Community-Engaged Learning in Times of COVID-19 or, Why I’m Not Prepared to Transition My Class into an Online Environment
“I leave that up to you.” This was the email response I got from many of my community partners as news of COVID-19 hit my city a few weeks ago. I had written them emails asking whether my students (at that time, still on Spring Break) should resume their volunteering at their sites. Obviously, each conversation went no further. I knew that each leader felt the obligation to keep almost all their staff and volunteers at home but were also in urgent need of people power to continue providing services to the community. That left me to decide whether I should remove groups of student volunteers that provided hours and hours of face-to-face services at sites that desperately need twice that amount to meet their goals. (The decision to pull students from their sites was eventually made for me by my institution, without clear directions on how to support my community partners in this time of need.) I am not prepared to transition to online-only instruction nor am I prepared to make these hard decisions. That was how I was going to start the email to my faculty’s department head. But, knowing that he was already dealing with the five other emails I sent, I redirected my thoughts here, all the while thinking of those also rushing to adapt community-engaged classes during a pandemic.
I am an assistant professor at University of Minnesota Rochester, the smallest campus in the University of Minnesota system. As a health-sciences campus, UMR is “committ[ed] to empower students to be engaged citizens and collaborate with the local community to solve healthcare challenges.”(1) The irony is not lost on me. I am the lead faculty member of a team-taught course, Community Collaboratory (CoLab, for short). We connect students, faculty, and community partners, with the goal of effecting social change. Students gain professional skills in the health sciences by on-site volunteering. They also engage with theoretical and methodological approaches to community health practices during lectures and assignments. I currently have fifty-two students assigned to one of ten nonprofit organizations in the Rochester area. My students provide early childhood education, coordinate health and social services for older adults, organize STEM-based after school programs, and help deliver citizenship and ESL curriculum and training for new Americans. Yes, the class is a lot of work. And I had everything under control until COVID-19 forced us educators to design online courses overnight.
Pandemic? Canvas! Kaltura! Zoom! Activate!
My heart sank when my university moved to online-only classes. My job now was to figure out how to use Zoom, hopefully without looking like the fool who forgot to unmute her mic. But I also needed to come up with ways my students could work with community partners while social distancing. And this had to be done in a week; two days before entering midterm grades! Here’s the question that no one bothered to answer: What is this actually achieving? Nothing, actually, since the shift from face-to-face to virtual community engagement was sudden and without adequate resources. And not only that, those of us teaching community-engaged scholarship are being asked to figure out, most often by those who do not teach, how students can “answer the challenge that COVID-19 has put in front of us” using the skills learned in our classes.
Answering Challenges at the Drop of a Hat
First, I needed research and resources; I went straight to my regional Campus Compact website. There had to be strategies for restructuring community-engaged projects into an online format while still remaining meaningful for my students and helpful to my community partners. Campus Compact’s mission is to support my university in achieving its public engagement goals. The resources I found, sadly, were not geared to solve my problem. I needed to find ways to guide my students to help out with the immediate critical needs of my community partners. Meeting learning outcomes was not my priority nor something that would benefit my students and our communities at this time. How was I going to support the communities that had welcomed my students and let them engage in meaningful acts of public service? Instead, I was being directed to resources on virtual volunteering. … What? Virtual volunteering? What is virtual volunteering? What urgent needs can students meet remotely? Social media tasks? Internet research? “Maybe they can design brochures in Canva…” Brochures? Really? Should I really ask the director of an organization that connects older adults to companionship services if she has any busywork non-direct tasks for my students to complete? I am way too Latina to bother this woman with nonsense. She and I know very well that face-to-face engagement is irreplaceable in her clients’ lives. There is no alternative assignment here; no real substitute for in-person, human interaction. And the majority of these virtual volunteering tasks are not adequate ways to help alleviate the critical needs of my community partners; they just meet learning objectives.
Most of our nonprofit partners cannot deliver services without the labor of student volunteers; they exchange time and labor so they can apply their classroom skills in the “real world.” In the pre-COVID-19 reality, I was sending my students out into a moderately predictable environment. My class was a welcome change from the monotony of quizzes, labs, and finals that comprise the bulk of their STEM coursework. Students found themselves in a world of opportunities that I had curated with my community partners and fellow faculty members. My students went to a field site, provided valuable services while being able to measure the impact they made on their local communities, and got to use what they learned in class to understand the larger social forces that define the community partner’s responses and practices. Hopefully, they would use these skills in the next stage of their journey as future health science professionals. And, as I keep stressing, I am not prepared nor have I received the support needed for my students to engage in this very real, for-real-freaking-real world, where the epidemiological, biomedical, and clinical understanding of this virus is still being mapped and analyzed. All I wanted was some help so I could teach class in a COVID-19 world where our collective survival is still being negotiated by people far greedier than you or I can imagine.
