Digital service learning combines the benefits of traditional service learning with engaging technology for maintaining student interest and maximizing practical use of course content. Currently, my technical writing students are meeting other volunteers from around the world while editing OCR texts for Distributed Proofreaders, an Internet community that aids Project Gutenberg in its mission to make public domain books freely, digitally, and globally available. Student interest is high and positive learning outcomes, some stated and some surprising, are already manifesting themselves.
I bought my first home computer in 1995. I unpacked and arranged it, pushed and clicked, connected to the Internet with excitement, and then looked idiotically at the blinking cursor waiting to fulfill my command. I had heard tell of the marvelous world of the amazing Internet, but when faced with that shiny, new moment, I did nothing—because I really had no idea what to do with it. In education, unpackaged and even connected technology is not enough for modern, effective teaching and learning. The Internet provides possibilities more profound than simple presentation, delivery, and archival of course content, altering not only the nature of research, but also the creation and dissemination of knowledge itself. The literature pulsates with studies that corroborate the impact of technology use on student learning outcomes and engagement. Combining what we know of service-learning with the potential of technology invites students to create and disseminate their own expanding knowledge by contributing their time and their skills to the global community of which they are a part. Over 20 years after learning what to do with my first computer, I now lead my technical writing students into service-learning editing for Distributed Proofreaders (DP), an Internet community that aids Project Gutenberg in its mission to make public domain books digitally available to the world.
Guthrie and McCracken (2013) suggest that service learning today is not our grandmothers’ service-learning. Nor is it our children’s Webquest. Today, service-learning in postsecondary education has become a student engagement issue, and Guthrie and McCracken (2013) believe that blended learning environments ideally situate well-structured, purposeful service learning projects for powerful learning outcomes. In my online, hybrid, and face-to-face academic and technical composition courses, my students have live-Tweeted the class, explored the digital collections of the Smithsonian and the National Archives, or conversed by email with professionals in their chosen fields. Our contributions to Internet knowledge began three years ago when we began adding our research findings to Wikipedia pages. Now, as we meet and join volunteers from around the world on DP, students are increasingly invested in their classroom activities, expanding their awareness of the relevance of writing in the world, demonstrating responsible digital citizenship, and building their writing skill.
I am not alone in my early, positive assessment of the value of digital service-learning, also called digital volunteering, remote service, or e-volunteering. Eastmond and Legler (2010) suggested that to exclude service learning from online education was to isolate the student from being “a participating citizen” in the community (p. 1). They report “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from students and contend that “service learning is an approach that harnesses student energy and puts it to work on socially worthwhile projects, rather than assignments that have no practical value other than providing ‘practice’” (p. 2). Practice should not be disparaged, but it is only one way for any student to demonstrate what Wiggins and McTighe (2005) identified as the six facets of understanding: explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Service learning has been correlated with strengthening empathy (Wilson, 2011), but Waldner, McGorry, and Widener (2010) suggest that “moral development, or potential job offers” are minimized in the e-service sector. In its place, they argue, digital service learning benefits both partner and student in more tangible ways: a deliverable for the partner and a skill for the student. The nature of each student’s benefit depends on the project, the degree of responsibility for the student, the support and feedback obtained from outside of the college or classroom, and the reflection that results. Most beautifully, many digital volunteering projects are ongoing and invite the student to participate—and learn—long after a class has ended.
Needs and calls for digital volunteers vary, resulting in a variety of educator options when considering a service-learning project across various disciplines. Well-constructed service learning projects, however, share many commonalities: they closely align with course objectives, offer students choice in the definition of and fulfillment of the requirement, are relevant to students’ lives, and encourage student reflection (Eastmond & Legler, 2010; Guthrie & McCracken, 2013). One of my primary goals for my students included furthering their abilities at noticing detail in printed text, but other benefits have already begun to emerge. We have more closely considered student-raised topics from the dash to artificial intelligence to Johannes Gutenberg’s impact on the Enlightenment. My students have benefitted from interaction with DP volunteers who also give of their time to mentor new proofreaders, and I have been excited over both the collaboration and the corroboration as students hear from voices other than mine. Students appreciate that they are making useful and lasting contributions, and almost all have signed up to receive email notification when their proofread pages are ultimately posted to Project Gutenberg. Our class service project will culminate in a report of their activity and a reflection on its benefit to their learning, and I would look forward to sharing the results with my colleagues. In the interim, let’s log in. We have the teaching and learning of work to do.
