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Margin Notes

High-impact learning at a modest cost

Community service-learning initiatives work, but need champions to promote the cause.


Elsewhere on our site, Rosanna Tamburri reports on five community service-learning projects at Canadian universities that were recently honoured by the Montreal-based McConnell Foundation. According to the foundation, the purpose of these new awards is to “celebrate the most innovative CSL initiatives while encouraging postsecondary institutions and communities to continue the promising work that has begun.” 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.

What struck me about the awards – and in no way is this meant to demean the fine work of the McConnell Foundation – was their modest cash amount: $7,500 each. Yet, if that money essentially helps to keep these projects running, it represents an incredible return on investment.

There has been a push in recent years by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Council of Ontario Universities and others to promote innovation in undergraduate education. A key ingredient to learning success, as popularized by the National Survey of Student Engagement, is students’ engagement in their learning activities through active, collaborative and enriching learning experiences, particularly those involving the community. CSL initiatives offer this in spades.

As an example, let’s take a look at one of the projects honoured with an inaugural CSL award: the Université de la Rue (University of the Street) at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. The project brings together students, professors and community groups who work to foster better relations and understanding between street kids and other marginalized citizens, and the community in which they live.

Another example is the EcoJustice Environmental Law Clinic, a partnership between the University of Ottawa and EcoJustice, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. The clinic trains students in environmental litigation, who then work alongside law professors and environmental lawyers to represent community and advocacy groups, First Nations communities and others who likely wouldn’t be able to afford legal help.

CSL initiatives aren’t new to Canada (I first wrote about them in 2004, with a follow-up article in 2009), but they still suffer from a relatively low profile. The McConnell Foundation gave them a huge boost in early 2005 by providing nearly $10 million to support 10 CSL projects at Canadian universities. According to our reporter Ms. Tamburri, the purpose of the funding was to help a select group of CSL programs get established and grow; it wasn’t intended to provide ongoing operational support. This is the last year the foundation will provide direct support for such initiatives.

CSL projects require a lot of time and resources to coordinate activities among students, faculty and community organizations. The movement needs champions for its continued growth. There is the Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning to help spread the word, but what the movement really needs is a long-term funding commitment from governments or corporate/private sponsors. Students will benefit, universities will benefit, and so will the community groups they work with. It’s a win-win-win proposition.

Update, Monday, May 28:

The day after I wrote the post, above, came an announcement from Carleton University of a new SSHRC Partnership Grant for the Community First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE) program. The program, which will receive $2.5 million over seven years, launches this fall and aims “ to strengthen Canadian non-profits, universities, colleges and funding agencies to build more successful, innovative, resilient and prosperous communities.” The program, broadly speaking, is based on community service-learning principles. The $2.5 million in funding isn’t going to come close to replacing the $10 million in McConnell funding that is coming to an end, but it’s a start!

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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