In just two short months, schools will be back in session. The continued worries from the coronavirus pandemic have administrators across the world scrambling to figure out what learning will look like for students. What we do know is that whether students are in classrooms, online, or a hybrid of both, service-learning can enhance student engagement, increase academic knowledge and skills, and inspire students to engage as active citizens in their communities.

Service-learning allows for meaningful learning opportunities for youth through contribution to community. It empowers young people to address issues they see in their school, in their community, or around the world. It provides them an opportunity to feel empowered, to share their voice, and to engage in the civic process. When students have service-learning experiences, they build a commitment to life-long service.

To ensure service-learning experiences continue in these uncertain times, we have put together best practices for online service-learning. We want the process of service-learning to be done with quality so that it continues to meet the needs of students and educators alike.

Online Service-Learning Best Practices:

  • Set norms for how you will work together. Be clear expectations, communication, and behaviors.
  • Cultivate belonging. We know relationships matter so pay close attention to strategies that build relationships like one-on-one interactions, small group discussions, and discussion boards.
  • Focus on the process of service-learning, not the platform. The pedagogy of service-learning engages students in the learning process, gives them a voice, and builds their connection to each other and the community.
  • Identify what learning outcomes you want for your students (academic, civic, social-emotional, etc.)
  • Determine how you will know they have met learning outcomes. (What criteria will you use? What evidence will you collect? How will you assess learning at the end of the experience?)
  • Then, facilitate students through the IPARD process:
    • Investigation: students need to understand root causes of the issue they want to address. Understanding why the problem exists is an essential part of the problem-solving process. Much of investigation can be done remotely. Students can read articles, interview experts via phone, send out community surveys, or scour the internet for information (learning to distinguish between fact and opinion).
    • Planning & Preparation: planning is fundamental to ensuring students are ready serve as a cohesive team. Technology is made for collaboration and teamwork. Students create timelines, task lists, budgets and more.
    • Action: the service part of service-learning does not have to be direct (in-person). In-direct service activities like raising funds or supplies are great ways to do service. Partnering with a local nonprofit that has safety protocols in place for receiving donations ensures student safety. Advocating or educating others about your issue is another way to safely serve remotely.
    • Reflection: learning does not come from the act of service but in thinking about the experience itself.  Whether personal, small group, or the entire class, reflection reinforces student learning outcomes. Reflection can be written, visual, auditory, or more.
    • Demonstration: sharing students’ experiences is an important culmination of the service-learning process. Technology allows students to be creative in telling their story and allows them to share broadly. Whether students create storyboards or podcasts, write a blog or newspaper article, or develop a play or music performance. Demonstration provides evidence of student learning and effect on the community issue.
  • Together, the students and teacher then assess the success of their experience. Did students meet the learning outcomes? Did they meet the community need? What worked? What would you have done differently?
  • Lastly, try different technology engagement strategies.  Start with a few that you know and then don’t be afraid to experiment.  Ask your students if they have any platforms that they prefer.  Maybe even have one of the young people lead the experience.

When teachers lead students through the process of service-learning whether online, in person, or a hybrid of both, students will gain the knowledge and skills to become civically informed and engaged citizens who have the know-how to make the world a better place.

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