In my Community Informatics class yesterday we had a short but interesting discussion about our various experiences with service learning, both at Illinois and at other schools. Most students who had done some amount of service learning (in addition to what we all are doing for Community Informatics) agreed that it is beneficial and worthwhile. This got me thinking about my own service learning experiences, as I realized quickly that I’ve had many:
- My first was at Beloit College as an undergrad; I took an introduction to women & gender studies course and a large part of our grade was participation in and reflection on a service learning placement. Many students in the class, myself included, ended up volunteering at a local after-school reading program at a nearby elementary school. The experience took me entirely outside of my comfort zone, as I don’t often work with children anymore. Also, at first I was very resentful about the time commitment and the limited selection of placements – how was I supposed to write multiple reflection papers that related our course readings to my observations and experiences? As it turns out, elementary school is a hotbed of women and gender studies issues and topics and I had no problem coming up with subjects to write about. Plus it was awesome to feel more involved in the community – as a tiny liberal arts college in a rust belt Wisconsin town we could sometimes isolate ourselves into a tiny academic bubble.
- Next came library school! My second semester I took LIS 451: Introduction to Network Systems. LIS 451 was half technical skills, half service learning. We spent classroom time developing our knowledge about hardware, software, the internet, and everything else we could cram into our brains. And then outside the classroom we spent the semester working with a local community organization to develop, assemble, and install a functioning computer lab/technology space. It was incredibly hands-on and intense and I’m still convinced it was the best way to learn the material that we did. There’s nothing like the education (and sense of accomplishment) that comes from building a computer lab from scratch. For more info (and super awesome pictures of me in safety goggles) check out our group project website.
- The following semester I took a web design course; for our final project we had to design a website for a client, and many students chose a local business or organization (I chose my sister’s photography business!). While not strictly service learning for every student, the project did represent an opportunity to volunteer our time and expertise to a local person, business, or organization to improve their web presence. Plus, it was a great way to put all of the things we learned into practice for a real purpose.
- I also spent a semester doing a practicum that involved processing, cataloging, and noting preservation concerns for a map collection at one of the local academic libraries. While practicums and service learning are not mutually exclusive, my practicum did involve using my knowledge and time to benefit a local institution.
- And last but not least, Community Informatics this semester, in which we are all Cybernavigating and contributing to the local wiki, CUWiki.
So much service learning! I have to admit though: every time I’ve seen a service learning requirement on a syllabus, I’ve initially cringed – mostly due to the time commitment! Each one of the projects above took countless hours of effort and some involved coordinating groups schedules (which can be a nightmare). BUT, I also ended up appreciating each experience immensely and do not regret my decision to stay in each class.
For more info on service learning, check out this great Hack Library School post – “Should more LIS programs have a service learning component?” – (Hint: yes, they should!) or a fantastic book published by ALA titled Service Learning: Linking Library Education and Practice, edited by Loriene Roy, Kelly Jensen, and Alex Hershey Meyers (with an entire chapter on LIS 451 here at Illinois!).