Supporting Digital Service-Learning through Campus Collaboration

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Expanded online and remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic allows campuses to support and collaborate on digital service-learning projects, creating opportunities to expand service-learning and, in doing so, play a pivotal role in enhancing the learning of students, faculty, and staff for years to come.

Supporting Digital Service-Learning through Campus Collaboration
Credit: Brenik / © 2021

The expansion of online and remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn staff in instructional design, academic/information technology, accessibility services, the library, and other campus support services into new spaces. One of those new spaces is service-learning and community-engagement programs. Traditionally grounded in physical face-to-face opportunities, staff in these programs are now revisiting their work to figure out how to continue in the digital realm. This transition has created a moment to build important cross-campus collaborations and contribute to transformational relationships among students, faculty, and communities outside the college or university.

Service-learning and community-engagement programs and courses arrived in full force in the 1980s and 1990s as an evolution from volunteering activities and as an expansion of the way academic institutions, especially colleges and universities, sought to position their role in the broader society. Rather than seeing a higher education institution apart from the communities in which it exists, those involved in service-learning and community-engagement programs look for mutually beneficial opportunities to enhance one another's work (or learning). Often, these projects and relationships took place in the community beyond the walls of the institution and represent high-touch interactions among students, faculty, and service-learning partners.

What distinguishes digital service-learning (DSL) is the integration of digital technology into the performance and delivery of service-learning, creating opportunities and complications that faculty may not have previously considered. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, service-learning scholars were exploring how digital tools might impact service-learning. For example, Jean Strait has been writing about "eService-Learning" for nearly two decades, including co-authoring eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement through Online and Hybrid Courses with Katherine Nordyke. Strait and Nordyke, along with Leora Waldner, Sue McGorry, and Murray Widener, have framed eService-Learning as a modality of service-learning ("e-service-learning occurs when the instructional component, the service component, or both are conducted online.").Footnote1 By contrast, digital service-learning explores how any digital technology used in service-learning might impact the experience and outcomes across modalities. Rather than categories or modalities, we frame digital tools as part of the tapestry of experiences that students, faculty, and community partners have when engaged in service-learning. Thus, we intentionally chose the term continuum to map the practice of DSL.

A continuum is both a term of measurement and a model of experience. Continuums are not appropriate for dichotomous variables. Instead, continuums describe items that share particular qualities that may be almost imperceptibly different in their adjacency but may be quite distinct at the extremes. The DSL continuums allow us to explore key instructional and technology practices associated with DSL, understanding that all service-learning projects lie somewhere along each continuum.

The recent pandemic has many service-learning and community-engaged faculty looking for answers and assistance. Yet regardless of COVID-19, how institutions embrace and support DSL will have long-ranging implications for opportunities and collaborations between service-learning faculty and faculty-support entities on campus.

Key Considerations: DSL Continuums

Line with an arrow on both ends.

Continuums can guide conversations between faculty-support teams and service-learning faculty. Working through the continuums should produce more robust DSL projects, enhance student learning, build community relationships, and result in more effective technology integration. In particular, DSL continuums can be used to articulate what kinds of tools, support, and resources are necessary for a DSL project to be effectively executed. The goal of using these continuums is not to find the perfect spot upon which each project lands. Rather, these continuums can be used to identify what questions might be important to ask. Below we highlight three continuums that are especially helpful to consider when building new faculty relationships: leveraging technology; digital literacy; and permeability.Footnote2

Continuum: Leveraging Technology

This continuum determines the degree to which the DSL project needs specific digital tools and platforms in order to succeed. Identifying the centrality of digital technology ignites the discussion about which available institutional tools might appropriately be used and which new technologies might need to be acquired. To the left of the spectrum, the use of digital technology is minimum or peripheral. For instance, when service-learning simply employs email, learning management systems, or online storage to provide digital documents that explain projects, these are not essential per se to the actual execution of the service-learning. Such examples seem less inherently "digital." There are other ways to create and communicate these aspects of the service-learning project.

The rightward direction of the continuum points to more types and larger amounts of digital technologies that must be used in order for the service-learning to happen at all. For instance, Kara Kaufman, a professor at North Shore Community College in Massachusetts, conducted a service-learning project in conjunction with William B. Hafford, senior research coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Kaufman's students worked to decipher notes from an archaeologist (Sir Leonard Woolley) in the 1920–1930s, as a way to enhance the searchability of archaeological research past and present. The technology necessary for this to occur entailed a mixture of videoconferencing with Hafford for students to learn more about his research, using a cloud-storage service to host images of Woolley's notes, and collaborating via online documents (Google Docs) to collectively translate and transcribe the notes. Without these technologies, the project would not have been possible.

