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.

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