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Distance Teaching with Service Learning and Civic Engagement BETA

A Toolkit from University of Maine at Augusta, and University of Southern Maine

Print Version of the Toolkit: uma.edu/faculty-cedoc

Civic Engagement at a Distance

Service‐learning and civic engagement  in a distance delivery course can provide excellent possibilities for engagement, yet requires careful planning to deal with logistic challenges. The purpose of this handbook is to assist faculty in planning and executing a service‐learning project in their distance course that is both academically meaningful to the faculty and students, as well as addressing a need identified by a community partner.

Service‐learning and other experiential learning pedagogies, such as civic engagement, have long been popular in face to face courses. These methods can also be helpful as a mechanism in distance courses. Experts in this area have noted both the efficacy of service‐learning, as well as the potential concerns in distance learning:

By providing structured opportunities designed to promote student learning through engagement in the community, service‐learning fosters students' critical thinking and interpersonal skills. Students participating in service‐learning:

  1. provide community service as part of their academic coursework,
  2. learn about and reflect upon the community context in which the service is provided,
  3. and develop an understanding of the connection between service and their academic work.

As the face of higher education evolves with the advent of online formats, it becomes difficult to develop opportunities for distance students that provide work‐based experiences and engage students as members in their local communities. Conventionally, service‐learning experiences are structured in a local community that is usually in proximity to the higher education institution where students are enrolled and to which they can easily gain access. With online courses, students are based in their own communities, which might not be in the same county, state, or even country as the higher education institution. The challenge then is providing a quality experience through service‐learning while meeting the needs of multiple students in multiple communities (Strait & Sauer, 2004, p. 62). [1]

Working with students in multiple locations, or “distributed students,” can be a positive development:

When students are working with multiple projects, they can tailor their [service‐learning] to their own major interest. When students are motivated by personal interest, learning and retention soar. Also, multiple community partners benefit from the varied service‐learning projects (Strait & Sauer, 2004, p. 64). [2]

Access to a community partner can be challenging “because online students tend not to be the traditional age of on‐ campus students and usually work a 40‐hour week in addition to going to school” (Strait & Sauer, 2004, p. 64).8  However, there are often projects that do not require direct participation with an organization’s clients, where a student in this situation may be able to still satisfy the course requirements. For example, a student may be able to develop web or print resources for an agency in the evenings at home, meeting only infrequently during daytime hours with the  agency partner.

Shaping an online course with a service learning project can benefit from some of the best practices in distance pedagogy. For instance, learners benefit from timely, targeted feedback in all learning environments, and this has been shown to have a strong impact on student success. Additionally, learners fidelity with distance learning evolves over time just as it does with the discipline and content. Learners who have experience in online courses--particularly with those that offer a prolific social experience with other learners, instructors, or community partners--may also evolve the necessary skills of the evolving workforce in which telecommuting (or “working from home using technology”) is a rapidly increasing expectation. According to the Home-Based Workers in the United States: 2010 report contextualized from the United States Census, telecommuting increased 133% for state government workers, 88% for federal government workers, and 67% private companies over the last report between 1999 and 2010, and as technologies continue to make this experience more accessible and cost-effective, that rate is likely to increase.

At the same time, many students may have a difficult time with feeling pressured to perform individually, not having as much attention from the instructor, miscommunication, and a lack of direction. Faculty can help by fostering a distance learning environment that facilitates interpersonal connection using technology, engages learners in multiple modalities, and teaches learners the foundational skills of telecommuting and self-motivated project completion. One way to encourage this is the active inclusion of learning reflection activities, which “can be a challenge for students. Most students are familiar with keeping a log of hours or writing short papers” about their service‐learning experiences; however, “determining how the service‐learning is affecting the students requires deeper levels of reflection. This  means the instructor needs to provide more opportunities for discussion and assign more reflective‐type activities for  the students” completing the online service‐learning course. (Strait & Sauer, 2004, p. 64). This can be time intensive, but is a critical component.


  1. Anderson, Terry. “Teaching in an Online Context.” In Anderson, Terry and Fathi Alloumi. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University: 2008. Web. Full text available here: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  2. Mateyka, Peter J., Melanie A. Rapino, and Liana Christin Landivar. “Home-Based Workers in the United States: 2010.” Issued October, 2012. Retrieved 11 April, 2017 from: https://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p70-132.pdf

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