At a grand scale, software solutions like GivePulse—which has been integrated by colleges such as Brown University, the University of Arkansas, and Mount Wachusett Community College—leverage technologies campus-wide. The GivePulse platform integrates with the campus SIS and LMS to facilitate DSL opportunities at scale.

Continuum: Digital Literacy

If the leverage technology continuum is about which technologies to use, the digital literacy continuum focuses on what digital skills students, faculty, and community partners may need to have or develop in order to complete a DSL project. As explained by the Digital Literacy Task Force of the American Library Association (ALA), digital literacy can be understood as "the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills."Footnote3

In some cases, students and community partners may already be well-prepared to navigate the transition to a DSL experience. For example, in a course where students communicate with a community partner via email and conduct research using library databases, very little literacy work may need to be done. Students, faculty, and the community partner may already be experienced in navigating these tools and thus are on the left side of the continuum. Further to the right along the continuum, students or community partners may be asked to hold virtual meetings using a new conferencing platform or learn to navigate a new learning management plug-in in order to facilitate the service-learning experience. At the far-right end of the continuum, a DSL experience may require campus departments to collaborate in order to investigate and adopt new academic technologies that will require training and time for onboarding faculty, staff, students, and community partners.

The importance of considering the digital literacy continuum is highlighted in a service-learning course taught by one of the coauthors of this article (Leek). In this online course at Johns Hopkins University, students create digital social media content on behalf of a nonprofit community partner. Students need to navigate the online learning environment and also to be able to successfully access and manipulate digital content editing tools using their at-home hardware. The instructor must be able to support students by detailing what level of literacy they will need to accomplish the expected service-learning project and by directing students to available campus resources for technical support that is outside her level of expertise.

Continuum: Permeability

The permeability of DSL speaks to familiar issues for the open education community. At one end of the continuum are DSL experiences that may not be directly reused, reproduced, or upcycled for future learning or service-learning opportunities. These valuable experiences happen once or within a contained timeframe (e.g., a series of virtual tutoring sessions) and remain more directly tied to the students and the community they are engaged with. On the other end of the spectrum, one finds service-learning with the potential for reuse and upcycling by the immediate community and also by new community members and communities.

Two real-world examples highlight this continuum. Sarah Dietrich, an assistant professor at Southeast Missouri State University, runs a service-learning project in conjunction with Didem Ekici, the director of outreach and community development at the nonprofit peacebuilding organization Pax Populi. Dietrich's students serve as tutors for adult English-learners in Afghanistan via videoconferencing platforms. The service of connecting learners from literally around the world can happen only through digital technology. Since this involves one-to-one synchronous engagement, the permeability of the service-learning is contained to the participants who show up in those virtual spaces at the assigned times. This project is thus at the left end of the continuum.

In a North Shore Community College American literature course taught by one of the coauthors (Eaton), students can create audio narrations of American literature writings; these narrations can then be placed on the website LibriVox, a site run by volunteers to create public-domain audio narrations of public-domain writings for others to download and reuse. Having students create public-domain artifacts represents an expansive permeability, on the far right of the continuum. Future students can use these resources, and anyone who visits the site can download and listen to a piece narrated by students. Additionally, because the work is in the public domain, other creators or educators may take such works and augment them for their own purposes. creating numerous opportunities for the initial service-learning project to benefit others across space and time.

Campus Collaborators

Traditionally, service-learning plans include faculty and community partners, students, and student affairs professionals. Institutional leaders may join to fund or support the inclusion of a community-engagement professional as a staff member. However, DSL requires active participation from a range of faculty-support entities that are new to the discussion.

To be effective, DSL projects should include staff with these new perspectives to design, execute, and sustain learning experiences that are meaningful to the students, the institutions, and the community partners. Including the right people in the process from the start is especially important right now because civically engaged scholars and instructors are often the faculty on campus most skeptical of educational technology. Because of their work, they are aware of the ways that technology has been used anti-democratically, and they are involved in the national and global conversations about concerns with surveillance software, digital equity, and the digital divide.

