Posts from SIGCSE: Computer Science service-learning programme

Posted on March 26, 2008


chrisbrooks.jpgChris Brooks described a successful service-learning programme for computer science students (pdf).

He teaches at a Jesuit school where service learning is the norm. He makes the point that this is not “volunteering” , rather service learning is community-based active lerning that supplements classroom material with reflective activities that help students synthesize experiences:

If the service learning requirement is to be meaningful, and not just another box on the graduation checklist, then it is important that students are able to have service-learning experiences that relate to their expertise and area of study.

He says that the value of such a programme is in the way it can complement a traditional computer science education:
NOT either/or, instead is both/and. Not a zero sum game

A community connections course is explicitly aimed at working with community partners to bridge the digital divide.

if technology is such a transformative tool, how can we make sure everyone has access to it?

The basis of this work is the provision of technology support and training to schools and non-profits in San Francisco’s Tenderloin area.

Another area is an immersion spring break visit to Tacna in Peru. The original plan was all about shipping dated hardware, but they soon realised that this was the “tip of the iceberg”, and the programme is now about education and maintenance.

Students learn first hand how technology can transform, but what are challenges on the ground

In terms of learning, Brooks sees such a course as a “reworking of the standard computer ethics”. Instead of dry classroom theory, the service learning provides an excellent opportunity to provide real-world grounding for piracy, digital divide, reliability, access, technology and social justice.

Unlike other courses that avoid value statements, Brooks says they are explicitly trying to connect learning and service to political awareness and a practical understanding of how technology can help transform people’s lives.

The challenges of running such a course though should not be underestimated. Students don’t make connections without prompting so it is important to structure reflective practice (get students to keep a blog). Maintaining the relationship with community partners is also critical (even to the level of matching schedules). Keeping a dialogue open is important, as is managing expectations and involving community partners (co-educators role…trust).

He advises to

– keep the programme small, easy to be ambitious.

– do on cheap (rather than spending more time than you have chasing funding).

– figure out what you and your students are able to
– find people to suport, make it easy for them to say yes.
– find reliable partners who understand what you are trying to do
– maketing (everybody wins)
– find a community: campus compact, epics,
– institutionalise
– occasionally say no

Q: Communication problems in Peru?

A: Large latino population in SF including student body

Q: Assessment?
A: Mostly qualitative based on writing exercises. Fears, expectations…..what are you getting…..what did you get.

Q: How long (5 years), any long term feedback
A: Several life changes. Peace core; technology development in third world; Often takes a year or two for them to figure it out. (of course, bias sample of reporting).