e-Service Learning & Community Engagement

Online learning has been growing in popularity with both students and instructors for years and projections suggest we will see even greater growth following the preemptory entry of many into this domain during the COVID-19 epidemic. The good news is that there is a symbiotic relationship between online learning and Service Learning and Community Engagement (SL/CE, pronounced "slice").  


While definitions vary, here we consider e-SL/CE to be 100% online course delivery with the same expectations as traditional SL/CE. Student interactions with the community may be direct (face-to-face) or indirect (virtual) or may combine the two. 

Is e-SL/CE for Me? 

Check out our decision tree designed to help experienced service learning folks explore e-service options

e-SL/CE Decision Tree

Driving Forces for e-SL/CE

Online learning modes can enrich SL/CE pedagogies, and vice versa. Student involvement and investment in course content is a primary concern in online teaching. Involving students in SL/CE activities heightens two critical learning dimensions. A primary concern for implementing SL/CE revolves around the spatial and temporal logistics of getting students into the community to experience and serve. Orchestrating virtual connections with the community removes spatial constraints entirely and often lessens time constraints as well, providing pathways to SL/CE experiences that many students would otherwise need to forgo. e-SL/CE also extends the possibility of international experience for students who would not even consider travel abroad because of job commitments, family commitments, or financial and other constraints. Benefits to students from e-SL/CE may be even stronger than the traditional mode.

Benefits of e-SL/CE

Access: For courses employing virtual service, geographical considerations (and often temporal considerations) disappear. Students serve from their connected devices, needing only an internet connection. This can benefit students who work, have families, live in remote areas, and/or lack access to a reliable vehicle. Shy and introverted students may also excel in the virtual environment. Finally, the removal of geographic barriers opens the scope of e-SL/CE worldwide.

Interaction: A common complaint of online instruction is lessened opportunities to connect meaningfully with others. Because SL/CE is relational at its core, students often interact more significantly with community members, classmates, & instructors.

Challenges for e-SL/CE

Internet Connections: In all online learning, internet connectivity is foundational. If your e-SL/CE plans include synchronous connections, lead students to consider back-up plans should their primary internet connection be unavailable. For example, students who typically depend on their home internet connection may use a cell phone as a hotspot as a backup solution. Consider too, the access of the community served (both technology-based and familiarity with tools used), as communication must be bi-directional. 

Heart & Human Connections: In the Benefits section above, we noted enhanced interpersonal connections as an advantage over other online learning. Still, in e-SL/CE experiences lack the excitement of direct connections with the people being served. There is a risk of static, perfunctory interactions. Networking opportunities are also reduced. This loss can be partially mitigated by working with your community partners in advance to prepare opportunities for conversations about their organizations, how the organizations were created, how your partners became involved, etc, then include overt and scheduled overt celebration of the shared experience, perhaps through a Bb Collaborate session. A key goal could be for our students (and ourselves) to develop strong relationships with individuals they would otherwise never meet.

Pedagogical Connections: A robust e-SL/CE offering should employ best practices for both SL/CE and online learning. For example, both private and shared critical reflection should be central to students' experience. See our SL/CE Safe Start page for more details, then check the Developing a Course page for more details on key SL/CE elements. Reaching the goal where e-SL/CE partners are co-educators in the experience requires careful planning and close attention to the partner's experience as well as that of the students.

Community Partners for e-SL/CE

Reciprocally beneficial and respectful relationships with community partners reside at the foundation for all SL/CE activities. This must not shift for e-SL/CE, but introducing the potential for virtual connections expands the horizon of possibilities around the globe.

As with traditional SL/CE, there are many benefits for instructors who build a course on a pre-existing relationship, but establishing a relationship with a new organization can also be rewarding in many ways. Whether you are transitioning a traditional relationship to virtual delivery, introducing the concept of SL/CE to an organizational friend, or seeking a new partner at home or further away, our office will be happy to work with you. 

  • Local:  Working with a partner in the Upstate enables the option to have students connect in person or allowing each student could choose in-person or virtual connections. Many students will feel more personally vested in organizations that operate close to home, enhancing their sense of involvement and dedication.
  • Remote: Partnering with a partner further away may introduce concerns for time zone adjustments and a greater need to create a sense of community, but offers students a view of life outside our immediate vicinity. As a key component of SL/CE is exposure to diverse populations, this can be a major asset. If partnering with a remote organization, consider an extended weekend or Spring Break of on-site service and connection. Visit our Service Travel Scholarship page to view details on partial support that may be available.
  • International: Step even further away and consider an international partnership. An international focus offers students all of the benefits of a remote experience with heightened diversity as well as exposure to speakers of other languages. Intercultural competence is important in our increasingly global world, as employers appreciate workers who can navigate connections with international partners, customers, suppliers and others. Again, consider integrating international experience during Spring Break or over a longer time during the summer for on-site service and connection. 

View our e-Service Opportunities page for a list of websites where you can search for partners and/or ideas for your own courses.