In particular, four faculty-support entities should be actively engaged in the development of DSL projects and programs: instructional design; academic/information technology; accessibility services; and the library. The three DSL continuums discussed above can highlight the ways each entity intersects with DSL experiences and can frame how staff might effectively support DSL work on their campuses.

Instructional Design

Members of the instructional design team are ideal collaborators. They are particularly crucial in thinking through the use of digital technologies (the leveraging technology continuum), students' abilities with technology (the digital literacy continuum), and how to structure the project for maximum effect (the permeability continuum). Their focus on proper alignment between learning and technology will be important to help instructors navigate the intersecting needs of the learning by students, the expectations of community partners, and the abilities and limitations of the technologies.

The following questions will help inform instructional design aspects of conversations focused on DSL projects:

  • What are the short- and long-term expectations of the project, and what tools are likely to help support those expectations?
  • What is the right amount of technology, technology use, and technical skills?
  • How can students be best prepared for the technologies being used?
  • How can the project leverage universal design for learning to make sure the technology and service-learning are accessible and inclusive to all participants?

For some, this may be their first encounter with instructional designers in general or outside of developing online or hybrid courses. However, instructional designers can emphasize that their work focuses on meaningful student engagement that goes beyond traditional learning and that is a fundamental value to most service-learning faculty.

Academic/Information Technology

Working with faculty who want to move their face-to-face service-learning to a digital environment is important not only for the students, who would otherwise lose access to important experiential learning, but also for other campus constituencies, who will gain knowledge about IT solutions and technology practices. Because service-learning has traditionally been grounded first in developing deep interpersonal connections, faculty who embrace this pedagogy may be the ones on campus least familiar with available digital tools and best practices for implementing academic technologies in their classes. This means that technology staff—from the chief information officer to the audio/video crew, the instructional technologist, and help-desk team members—will all need to provide guidance on topics such as purchasing software licenses (the leveraging technology continuum), training students to use campus digital tools (the digital literacy continuum), and designing storage solutions and access plans for DSL projects (the permeability continuum).

The following questions will guide faculty on how best to translate their service-learning course plan for digital delivery and will prepare the academic/information technology staff on how best to support students, instructors, and community partners:

  • Who will need access to the campus platforms and systems and for how long?
  • What type of communication or interaction will be needed to facilitate using digital tools in order to successfully complete the project? Can this be accomplished using a current campus software solution?
  • What type of coursework will students need to complete in order to be successful in this class? Can this be accomplished using a current campus software solution?
  • If new software or hardware is being purchased, how do these tools integrate with current campus solutions? What training is provided by the vendor for students and faculty to use these products?
  • What data is being collected by the digital tools used in the project? Who owns that data?

These questions highlight the complexity of supporting faculty who may be at many different stages of their teaching-with-technology journey. By asking about the ways that faculty intend to use technology in order to uncover their familiarity with campus resources and procedures, technology staff can better make decisions about purchasing hardware and software and can better choose training approaches once those decisions are made. Finally, technology staff should let faculty know that the configuration of their digital solutions in service-learning classes must meet campus standards for IT safety and privacy.

Accessibility Services

Typically, service-learning faculty encounter accessibility services when students share accommodation letters for a course that might introduce new approaches to executing the service-learning project. However, given both the complex challenges and the intriguing possibilities that digital technology introduces for service-learning, faculty should help brainstorm opportunities before classes start. They can participate in conversations regarding how DSL should be executed to be inclusive of all students and what technologies may help or hinder that practice.  

The following questions can help accessibility services staff engage with service-learning faculty:

  • What anticipated technologies may already have built-in accessibility features, and which ones work well with accessibility technologies?
  • How might the project be conceived so that students can opt in to work on different aspects of the project at different times in accordance with their abilities?
  • Does any aspect of the project create situations in which students will be forced or feel pressured to share their disability with other students or the service-learning community partner?
  • How can the final form of the service-learning be made accessible to the people receiving the service?

In this set of questions, accessibility services staff are driving a conversation about the various solutions and interventions that can be utilized, such as by showing which video-recording tools have the best options for closed captions (the leveraging technology continuum). Also, they are encouraging faculty to think about how to guarantee inclusion, in different ways, for all students (the digital literacy continuum). Finally, they are helping faculty make sure that the projects have lasting accessibility, for instance, by instructing students to use alt-text image labeling in any website or document created (the permeability continuum).

