Sustainable Service-Learning

Calgary Downtown, 2006, from Wikimedia Commons

Calgary Downtown, 2006, from Wikimedia Commons

Q: What is the basic unit of Community Service Learning (CSL) in the university-community context? — What is the smallest social unit that contains all its necessary ingredients for its success and sustainability?

A: The basic unit of CSL is not a course or a student project, as teachers and administrators might think it is. … The basic unit of CSL is a “partnership” between one or more teachers, people in the community, and the students/citizens they currently mentor and work with.

As described by the Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning (CACSL),

Community Service-Learning (CSL) is an educational approach that integrates service in the community with intentional learning activities. Within effective CSL efforts, members of both educational institutions and community organizations work together toward outcomes that are mutually beneficial.

Changes affecting CSL partnerships and courses

CSL partnerships are moving targets because instructors, the community, and the students they are guiding together are mobile, changing individuals. Attempts to sustain CSL within an academic curriculum need to allow for this flexibility.

Course titles and descriptions may look static in university curricula, but each time a CSL course is offered it may have a different teacher. Each time a teacher offers the course, its structure may alter based on how the teacher develops and learns through teaching and research. If it is a CSL course, it may involve a different community partner each term, or a different sort of project with the same partner each term. The course definitely will have a different set of students… students’ backgrounds, interests and aptitudes also significantly shape a CSL course and project.

Community partnerships and community needs/issues are not that static– they have life cycles and are subject to career interruptions. Teachers can be assigned to teach different courses from year to year; they may move to another institution, or go away on sabbatical. Community partners also experience staff changes, funding level changes, vision changes.

CSL as one aspect of a larger partnership

CSL is just one of the ways partners may interact over the years. Teachers, students and community members may also happen to be research partners before or after a CSL project. They may interact in community and university settings in a variety of roles.

After a CSL course ends, partners should reflect on the success of a project and its potential for continuation or repetition of the project or service. A teacher and/or community partner may decide that the next year or next term, the best thing for the particular teacher and community partner might be to redesign the project, connect with a different partner, or redirect some or all of their energy away from CSL. They might decide that instead of CSL, or in addition to CSL, they should hire a co-op student, involve a student club in service-learning, start a community-based research project together, or seek joint funding for a community-campus event focused on a social issue.

Sustaining CSL courses and partnerships

Therefore, CSL should be considered one aspect of a larger community-university partnership — just one thread that ties them together over time — just one relationship among several between two organizations.

Without a considerable network, it can take tremendous effort and time to sustain a CSL course. When changes need to occur in partnerships, a teacher and coordinator may find themselves re-forging CSL partnerships from scratch.

I understand what it takes to sustain courses and projects when partners change over time.

  • From the teacher’s point of view, he/she must forge a new partnership and co-design a project to fit into a 4-month box with the same academic learning outcomes.
  • From the community partner’s point of view, it may mean trying to find another teacher whose vision suits theirs and whose course can serve their needs.

It is much less stressful and jarring to continue a partnership for several years and to develop a community of teachers and community staff members who have the capability of teaching a course and leading that project.

This is why a CSL center and director are needed.

  • There needs to be a living, breathing program whose collective resources sustain CSL initiatives over the years.
  • The CSL program needs to act in coordination with other units at a university: curriculum committees, research networks, and teaching development centers.
  • It also needs to forge alliances with major centers for community-based organizations that offer training, knowledge, and support services to them.

The CSL director/coordinator cannot afford to hoard knowledge, nor to consider their center the only provider of knowledge. The knowledge and expertise to guide CSL partnerships, courses and projects resides in a distributed network of people. Knowledge and skill must be actively shared among CSL coordinators, community partners, teachers, and students. Ideally experienced partners will be encouraged and rewarded for sharing their knowledge and expertise as mentors/advisors to others teaching and learning in a CSL course.

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