Online Service-Learning: Lessons from an Asynchronous Course

In Fall 2021, my program chair, Stacey Anderson, asked if I’d be interested in teaching our Introduction to Grant Writing Course that coming spring. Having taken grant writing courses in my own graduate program and written my own grants for the nonprofits I’m involved with in my local community, I enthusiastically accepted. 

When reviewing past materials from the faculty who had taught the course before me, I thought to myself, “Why have students write hypothetical grants when they could be writing real grants for real community partners?” I reached out to Pilar Pacheco, the Director of the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), to see if she thought this would be a useful service-learning course. I had taught service-learning in the past by taking students to our Santa Rosa Island Research Station and having them work on trail maintenance in our local national parks while creating sample brochures and informational texts, but it had been years since I taught a service-learning course. An added wrinkle is that, unlike my previous service-learning course, grant writing is taught fully online and asynchronously.

Pilar Pacheco connected me with Jennifer Raymond, the incredible Community Partnership Lead for the CCE, and we got to work contacting community partners who might want to be involved with the course. Jennifer gathered interested community partners, and I held Zoom information sessions before the semester began, explaining the projects, student expectations, and community partner expectations. Once community partners agreed, they were included on a sign-up sheet for later in the semester. 

In Open Words, I was able to publish an article, Online Access: Grant Writing as Reciprocal Service-Learning at a Hispanic-Serving Institution, about the asset-based model I used to teach this course, how I leveraged lived experiences, reciprocal service-learning, and the unintended outcomes of teaching this course. For the purposes of this blog, however, I wanted to discuss the nuts and bolts of running a service-learning course with students in an asynchronous class. 

The Projects

There are two large projects in this course: Grant Proposal One and Grant Proposal Two. For the first grant proposal, I work directly with one community partner to discuss a project that needs funding. Then, I find an appropriate funder and funding opportunity. In other words, I do the groundwork for the first grant so that students can focus on learning the grant writing genre (and we can get to that groundwork in the second half of the semester!). Each student individually writes a grant for the project and to the funder that the community partner and I have identified. When students turn in their final grants, I pass along the strongest grants to the community partner, who can then use that writing and information to create a grant for submission.

For the second grant proposal, each student signs up with a community partner to work one-on-one with them. The student emails the community partner with a template I provide, which includes a Google form for the community partner to fill out the information. From there, students and community partners either meet over Zoom or through email, and the community partner identifies a project that needs funding. Then, through scaffolded assignments in my class, students research funding opportunities. From the funding opportunities they locate, the community partner approves a grant opportunity for the student to begin working on. The students write multiple drafts of the grant and submit a full “grant packet” to the community partner at the end of the semester. From there, community partners can make revisions and adjustments, add their tax information, and submit the grant. 

Service-Learning Adjustments for Online Learning

There were a few adjustments I needed to make to traditional service-learning so that a service-learning project could fit in a fully asynchronous course:

  • No required site visits: since the course is asynchronous, I cannot require face-to-face synchronous sessions, which means that students could not visit their community partner sites. However, students met on Zoom and/or conducted their connections over email to great effect.
  • The projects were all writing-based. Having a writing-based project helped students be able to work on their project asynchronously, rather than have a project that required them to be doing work hands-on at a community partner site. 
  • Multiple forms of engagement. Students and community partners could not engage in more traditional formats, so I had to make sure to set up multiple forms of engagement throughout the entirety of the course. This included VoiceThread discussions among the students, Zoom meetings with community partners, social annotations on example grants, letters of intent, and content readings through our integration, and one-on-one meetings with me. One student wrote, “Discussion board posts also helped because it allowed me to see how my peers felt, what was going well for them, and what parts they were nervous about. Seeing that I wasn’t alone in how I felt was relieving, but it was also awesome to take some of the strategies that helped them and apply [them] to my own grant draft.” 
  • Flexibility. Students had to learn how to navigate sometimes slow responses from community partners in the asynchronous environment. They learned how to include placeholders and the importance of revision once they got more information. Due to the nature of the course, I also took on a more flexible grading system that was a hybrid of both “ungrading” and labor-based grading contracts where students got credit for completing assignments and activities in a timely manner, for engaging with the course and community partners and remaining active in the class. This allowed students to focus on the projects rather than stress about their grades.
  • Continuous reflection. I had multiple check-ins throughout the semester using Canvas quizzes as a survey to see how things were going and for students’ feedback on the course.

Challenges and Changes

I’m now teaching this course for the third time and have faced multiple challenges that have resulted in changes in the course and my own pedagogy:

  • Student incomplete work. One struggle in the second project was when students stopped turning in or turned in incomplete work for the grant (for varying reasons, from family emergencies, health issues, or getting overwhelmed in their classes). That first semester, this situation resulted in two grant applications not being completed.
    • The fix! Now, I offer students a choice for the second project. They can choose to work with a community partner, OR they can write a “hypothetical grant” for an organization of their choosing if they do not have the bandwidth to work one-on-one with a community partner. I will also, occasionally, require a student to do the hypothetical project if they have a history of not turning in assignments during the first half of the course.
  • “Unchosen” Community Partners. The first semester I taught the course, a few students already had nonprofits they volunteered with or worked for and wanted to choose those community partners rather than the ones through the CCE. I allowed them to do this (and it remains my practice in the current iteration of the course). However, that meant there were a few community partners who were not chosen.
    • The fix! If a community partner isn’t chosen and wants to continue to be involved, I put them on a “priority list” for the next semester I teach the course, and a student is required to pick that organization.
  • Managing Student & Community Partner Expectations. Though I give community partners access to the English 480 Google site with information about the course and expectations, there occasionally has been miscommunication.
    • The fix! Every semester, I refine my public-facing information for the community partners. I also have students CC me on their email communications and make clear that I need to know ASAP if an issue is occurring so I can step in and help. Does this require some extra labor? Yes, it does, but I want to support students in navigating these professional relationships and model for them how to resolve conflict and miscommunication. Overall, 95% of the pairings don’t need anything from me! But, it’s great to have a plan for the ones who need it.

What I’m hoping to show through this blog post is that you can adapt a service-learning course into an online asynchronous course and/or include service-learning in your current online asynchronous courses and still have a fruitful experience for your students and community partners. Though your context and discipline may be different from mine, I hope that in sharing what has worked (and what hasn’t) in my own course, you can envision how a service-learning project can work in yours. 

One thought on “Online Service-Learning: Lessons from an Asynchronous Course

  1. Thank you for the email (information) However there is so much said in this email, to such an extent I had to repeat reading. Actually what is it all about?
    Teboho T Kulube

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