Complaining as a Community-Engaged Practice
It has been a few weeks, and I am going to be blunt.(2) Organizational bodies whose whole existence is to support community-engaged learning practices have yet to provide me or my colleagues teaching community-engaged courses tools and resources to restructure our coursework in a way that supports our community partners during this time of need. All I have gotten is the same spiel on meeting learning objectives while following social distancing protocols. That’s it. To that, I say … thanks but no thanks.
It is not that implementing virtual community-engaged classes is an impossibility. A growing body of research shows that community-engaged learning environments can be replicated online. Educational and social aims can be achieved remotely under certain conditions. I argue, however, that you need to have, at minimum, the resources to plan, design, and deliver this curriculum online,(3) ability, skill, and training to implement high-impact pedagogical practices,(4) and a social justice or similar framework(5) that buttresses the curriculum to be able to help our students understand why we are now online, what it means to do work online during a pandemic, and what are we able and not able to do as a community-engaged class to help our communities under these pandemic conditions.
First, resources, like time and infrastructure, need to be available and in place for any community-engaged class to meet its learning goals.(6) Cynthia B. Vavasseur and her colleagues have shown how virtual tutoring activities were meaningful not only for their students but for the community. Specifically, they measured benefits for those community members receiving tutoring services since the curriculum was planned to be delivered in that format and the technical infrastructure was in place to do so. The capacity for the community partner to receive and implement the curriculum was also established ahead of time. In one of the many resources geared to those teaching community-engaged classes, virtual tutoring delivered by students from home was a suggested alternative. Well, my community partner had to close their doors and send their clients home. And half of these clients do not have internet access.
Second, we need to understand the best way to transfer and apply pedagogical practices to online delivery formats.(7) Many community-based course instructors may not have the training to do this. I was lucky to already know the basics of various Learning Management Software packages since, until recently, I taught online to supplement my income as a graduate student. However, some faculty members have not had the time to learn how to restructure their courses or shift their pedagogical styles. Those who do not teach think that watching a video about uploading PowerPoint lectures to YouTube will solve our problem. Some in the world of higher education are starting to see that pandemics are not conducive to quality education. (Emphasis on some.) And here is something that none have yet to answer me: How does one read students’ levels of engagement and body language from the fifty-plus tiny video thumbnails on our Zoom screens?
Finally, during this moment of worldwide suffering, instructors committed to community-engaged learning need to not only meet learning outcomes but to help their students understand the limitations imposed to the social justice goals that buttressed our syllabuses’ missions.(8) It is impossible to make newly-restructured, COVID-19-friendly, community-engaged activities as meaningful for students or communities under these conditions. Those of us who connect academia to community are struggling to align liberatory objectives with what we are given to meet learning outcomes. In my case, social distance and virtual volunteering are not the way to go. And I imagine that many of my fellow educators feel the same way.
Social distancing and virtual volunteering are just a copy-and-paste response to urgent concerns that community and organization partners bring to us. And I am tired of receiving cop-out emails. First, social distancing is an individual response to a collective crisis. Even qualifying it as just the “physical” kind does not take into consideration the needs of those who go unheard—the houseless, the low-income, the chronically ill, the non-White, etc. I know my students are already doing the face-to-face work for the health, safety, and wellbeing of communities as they work in patient-care roles outside the context of my class. Many of them have no choice but to break social distancing rules and take risks. And virtual volunteering? After doing some background work, I found a number of these virtual volunteering opportunities fail to engage learners with a framework to understand and make sense of the interconnected inequities of this crisis. Any perspective-broadening, understanding-building work of volunteering has been reduced to “what can I do to help,” with an added “pat on the back” for helping out. This practice does not force the learner to critically explore the connected economy of suffering around this pandemic. While composing this essay, for example, I was multitasking as always: on my computer reading about requests to create PPE at home having more volunteers than capacity, while on my phone scanning a news item on hospitals asking workers to take unpaid leave. What an ironic juxtaposition the universe threw at me.