The Library

Library staff offer many opportunities for collaboration around DSL projects. Given librarians' advocacy work around student data privacy, their role in the open educational resources (OER) movement, and their ongoing expansion of services and resources to institutional and regional communities, libraries are a place where technology meets activism on campus. The work of librarians also touches on areas that overlap with all the other faculty-support entities. They often guide digital literacy conversations with instructors and students, as well as think about how to organize and store digital material. Finally, they are often at the forefront of technological systems, maintaining privacy protection for students and routinely adapting to what it means to be an open and accessible space for all patrons.

Library staff are quite familiar with the issues embedded in the continuums. They are versed in the various institutional tools (e.g., institutional repositories, LibGuides, multimedia creation tools) that might be relevant for the project (the leveraging technology continuum). Their campus work around information literacy often intersects with digital literacy, making them great collaborators for understanding what kind of supports students may need for the technologies being used in the project (the digital literacy continuum). Additionally, their role as preservers of knowledge allows them to answer key questions about the permanence and storage of DSL projects (the permeability continuum).

Library staff should consider the following questions when working with service-learning faculty:

  • If the service-learning project is a fixed output such as a file, what might be the best storage options, internally and externally?
  • To what degree can the service-learning project be made available beyond the primary community for which it is created?
  • Which technologies being used will provide the most privacy for students and community members?
  • Which library resources and technologies can help faculty fully realize their vision for the service-learning project?

These questions highlight the different pathways by which library staff are able to help support and enhance service-learning values and goals.

Final Considerations

In November 2020, EDUCAUSE Vice-President Susan Grajek and members of the 2020–2021 EDUCAUSE IT Issues panel reflected on the role that technology will play in the recovery of higher education post-pandemic. With expanded access to COVID-19 vaccinations, the Fall 2021 term may emerge as the starting point of this new era. The panel's observations on what will be needed to restore, evolve, and transform our campus operations highlight the importance of taking purposeful steps to foster connections between key support areas and faculty involved in DSL.Footnote4

First, high-impact DSL courses and programming can build the collaborative relationships that are needed to restore campuses to the level of online learning flexibility and sophistication that both students and faculty will expect in a post-pandemic environment. Because these courses were so often grounded in face-to-face delivery, maintaining the ground gained over the past year is essential.

Second, investing in service-learning courses to ensure that they retain their digital footprint can help evolve campuses, in regard to both equity and online learning. Service-learning pedagogy, when enacted with critical reflection, challenges campuses to resist practices that contribute to inequality. When coupled with digital learning tools, service-learning pedagogy increases understanding and the ability to facilitate community engagement in online spaces.Footnote5 Online learning moves from being an opportunity for digital literacy to an avenue for socially-just community engagement.

Finally, building robust DSL processes can transform campuses by modeling agility and design thinking for cross-campus collaborations.

In short, by seizing this moment to support and collaborate on DSL projects, campuses can create relationships and opportunities to expand service-learning and, in doing so, play a pivotal role in enhancing the learning of students, faculty, and staff for years to come.


  1. Jean Strait and Katherine Nordyke, eds., eService-Learning: Creating Experiential Learning and Civic Engagement through Online and Hybrid Courses (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2015); Leora S. Waldner, Sue Y. McGorry, and Murray C. Widener, "E-Service- Learning: The Evolution of Service-Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population," Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 16, no. 2 (2012), p. 125 (quote). See also Jean Strait and Tim Sauer, "Constructing Experiential Learning for Online Courses: The Birth of E-Service," EDUCAUSE Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2004). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. We currently have identified three other continuums: geography; immediacy; and togetherness. However, those three are more helpful for service learners to consider prior to engaging with institutional partners for a DSL project. For more information, please see "Digital Service-Learning," Lance Eaton (website), accessed April 16, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. "Digital Literacy," ALA Literacy Clearinghouse (website), accessed April 5, 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Susan Grajek and the 2020–2021 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top IT Issues, 2021: Emerging from the Pandemic," EDUCAUSE Review, November 2, 2020. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Tania Mitchell, "Moments to Inspire Movement: Three Seminal Moments in Community Engagement," International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement 4, no. 1 (2016). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.

Lance Eaton is Educational Programs Manager at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University and an instructor in Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies at North Shore Community College.

Danielle Leek is Dean of Online Learning at Reynolds Community College and an instructor in the MA in Communication Program, Johns Hopkins University.

© 2021 Lance Eaton and Danielle Leek. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.