See supporting documents and references below.
I look forward to the possibility of sharing from my students' reflections at our April conference.
1. Learning effectiveness: In a writing course, skills are best learned by immersion—an opportunity that well designed online and hybrid modalities easily afford. Learning outcomes for e-service projects may be tangibly measured by rubrics, final grades, and project completion. Student satisfaction can be evidenced by the strength of the outcomes, high rates of successful course completion, and student survey responses at the end of a course. The engagement and support of volunteers outside of the classroom enhance appropriate alignment of institutional goals and classroom learning with workplace and social purposes and needs. Let the learning begin.
2. Scalability: Implementing social learning projects in online or hybrid classrooms will involve faculty time investments. Faculty interest may be a factor, as may professional development opportunities. Because of the variety of e-volunteering opportunities available, an e-service project can be multi- and inter-disciplinary, across online, hybrid, and even face-to-face formats. Vary implementation.
3. Access: IT support may be a challenge as hours are often limited or help desks may not be manned on weekends. Plan ahead for IT issues.
4. Faculty happiness: It would take two of me to be any more ecstatic! Students hear reinforcement from a voice other than my own. I am satisfied that I have provided my students with a comprehensive, meaningful, and practical learning experience. Make an impact.
5. Student satisfaction: My students express excitement and investment in what they perceive as meaningful work. Other educators report similar student responses to e-service learning activities (Levitt & Schreihans, 2009; Eastmond and Legler, 2010). Shukla and Shukla (2014) found that males were less likely to show interest in an optional service-learning project, but all students were statistically amenable enough to indicate that classroom revolt is not at all likely if instructors offer service-learning projects. Levitt and Schreihans (2009) found no correlation between gender and enjoyment in a required service-learning project that “invite[d] students to continue to implement their education to help others” (p. 32). Feel the love.
• A computer with Internet connection
• Some service projects may require students to establish free online accounts; students may elect to use fake names/monikers/pseudonyms.
• Time to explore and training for faculty will vary.
Eastmond, J. N., & Legler, N. (2010). Service learning in online education: Opportunities to promote meaning and harness student energy. Distance Learning, 7(3), 1-8. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/854007360?accountid=6741
Guthrie, K.L., & McCracken, H. (2010). Teaching and learning social justice through online service-learning courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11(3), 79-94. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1634479097?accountid=6741
Levitt, C., and Schreihans, C. (2009). Combining service and online learning in undergraduate management courses. Proceedings of the Academy of Educational Leadership, 14(2), 27-32. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/192405846?accountid=6741
Shukla, P.K., & Shukla, M.P. (2014). An analysis of gender and major differences upon undergraduate student attitudes about community service learning. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 7(1), 39-44. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1477975704?accountid=6741
Waldner, L., McGorry, S., & Widener, M. (2010). Extreme e-service learning (XE-SL): E-service learning in the 100% online course. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(4), 839-851. Retrieved from Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1497198298?accountid=6741
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wilson, J. (2011). Service-learning and the development of empathy in US college students. Education + Training, 53(2/3), 207-217. doi:10.1108/00400911111115735
Because of stunningly positive student reaction, investment, and learning outcomes in my English composition courses, I expect to incorporate service learning projects for many years to come. I am currently simmering in ideas that include local partners for meaningful student writing projects and ways to implement a digital humanities project to benefit the Louisville, Kentucky area.