Engaged learning in the community | Work of Arts
Engaged learning in the community | Work of Arts
Alison Taylor

Engaged learning in the community

by | September 30, 2013
Photography by Terah Jans
A spotlight on the UAlberta CSL program, which connects communities and engages students, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

When you envision a typical university classroom, you might see desks and laptops in a lecture hall. But for students in Community Service-Learning (CSL) classes at UAlberta, learning often takes place out of the classroom—and sometimes even off campus.

The CSL program, housed in the Faculty of Arts, integrates service in the community as an integral component of learning for students. CSL classes are developed in partnership between community organizations, instructors and CSL staff, and require students to participate in roughly 20 hours of out-of-classroom learning in the community during a term. Although there are CSL programs in other Canadian universities, this is the only CSL program in Canada located in the Faculty of Arts. It is also the only CSL program that offers Humanities 101, a non-credit course delivered entirely in the community to learners living with poverty, homelessness, violence and health issues.

CSL began in 2003 as a pilot program involving three sociology courses, eight community organizations, and 40 students; by 2012, the program had grown to more than sixty courses, over 160 community partners and over 900 students. The program works with and matches community organizations in and around Edmonton, from small grassroots groups to large non-profit organizations.

The placements students work on are related to the learning objectives of the course. For example, this year, one CSL placement is pairing physiotherapy students with the Lung Association of Alberta and NWT to research an innovative music therapy program for people with chronic lung disease. Students will be tasked with finding music pieces that could be adapted to have short, breathing stops and that could be performed by patients to improve their lung capacity.

Putting students’ ideas to work

Instructors usually decide to incorporate a CSL component into their classes because they want to give students a different learning experience and because “they are engaged scholars. And I think this allows them to transfer that kind of enthusiasm for learning to students, by having students be involved as well. I think it can reenergize teaching if people are open to trying different things,” suggests Alison Taylor, Director of the CSL program.

The program provides students opportunities to do more on an extracurricular basis.

CSL students, in turn, can learn how the principles they’re learning in the classroom are and can be applied outside of the classroom. “The way one student put it is ‘it’s a way to put their ideas to work.’ That kind of encapsulates what our goal is,” explains Taylor. Students who complete a certain number of CSL courses can also receive a Certificate in Community Engagement and Service-Learning when they graduate.

Not everyone learns in the same way, suggests Taylor, and some students are drawn to the more hands-on learning model of CSL. Other students are interested in community engagement and learning more about responsible citizenship. “Social problems are complex. By moving out of the university setting where we have a set of ideas about how things work and then moving into a different context, all of a sudden students have an appreciation of the complexities of issues. It’s not black and white and they are developing the abilities to not only think through problems, but also to work with other people—abilities that are going to be important to them after university.”

Although the CSL is embedded in courses as part of the curriculum, the program also provides students opportunities to do more on an extracurricular basis: they can serve on the boards of community organizations for an academic year as part of the Non-Profit Board Student Internship Program. They learn how boards operate, develop leadership and decision-making skills and gain a better sense of the contributions they can make to the community. “CSL does play a role in giving students experiences that may help them think about where they want to go in their lives, work lives and as citizens,” says Taylor.

Instructors usually decide to incorporate a CSL component into their classes because they want to give students a different learning experience.

Taylor thinks of community partners as “co-educators.” By sharing their knowledge, they help expand the horizons of both students and instructors, helping to establish “networks of learning” for the groups involved.

Sometimes those networks evolve into much bigger projects. For example, several CSL classes and students partnered with the SKILLS Society in Project Citizenship to tell inspiring stories about the valuable contributions made by people with disabilities. That collaboration developed from a CSL Partnership Grant, a grant given to academic and community co-applicants to expand the scope and impact of CSL. Project Citizenship hosted an art show last fall where they showcased the stories using different kinds of media and then held a weekly Citizen’s Action Hall on campus where individuals with disabilities, University of Alberta students, disability workers, and researchers gathered together to explore the notion of citizenship.

CSL courses are offered in seven different faculties across campus, but Taylor and her team are working to add more faculties and courses to the list. Taylor is also interested in exploring opportunities for more long-term projects, and wants to identify ways that that classes could be more intra- and interdisciplinary. For example, could grad students and undergrad students be working together? Could classes across disciplines be working together more closely?

As far as Taylor is concerned, the possibilities for CSL are endless. “All we’re limited by is will and logistics,” she laughs.

Click to learn more about Alison Taylor’s CSL research and the benefits of CSL for students and instructors on BEdition: http://beditionmagazine.com/community-service-learning-a-talk-with-alison-taylor/

Related links:
Community Service-Learning website

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