Service-Learning

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
91
Norman Clark
Appalachian State University
Problem: 

The people who are the most affected by the digital divide typically need to access information from nonprofit organizations. However, most NPO's do not have the time, personnel, and/or skills to create and maintain web sites. Thus, the service-oriented information needed the most by lower income community members is often not online. In addition, many lower-income community members lack the skills necessary to effectively use web sites. Finally, data supporting the local impact of the digital divide is often insufficient or even non-existent.

Context: 

This problem has a unique solution in regions surrounding college campuses with service-learning programs.

Discussion: 

The groups most likely to be impacted negatively by the digital divide are paradoxically the groups that need access to basic service-related information the most. Quite often, members of these groups also lack the skills needed to use the Internet effectively. In addition, nonprofit organizations (NPO's) often have the information needed by these disadvantaged groups, but also paradoxically are unable to make this information available online. The needs of both groups are in conflict, and create a context in which it is extremely difficult for either groupÂ’s needs to be met.

Digital Divide Impacted GroupsÂ’ Needs:
* easily accessible and up-to-date information
* interaction with service providers
* appealing design
* intuitive navigation systems
* training

NPO's Needs/Lacks:
* personnel to put information online while still meeting clients' needs
* additional time to create and maintain web pages
* knowledge and skill to create effective web sites
* funds to pay for server space or a webmaster

One possible solution is for the NPO's to rely on a volunteer from the community to create and maintain a website. However, relying on volunteer labor for web sites is risky, due to the turnover rate and varying skill levels of volunteers. What is needed is a pool of skilled, but cost-free, assistance.

One place to find this pool is on college campuses with service-learning programs. Service-learning is a pedagogical method designed to link course content with external experiences. Students learn the course-related materials through traditional learning in the classroom and through practical projects in and with the community, as well as about the reality and significance of the social issues faced by the community; while simultaneously providing a service to the community by meeting specific needs of the agencies or the populations with which they work.

A service-learning class intentionally links the content of the course to a relevant NPO's goals. Students benefit from the chance to apply their skills to a real problem, and to learn about the needs of the community; while the NPO's benefit from the chance to have some of their goals and needs met, and to influence the next generation of leaders. In the long run, research has shown that students who take part in service-learning courses feel a greater sense of connection to their local communities, as well as an understanding of their interdependence with their neighbors. Connection and interdependence are building blocks of responsibility, and responsible citizens are in turn the building blocks of strong communities.

The initiative for a service-learning course can come from a number of different places. Individual professors can choose to use this pedagogical method in their courses, universities may require service-learning in certain classes, or community agencies may propose projects that fit with the learning objectives of a class. Regardless of the source, effective service-learning requires collaboration between the members of the community and the academic institution: it should be done WITH the community, not ON the community. The goals and needs of the community must be combined with the goals and needs of the course. This process of collaboration is often facilitated by offices on the campus specifically designated to assist with service-learning.

The service can take one of three forms.
1) Direct service: students work with the community members served by local agencies. In the case of the digital divide, students in a wide range of courses could train local community members to access and evaluate online information. This training could be done at the local library, senior centers, retirement homes, elementary schools, and any other locations with the necessary facilities (connected computers).
2) Indirect service: students work with the local community agencies to provide them with some needed assistance, which indirectly benefits their clients. In the case of the digital divide, students in web design courses can be required to create and/or update web sites for local NPO's, or run workshops training agencies representatives to maintain their own sites.
3) Community-based research: students (with faculty support) conduct research for and with a local community agency. In the case of the digital divide, people trying to change the existing systems sometimes lack the hard evidence needed to prove that a problem exists. Students in a wide range of research-methods courses could conduct survey research into the impact of the digital divide at the local level.

But most importantly, the impact of a service-learning course goes beyond the immediate project: it results in changed lives. This is because a critical component of any service-learning course is reflection. Research shows that we don't really learning anything from experience (we often make the same mistakes repeatedly); we learn from thinking about our experiences. Students in service-learning courses are required to reflect on their experience in rigorous, thoughtful, and evaluated ways. This process drives the learning home, increasing the integration of knowledge they have gained in the present course with the way they live their lives in the future. For example, to create web sites, students must understand the agency, which means they must research the role that the NPO plays in the community, the populations that it serves, and the social issues that underlie its mission. This research helps students understand how critical access to the right information is for everyone, and how information is always related to power. Putting students in contact with members of the local community can also help dispel stereotypes. Students' easy access to computers often leads them to mistakenly believe that the digital divide is just a "Mercedes divide." Requiring students to work with underfunded and understaffed non-profit agencies, who are themselves working with disadvantaged groups, can open their eyes to the very real informational needs in the communities in which they live.

Solution: 

Service-learning provides a way to use the resources of a college or university to meet real community needs, such as designing web sites for NPO's or training community members to effectively access and evaluate information online. Students can create valuable resources for the community while simultaneously becoming more aware of the social issues in that community. This ensures that once people are able to cross the digital divide, they will find the local information that they need, and not just more places to shop. This also creates the possibility for the next generation of leaders to have a better understanding of the information needs of their local community.

Pattern status: 
Released