’t see it going away, but it no longer has a monopoly.  For a college that wants to continue to grow in useful ways -- that is, to meet the needs of an ever-changing population -- multiplying the options allows the possibility of deploying the right options for the right needs.  In a perfect world, it’s even possible to imagine some level of integration, in which folks could do site reports online from wherever they happen to be, and the “reflection” part of service learning -- as opposed to the “service” part -- could be done at least partially online.  And locally, I know that one of the most frequent requests we get from community partners is for students who can help the various small nonprofits with their websites.  To the extent that we can recruit some of our tech-savvy students into service learning, I’d expect to see some of that service rendered as tech support.

But it’s harder to be great at multiple modes of delivery than at just one.  (And even harder still when we’re expected to continue to multiply modes, and to be held accountable for results, while funding is frozen or cut.)  And it’s hard to maintain a consistent message about expectations when the pressures are moving in contradictory directions.

So, low-touch might be a fine way to deliver information, but who said that information delivery is the main point of higher education? College is a formative experience as much as it is an information-acquisition experience, a chance to acquire soft skills. The reason I don't share your passion for online teaching is that I'm not convinced that the key elements of a college education can be delivered to people sitting on their couches in front of a laptop. A lot of the information can be delivered, but it's the "high touch" aspects of college that count the most. At least for 18 year-olds. Older returning students have already matured, and maybe they don't need all of the high touch stuff that traditional freshmen need. But they probably still need something that cannot be obtained in front of a laptop.

So, go ahead, deliver the information online. But that's only part of college.
We need to reconsider the idea that college is the best or only source of education. College is one way to get educated but for very bright students or people who have been working in their fields for a while, it's often a second or third-best choice.

If I had to go on-campus to finish my BS I'd shoot myself. The coursework I do is already a huge waste of my time; it's several steps back from what I was doing before I returned to school. Sitting in class for hours would be a deal breaker. I can't wait to graduate and get back to publishing and doing research. Education is important, but for a lot of people school gets in the way of that.

I decided to go back to school because my options are limited. Several employers have refused to consider me without a degree and this seems to be pretty standard in my field (information security). Learning has nothing to do with it. I'm just accumulating paper.
Interesting post. My perspective is somewhat different from Alex's. I'm a working parent who is able to take one night class a semester at my community college. If service learning or civic engagement were a requirement for me as a student, I would drop out of the program. I've got enough on my plate as is.

Having said that, I think that giving students plenty of opportunities for service learning is a wonderful thing. But unlike 19 year olds at a residential SLAC, most community college students (at least the ones I encounter in my classes) are already dealing with a full load of work, family, and academic responsibilities.
I have a hard enough time getting my online students to crack a book or read their emails! And now I'm supposed to set up and monitor some kind of feel-good community service project too? This is just funny.
SWNC: I agree regarding additional commitments. I'm also a working parent and I just don't have time for anything else.
Alternatively, you could view them as incredibly complementary. Service learning and civic engagement are about place, yes. Online just means that place is defined in the students' terms, and not the institutions' terms. Service learning and civic engagement are perhaps *more* powerful in online classes. Students are asked to engage with *their* community.

Certainly there's an important value for students to see different perspectives and engage outside their usual selves. (Designing a web site for a homeless service agency when you live in a well-heeled area, for example.) But for busy students, leverage is key, and if they can pick up many of the valuable outcomes of service learning from meeting a need near their home, it's still a win.
Does all the civic engagement and service learning really add value that is worth the student paying for? For me, it wouldn't. And I'd say alot of students would agree both the traditional and the non. We've all got enough going on. If you want to help out the non-profit with web design, make it a graded project within the confines of the class. You have to do the creation portion and you can tap into the business portion of selling a proposal. And the kids add to their portfolio. My church did that and got a great logo out of it.

And what if I don't agree with your version of engagement or service learning on moral, political, or religious grounds?
Schools are prisons, so "civic engagement" is probably about making people ok with living in prisons.
I'm singing to the choir here, but the big picture is that we're continually being asked--"required" might be more accurate--to do more and more with less and less.
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