Community-Campus Engagement Office Spotlight: CSL @UAlberta

The Community-Service Learning Office in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta effectively brings together community-based organizations, post-secondary students and instructors to influence positive change for communities within course-based settings. They promote a broad range of community service-learning courses across disciplines including medicine, business and fine arts, and provide supports such as information resources, training and small grants for participants in these projects.

Like so many other community-campus engagement offices at academic institutions across Canada, the CSL Office has been required to adjust to pandemic disruptions in creative ways as it continues to foster local community-campus partnerships. We asked Dr. David Peacock, Director of Community Service Learning, to let us know about how his office is coping with current conditions.

How is your office adjusting to this unusual fall term? How are you doing things differently with the ongoing emphasis on virtual communication?

CSL @UAlberta has had to change our practices, like everyone else.  The vast majority of our communication with instructors, community partners, students and each other is online.  This year our Fall Orientation for instructors and community partners, designed to get them meeting with each other in person to further plan for their own communications and projects, in addition to that organized ahead of time by the CSL staff, was moved entirely online, with a mixture of asynchronous and synchronous videos.  The latter included digital break out rooms and whiteboards, in the manner to which so many of us have become accustomed. 

What kinds of challenges are the students you work with experiencing this fall?  

Our model has shifted to the provision of what we called virtual, project-based CSL – students working in project-teams in courses, with each small group connected to a community project meeting community identified goals and needs for their organization.   We prepared all of our partners for this in the Spring and Summer by organizing webinars explaining project-based CSL – a hybrid between problem or project based learning and traditional, immersive CSL. 

There are persisting challenges. We have a terrific slate of courses again from our instructors – not too far under what we would have if we were in a pre-pandemic term.  Yet early indications are that some of our students are feeling the same cumulative stresses and anxieties of COVID-19 that many of us do, and so have opted for CSL projects within their courses in somewhat smaller numbers than usual.  That’s very understandable – when our confidence has been shaken, we tend to stick to the things we know and think we can manage.  A few of our community partners have also found that their provision of projects for students has had to be scaled back from what was originally hoped for.  On the other hand, our Not-for-Profit Board Internship has more signed up than ever before!

Are you seeing any innovative ways that faculty, students or community-based partners are dealing with pandemic disruptions in CSL environments? Are there any community-campus engagement projects at the University of Alberta or other institutions that are dealing with the pandemic in ways that have inspired you?

I’d like to highlight how the pandemic has resulted in our Humanities 101 programming to creatively find new ways to reach their learners.  HUM 101 provides free, accessible, supportive, rigorous, university-level courses for communities who would not otherwise have access to university.

Due to COVID-19 risks, they are unable to meet in person this term, and many HUM participants do not have access to reliable technology or the broadband internet required for videoconferencing. So, HUM staff and volunteers have teamed up with CJSR, the University of Alberta’s community radio station, to broadcast HUM on air! The team have been feverishly working to create podcast materials around ‘storytelling’ by local artists, Indigenous peoples and other public intellectuals that will be played on a Friday night. UAlberta has a history of adult education over the radio since the 1930’s; the pandemic has created conditions where the HUM team has returned to some traditional practices to best serve its community of learners.  Not all ‘innovation’ requires new technologies!  Sometimes it involves an old-school ingenuity and know-how.  Right now we are seeking donations from our community of portable radios for distribution to our learners. 

Do you have any advice about adapting to the current situation for others involved in CSL projects across Canada?

Keep the relationships alive.  Be kind to your students.  Admit that this is a very difficult time for all of us.  Community and fidelity to our relationships are more important than productivity! 

Click the poster below to see more about the HUM initiative. We look forward to seeing what other inventive strategies CSL @UAlberta comes up with in future!