Creating Opportunities Online for Service Learning

A Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) Family event at Sierra Linda Elementary School in Oxnard

I embarked on a new journey this semester into the unknown. I piloted a new Canvas online course which incorporated a service learning project. I had taught the same course the previous semester, face-to-face; however, it was the first time I taught it fully online. I wanted to incorporate a service learning project for the online course to provide opportunity for the Early Childhood Studies students to engage in service at a local elementary school. The service learning project identified the community need as, the lack of resources available to Latino families. The service learning project focused on CSU Channel Islands (CI) students providing a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) Family event at Sierra Linda Elementary School in Oxnard. CI students, from across several disciplines, participated in service learning which included Early Childhood Studies, Spanish Program, School of Education, and the Art Program. CI students provided hands on STEAM learning activities for the elementary children and families who attend the STEAM Family event. Families received a tote bag and a bilingual STEAM booklet. The service learning project connected the families with resources available at the Oxnard Public Library. Sierra Linda Elementary School provided a free bilingual children’s book for each family who attended the event. Following the STEAM Family Event, the families went to the Oxnard Public Library to receive the children’s book and information about community resources. It was a huge success.

Lego blocks being used at the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) Family event at Sierra Linda Elementary School in Oxnard

As I reflect on the successes and challenges of providing service learning opportunities for an online course, I realized that I was a learner, right alongside my students. Providing service learning online was a steep learning curve yet, the benefits outweighed the challenges. Incorporating service learning online compared to a face-to-face course, took courage, commitment, and creativity. I learned valuable lessons along my bumpy journey. Here are some steps I found especially helpful in providing service learning in my online course:

  1. Create a strong sense of online community of learners. Provide interactive activities to build a sense of community.
  2. Include detailed information in the syllabi about the service learning project, including expectations, role of students, community members, and faculty.
  3. Early in the semester, include detailed explanation of purpose and benefits of service learning. Include video orientation by the Center for Community Engagement, introduce CI Serves, identify community need, goal of service learning project, description of service learning project, and desired outcome.
  4. Identify student team leaders to oversee service learning groups. Meet online with team leads to discuss role and responsibility as group leaders.
  5. Provide opportunity for student ownership by encouraging students to self-select service learning groups and service learning roles. Support student ownership in all aspects of the project: planning, implementing, evaluating, and reporting.
  6. Communication is essential. Meet with community partner before start of semester. Email on a regular basis community partners. Use various strategies to engage students in planning such as, Zoom, Chat, Collaboration, Google Hangout, Skype, email, etc.
  7. Link service learning project to student learning outcomes. Connect the significance of service learning to the course content and learning objectives.
  8. Organization is key. Create detailed description of each person’s role, agenda, including timelines and materials.
  9. Reflection is a central part of service learning. Use multiple ways to engage students in reflection, before, during, and after the project. Gather student and partner feedback. Share with all service learning participants, lessons learned and future plan for service learning projects.
  10. Celebrate success and embrace areas of needed growth. Make visible service learning outcomes with CI students, faculty and staff, and local community partners.

As we near the end of the semester, I have learned to look back at my online service learning experience without staring. In other words, I have come to embrace service learning online as more than a one-time course event. Rather, service learning is ongoing, always evolving, based on the community needs. Online courses allow for a unique opportunity for students, faculty, and partners to engage in service learning. Together, we can create an online thread which connects us as one tapestry, in service to the community and each other.

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