Digital learning between students and society: learning lab E-CSL

How can we make online education beneficial for students, teachers and society? This was the topic of the learning lab on E-CSL.

On Thursday 25 June 2020, the online learning lab on digital Community Service Learning (E-CSL) took place. This learning lab was a first collaboration between the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) and the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges. Community Service Learning is experiential learning in which students, teachers and community partners work together on societal challenges. UU and VU have been experimenting with CSL education before the corona outbreak – but is CSL also possible in online education? The 39 attendees of the learning lab on E-CSL discussed their experiences with E-CSL experiments the last couple of months and how they are preparing their courses for September. We saw that E-CSL offers many opportunities for valuable learning for students, teachers and community partners, but also offers new challenges. So this was a good time for a meet-up to share experiences and strategies.

CSL developments

The afternoon started with four presentations followed by discussions with the participants. Professor dr. Marjolein Zweekhorst (VU) introduced her latest work on the A Broader Mind programme, in which the VU aims to have a Community Service Learning component as a part of all bachelor programs of the VU. She also shared some of her work in the Comenius leadership Fellow project aiming to provide a structure for master students of the VU to conduct interdisciplinary research in interaction with communities. Professor dr. Joost de Laat (UU) then described the latest developments in terms of Community Service Learning (CSL) at the UU, and the strategy of the Centre for Global Challenges specifically to promote multi-disciplinary collaboration across Utrecht University researchers, its students, and societal stakeholders, around complex global challenges in CSL projects. They work in close contact with the programme committee CSL, who set out the policy guidelines for CSL at UU.

Examples of redesigned courses

The introduction was followed by two presentations that provided practical examples of CSL courses that due to COVID-19 had to be redesigned online. Rosanna Snijder (VU) spoke about her course ‘health in the city’ for second- and third-year bachelor students. In this course, students formulated recommendations for the VU as societal partner on how to provide education and student welfare during times of COVID-19. Dr. Julie Fraser provided an example from a very different context on applied international law. Some students in her law clinic already worked with international clients before the corona outbreak in a digital way, so this experience was useful in transforming the law clinic to a digital setting also for national clients. Both teachers shared takeaways from their experiences translated into tips and tricks for future E-CSL projects. For instance, the importance of frequent communication amongst all stakeholders in the project was underlined, as well as the online availability and approachability of the teacher. The presenters also reassured their colleagues that “not everything has to be perfect”!

Challenges and opportunities for online CSL courses

The second half of the learning lab we continued in breakout sessions designed around two central questions: how to design an online CSL course and what opportunities, challenges and strategies do you see for E-CSL teaching? One of the challenges identified was that it takes more effort building relationships with the community and engaging students in a digital setting. One pragmatic idea to allow students and community members to connect was to organize online coffee sessions. At the same time the online setting released geographical restrictions, which opened up a host of new opportunities locally as well as for international collaboration.

First step towards further collaboration on CSL

Besides the great presentations and interesting discussions, one takeaway from the learning lab was the newly found connections between the CSL communities of the two universities. Therefore, this learning lab E-CSL is considered only a first step towards further collaboration between the VU and UU on Community Service Learning.

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Written by Aukelien Scheffelaar and Nadine Blignaut - van Westhrenen