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Community connections

Students are the driving force behind the rapid growth of community service learning projects across the country


A little over five years ago, University Affairs published a cover story on what was at that point a fairly new innovation on Canadian campuses: community service learning. CSL is a teaching model that, by combining volunteer service with academic work, aims to instil in students a sense of civic engagement while also offering something of benefit to the community.

Entitled “Educating Citizen Jane” (PDF) and published in the February 2004 issue, the article struck a chord. Larry Gemmel, director of the Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning, calls it “the famous foundational article” that helped to jump-start the movement in Canada. Margot Fryer, director of the University of British Columbia’s Learning Exchange, still includes a copy of it in information packages sent to donors. More importantly, prompted in part by the article, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation created a community service learning initiative which helped to galvanize adherents and enthusiasts.

Five years later, we’re taking another look at community service learning – also known simply as service learning – to see how the movement has evolved at Canada’s universities and where it now stands.

Cheryl Rose, founding director of the CSL alliance and now working at the University of Waterloo, says there has been “phenomenal” growth in the intervening years in CSL initiatives in Canada. She credits much of that to the McConnell Foundation’s support.

One immediate effect of that support was the creation of the alliance (whose acronym is CACSL, pronounced “castle”) in the fall of 2004. The alliance tracks the growth and development of CSL programs in Canada and provides resources and information for those involved in CSL activities or hoping to start a program.

As well, in early 2005, the McConnell Foundation announced it would finance 10 CSL projects at Canadian universities and issued a call for proposals. Each of the winning projects received between $500,000 and $1 million over five years. While some of the recipient universities already had CSL projects in place, others were new to the field.

Roughly half of all campuses in Canada submitted a proposal. That was notable, says Dr. Rose, because it prompted universities to explore links with their community and to think about what a CSL project might look like. “It helped [universities] get into the culture,” she says. As a result, many institutions that did not receive McConnell funding decided to go forward with a project anyway.

So, from about a half-dozen CSL projects before 2005, now roughly 30 universities and colleges in Canada have CSL activities of varying levels, says the alliance’s Mr. Gemmel, who took over from Dr. Rose in October 2008. At about half of these campuses, CSL activities have become institutionalized with a central office and a coordinator, while at the others they operate only within a particular department.

University of Ottawa was among those that received McConnell funding. Jeffrey Keshen, a history professor and manager of the university’s experiential learning program, says about 1,300 students are enrolled each year in CSL courses delivered by 170 participating professors from every faculty. They work with more than 100 community organizations.

“We could go higher but it’s always a question of being able to cope with the numbers. It’s really the students who want it. They’re the driving force behind it,” he says.

At Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, the take-up has been a little slower, but the program’s coordinator, Rémi Tremblay, remains enthusiastic. The university offers a full-year institutional CSL course that attracts some 50 students a year. The course features interdisciplinary teams of two to five students who develop a “community action project” (in French, a Projet d’intervention communautaire, or PICOM) based on a need identified by a community organization.

This is somewhat of a departure from most CSL programs, where a professor will adapt an existing course to include a CSL component. Some universities also have co-curricular CSL activities that are not connected to course work.

The students in the UQTR course present the results of their work at the end of the term, and their energy and enthusiasm “is really something to see,” says Dr. Tremblay, who’s also associate vice-rector for undergraduate studies. “They’re really proud of what they’ve done.”

This aspect of students presenting or reflecting on their work in a formal way is a key part of CSL and what distinguishes this from volunteering. The students are prompted to make the link between what they learn in class and in the community – between theory and practice – through a process of reflection that may include journal writing, group discussions, presentations, research projects and written reports.

UQTR has recently included larger projects that will run over several years. Dr. Tremblay thinks the longer time frame will attract more students. In one project, students are developing resources and teaching tools for a community organization that works with street kids. In another, students are working with a non-profit social agency to develop an eco-hotel.

