William O’Brochta, Washington University in St. Louis
Political science instructors across subfields utilize civic and community engagement activities to increase the relevance of course content, to help students understand diverse perspectives, and to provide avenues for students to get engaged in their community. Many such activities are one-time assignments that students complete on their own. Collaborative civic engagement projects offer deeper and more impactful ways to connect with and to provide benefits to the community. These projects involve the class working with a community partner and range from organizing community events to developing programs for community non-profits. How can instructors transition collaborative civic engagement projects to an online course environment?
I argue that collaborative civic engagement projects can be conducted successfully online. I discuss several considerations for how instructors can adapt existing civic engagement projects so that they are doable online. In doing so, I describe my approach to teaching an online course with a collaborative civic engagement component in summer 2020.
The term “community” has a common meaning for students in in-person courses, as they live in close geographic proximity to the college they are attending during the academic year. In online courses, students may be living anywhere. This does not present a problem for individual civic engagement projects: students can attend an online community event or learn about local government in their hometown. However, when students are expected to collaborate together to work with a community partner, the definition of a community becomes more complicated. Some civic engagement projects in comparative politics ask students to work with a community partner in another country and do so quite effectively. Alternatively, instructors could find a national organization and ask students to become involved with the same organization’s local chapters in their respective hometowns.
The strategy I chose, however, was to ask students to all focus on the community in which the college they are attending is located. If part of the purpose of a collaborative civic engagement project is to help students connect theoretical concepts with their own lives, then relying on an organization in an unfamiliar city or country makes it more difficult to achieve this goal. By asking students to all work in the same community, students are able to effectively share the community experience. For students new to the college, asking them to learn about and to work in the local college community can actually be beneficial. New students hope to return to in-person classes on campus in the future, meaning that a community engaged project could help socialize them to a community in which they will eventually reside.
Once I decided to teach my course with reference to the local college community, adapting my collaborative civic engagement project to an online environment was relatively straightforward. The project originally involved partnering with a local youth employment program where my students were to develop a training module on participating in local government, while the youth developed a program about their experiences with inadequate representation. The project called for both groups traveling to meet with one another and was scheduled to take three class sessions to implement. The learning goals were to improve applicability of course content to local issues, to develop a better understanding of public policy solutions to local problems, and to better understand people from diverse backgrounds. For more details on the civic engagement projects in this specific course, click here.
My first two adjustments related to the scope and learning goals of the project. Community partners are currently facing many difficulties, including budgetary and staffing shortages. The program I was partnering with was temporarily shut down during the summer. For this reason, I substantially reduced the community partner’s direct involvement in the project. Essentially, I took on the role as the community partner because I had worked with this partner for several years and knew what they wanted from the project. This meant adjusting the learning goal about collaborating with people from diverse backgrounds. I replaced our scheduled in-person meetings by asking students to watch videos and read blogs that the youth had created and to “visit” their job sites on Google Earth. These adjustments were imperfect substitutes, but it was especially important that the project did not reduce the community partner’s capacity.
Next, I provided students with additional flexibility to figure out how to work together best online. I increased the amount of time I spent framing the importance of the project, discussing the structure and goals of the community partner, and providing time for reflection in order to maximize student benefit from an online project. I allocated time during our synchronous classes for students to organize themselves into groups and to work on their respective parts of the project, eliminating inequities in availability and time zones. I also prioritized student leadership and direction about what students thought was doable and would work best online. The result was that some parts of the project remained incomplete at the end of the semester, though future classes can continue to work on the project.
I assessed the effectiveness of the collaborative project by examining pre- and post-tests as well as student reflections. The project was largely successful in helping students apply course content to local issues and public policy. However, I expected that student understanding of people from diverse backgrounds would not improve because students did not directly interact with the youth or the community partner. I was surprised that students’ performance on this learning goal did improve through a combination of the virtual experiences learning about the youth and the community partner and the impact of spending a lot of time intensely working with group members. Students often have few opportunities to interact with one another in online courses, and I found that students maximized the value of their collaboration even more than I had hoped.
Overall, my first attempt at online collaborative civic engagement fulfilled most of my learning goals. Students were initially doubtful about how civic engagement would work online, but they said they were quite surprised at the success we had, and many students were prompted to think about other ways to engage with the community in an online environment. My advice for instructors interested in continuing existing collaborative civic engagement projects online is to adjust the project as best as you can, to explain the learning goals to students, and to reflect and revise the project in future semesters. Students are interested in collaborative civic engagement projects and they derive substantial benefit from them, so most attempts at integrating them into courses will be viewed favorably and produce meaningful improvements in student civic engagement.
William O’Brochta is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Washington University in St. Louis. He studies ethnic representation and political violence in developing democracies as well as ways to make teaching comparative politics more relevant and impactful both for students and the community. His work has been published in the British Journal of Political Science; Research & Politics; and Politics, Groups, and Identities; among other outlets. firstname.lastname@example.org, williamobrochta.net.
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