Reimagining Service Learning in the Digital Age

An ideal education in 2020 will give students the tools -- both physical and digital -- to work with their neighbors to improve the lived circumstances in their communities, writes Laken Brooks.

September 23, 2020
 
 
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During COVID-19, many instructors are asking important questions about how to bring a sense of humanity into their hybrid or online classrooms. This discourse may rightly lead us to wonder how to teach when we can’t physically see a student’s face or hear their voice. We may ponder how we can make instructional technologies more accessible to students’ bodies and home spaces.

As I sought desperately to know how I could make remote learning more relatable to my students’ lives, I was surprised when the answer came from my students themselves. Their creative approaches to service in their own lives gave me insight into the future of service learning in the digital age.

For me, the call for a human-centric education is now more urgent -- and more intimidating -- than ever before in my teaching career. While I have implemented student-centered pedagogical approaches in the past, teaching during 2020 feels different. My students are learning during a time of unprecedented police brutality, quarantine and protests for racial equality.

So at the end of this past spring term, I felt like I was picking up the pieces of a broken course, set adrift in a broken society. At the beginning of the semester, I had introduced a service-learning assignment in which students could volunteer at the library, interview a local author or read to children at a daycare. Many of my students in the Intro to Literature course were not English or humanities majors, and I originally wanted to emphasize how reading is a real-world skill that can bring people together.

But that focus on service bringing people together seemed naïve when I myself felt so distant from my students and, well, everyone else. I pulled the service-learning assignment from my syllabus and made it optional. After all, how could they engage in service learning when they were in their homes and most literary centers like museums and libraries were closed?

Nonetheless, I noticed students around the world, including my own, innovating new, digital opportunities for activism in their personal and academic lives. I quickly realized that I had made a vital mistake when I underestimated the power of service learning for my students during COVID-19. The vast majority of my students had turned to digital service to find valuable human connections during their physical isolation. And nearly all of them used my service-learning assignment as an opportunity to reassert their own humanity by connecting with other people outside their home and reflecting on current social traumas.

Many researchers and educators have highlighted the benefits of community engagement and service learning, but my students infused this pedagogy with new meaning during this pandemic. My students’ digital outreach projects were the key to a relevant curriculum precisely because good service learning is innately human-centric. With this digital service learning, my students hit upon the very heart of the humanities.

My students had embraced service learning as an opportunity to express optimism in a future past the barriers of college shutdowns, past public health crises and past inequality. In a speech at the University of Florida, National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Jon Parrish Peede described the humanities as the study of optimism: “Every writer of letters, every reader of stories, is an optimist who has hope for a future.”

In the spirit of some of the greatest humanities leaders, my students used tools like books, arts and digital platforms to contribute to community discourse around some of the biggest issues of our time, from personal protective equipment to Black Lives Matter. Pupils practiced technical writing by creating online instructions for 3-D printing face shields. They hosted socially distant book exchanges in their local mutual-aid Facebook groups. They suggested books by Black authors to be narrated by open-access audiobook libraries like Librivox. Such digital-born projects helped students reinforce and practice the lessons of composition and analysis we had learned in class. Even more, they were expressions of hope.

Service learning is the foundation of this work because it brings people together, especially when we feel like we’re being pulled apart. An ideal education during 2020 will give students the tools -- both physical and digital -- to analyze and work with their neighbors to improve the lived circumstances in their communities.

Digital service learning was the key to my students making our class content relatable and actionable in their own lives. However, one of the principles of a human-centric education is that no one solution will fit everyone. Instructors should consult with their own students to find out if they have internet access, emotional support services to cope with the sometimes heavy load of service work, an accessible learning management system, and other resources to participate in digital service learning.

Beyond COVID-19

With this preface in mind, we can identify the positive implications for digital service learning beyond my literature class and beyond COVID-19. Service learning bridges the lessons on our screens and the reality on our streets. Pedagogical research shows that students demonstrate more positive learning outcomes when they can use educational technologies to tackle real-world issues. Critical service learning acknowledges that students bring their lived community experiences with them into the classroom while empowering them to reconnect with that community. Instructors can use digital service learning to integrate these goals into our syllabi.

For instructors who want to try digital service learning in their own classes, I recommend asking your students to share the websites, social media platforms and online causes they care about. While our students may not all be digital natives, many of them have probably formed their own social media communities online and can localize these technologies for various purposes. Instructors may encourage students to research and analyze how existing digital projects have confronted various problems, local and international. Students might compare websites like Translators Without Borders and Project Gutenberg to regional social media campaigns to decide which digital tools would help them address the problems in their own communities.

With the necessity of online classes during COVID-19, I have to ask myself, “Where does service learning go from here?” While it may seem that service learning has taken on a new digital face during remote learning, activists and public scholars have been organizing digitally for decades. Digital outreach isn’t new. However, many instructors are just now recognizing its potential to grant students the autonomy to learn, to connect with other people and to make their world a little better.

My students taught me that digital service goes hand in hand with civic engagement. Now I know that I can support my students as they adopt technologies -- new and old -- as part of their learning process. And I am reminded that reading, service and humanity will always be relevant practices in my classroom, whether that classroom is online or in person.

Bio

Laken Brooks is an English Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, where she studies digital humanities, accessibility and book design. (Twitter: @lakenbrooks222.)

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