What’s so important with all of these activities is that the exchange of knowledge isn’t just one way, says Dr. Tremblay. “There is social innovation in the community that our students and faculty can learn from.” Dr. Rose, the former CACSL director, agrees: “Universities, generally speaking, now realize that knowledge lives in communities as well as on their campuses.”

Not every faculty member may be interested in participating in CSL activities, says Dr. Rose, but those who are should have the opportunity to do so. “It’s hard to imagine a course that it wouldn’t work for,” she adds. “I would argue that there is no course or discipline that’s offered at a university that doesn’t have that connection to society.”

A further benefit of CSL, say proponents, is that it engages students in their learning, a concept that has gained much currency in recent years with the National Survey of Student Engagement that many Canadian universities take part in. One activity measured by NSSE where many of Canada’s larger universities have been weak is “active and collaborative learning” – and that’s exactly what CSL provides.

At the University of British Columbia, CSL coordinators invited individual students who had been involved in a CSL activity to fill out the NSSE questionnaire. “Not surprisingly … their scores on active and collaborative learning were higher than the [institutional] benchmark scores,” says Dr. Fryer, who coordinates CSL activities at UBC.

A cynic might say that universities want to participate in CSL activities just to boost their NSSE scores, observes Dr. Keshen at U of Ottawa, but “what those NSSE scores are telling us is that service learning really does increase student engagement and student learning.”

But, as with everything nowadays, there is the question of continued financial support for CSL activities, once the McConnell funding begins to wind down and universities try to control their costs. These activities require a lot of resources and coordination among students, faculty and community organizations.

UBC’s administration aims to eventually have 10 percent of students engaged in CSL activities, around 4,000 a year. That’s three times today’s number, “but I know I’m not going to get three times the budget,” says Dr. Fryer. Her group is looking into various fundraising options, and she says corporate and private donors could play a role.

Whatever happens, she doesn’t see the momentum dissipating; her institution has a “very strong champion” in President Stephen Toope. Also at U of Ottawa, President Allan Rock has identified service opportunities for students as one of his goals.

In the United States – where CSL has been around for more than two decades and where, at many campuses, a third or more of students participate  –  President Obama pushed the idea of “a new era of service and civic responsibility” during his election campaign last fall. This past April, he signed into law the Serve America Act committing $6 billion over eight years to expand civic engagement and service learning opportunities.

Where are the champions in Canada in the federal and provincial governments, wonders Dr. Fryer. “Where is the political will and the resources to allow us to do this?”

“I think right now that service learning is at a crossroads,” says U of Ottawa’s Dr. Keshen. “The challenge will be to what degree it becomes recognized and institutionalized, not simply within the administrative structure of the university, but also how it’s recognized in terms of professorial involvement.” Many professors see it as extra work that takes time and resources away from the things that really count towards tenure, he says.

Most universities include community outreach and community-based research among their institutional objectives. As director of the CSL alliance, Mr. Gemmel says one of his objectives is to increase the awareness among university leaders of how CSL fits with these objectives.

“This is probably the future route of the institutionalization of CSL in Canada,” he says. “In other words, perhaps not every university will have an office of CSL, but they will recognize and fund university-community engagement.”

Another priority, he says, is to tell the amazing stories of CSL in Canada. “We’re still challenged in Canada to get greater recognition within universities for the value of this work.”

Coming up:

Ninth International Research Conference on Service-Learning and Community Engagement.

Oct. 9-12, 2009

Westin Ottawa Hotel, Ottawa

Association for Experiential Education’s

37th Annual International Conference

Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, 2009
Hilton Bonaventure

The 10 projects that received McConnell funding:

The UBC-Community Learning Initiative

Lakehead University Food Security Network

Wilfrid Laurier University Centre for CSL

University of Ottawa CSL Program

Nipissing University Biidaaban Program

St. Francis Xavier University Service Learning Program

Projets d’intervention communautaire (Picom) at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

Trent Centre for Community-Based Education

University of Alberta CSL Program

Université de Sherbrooke Programme d’apprentissage expérientiel par l’intervention communautaire

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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