Bridging and Crossing: Grassroots Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning
Different sources of intellectual exchange (and not the organizational bodies to which my university has most likely paid a substantial membership fee for advice) have provided some real solutions to my immediate quandary. My teaching has been enhanced by exchanging ideas with Zoom chat participants during the presentations on intersectionality hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw and her colleagues at the African American Policy Forum. I have also received helpful strategies from members of the Public Health Awakened collective and from a random assortment of individuals in my existing social networks: faculty and colleagues at other universities, former students, social workers, and community activists. In sum, what has helped is to go outside the existing channels (while trying to avoid their avalanche of links listed under “COVID-19 Resources” or similar descriptors) to restructure pedagogical practices that tap into a myriad of collective knowledge projects that take into account not only the inequities exacerbated by governmental responses to COVID-19 but also reflect on the global South’s responses to past health crises. Again, I am going to be blunt: The institutional bodies and representatives in place to support my community-engaged teaching have not been in any way, shape, or form helpful during this time. In all, my work as an educator is, and always was, about crossing borders and finding solutions at the margins. Something that I momentarily forgot because it was suggested that I “absolutely must” attend a webinar on strategies to keep students from cheating while test-taking from home.
So, how did I restructure my curriculum?
Logistically: students who were serving as companions to older adults are now checking up on them via bi-weekly telephone calls and doing other forms of capacity-work to help the community partner with new operational needs. Others, if not already working as health care advocates in their own time (a number of them serving and caring for those directly affected by the pandemic), are providing similar, essential services in their respective communities. I trust my students are already meeting the critical engaged component of the class elsewhere.
Intellectually: I am less Professor Mejia who teaches community-based research methods and more Professor Mejia the bridge, the nepantlera (a person, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words, who inhabits liminal spaces and can help others cross). I am guiding my overly-anxious, often sleep-deprived, grade-focused STEM students to cross disciplinary fronteras (borders) and helping them wrestle with unfamiliar yet vital knowledge from the margins that can nourish their souls during these trying times.
I have replaced required readings with works (in addition to the few that I had already snuck in before this whole thing started) by Feminists of Color and other Global South scholars. Instead of an issue brief on health policy, I ask them to read J. H. Cuevas’s report on health practices in Chiapas. Textbook chapters on evaluation methods have been substituted with The Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement,” and Shakira R. Hobbs and colleagues’ case study on Black women’s acts of humanitarian engineering. Mixed-methods research articles have been exchanged for works on critical public health models. My lectures are asynchronous and not the best quality; but I can at least be a bridge and guide students to imagine new ways of relating as peers, as scientists, and as members of ailing communities. Perhaps I can even guide them to create new practices and new worlds.
In writing that “en unas pocas centurias, the future will belong to the mestiza,” Gloria Anzaldúa, once again, urges us to use our sabidurias (wisdom) to collectively envision more just futures by making them ours.(9) And my students cannot begin to imagine those futures by designing brochures in Canva.
I would like to thank Stephanie Vasko and Bethany Laursen for their careful reading of this text and their invaluable comments and suggestions for its improvement. Thanks also go to Kurt Milberger and Taylor Mills as well as the rest of the editorial team at the Public Philosophy Journal for their timely coordination of the formative peer review process.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Becnel, Kim, and Robin A. Moeller. “Community-Embedded Learning Experiences: Putting the Pedagogy of Service-Learning to Work in Online Courses.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 32, no. 1 (2017): 56–65. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2016.1265443.
The Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 42, no. 3/4 (2014): 271–80.
Cuevas, J. H. “Health and Autonomy: The Case of Chiapas.” Report for WHO, 2007.
Eudey, Betsy. “Civic Engagement, Cyberfeminism, and Online Learning: Activism and Service Learning in Women’s and Gender Studies Courses.” Feminist Teacher 22, no. 3 (2012): 233–50.
Guthrie, Kathy L., Holly McCracken, and Terry Anderson. “Teaching and Learning Social Justice through Online Service-Learning Courses.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 11, no. 3 (2010): 78–94. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v11i3.894.
Hobbs, Shakira R., Bethany Gordon, Evvan V. Morton, and Leidy Klotz. “Black Women Engineers as Allies in Adoption of Environmental Technology: Evidence from a Community in Belize.” Environmental Engineering Science 36, no. 8 (2019): 851–62.
Jaffee, David. “Asynchronous Learning: Technology and Pedagogical Strategy in a Distance Learning Course.” Teaching Sociology 25, no. 4 (1997): 262–77. https://doi.org/10.2307/1319295.
Maddrell, Jennifer A. “Designing Authentic Educational Experiences through Virtual Service Learning.” In The Design of Learning Experience: Creating the Future of Educational Technology, ed. Brad Hokanson, Gregory Clinton, and Monica W. Tracey, 215–29. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16504-2_15.
McLean, Jessica, Sophia Maalsen, and Alana Grech. “Learning about Feminism in Digital Spaces: Online Methodologies and Participatory Mapping.” Australian Geographer 47, no. 2 (2016): 157–77.
Purcell, Jennifer W. “Community‐Engaged Pedagogy in the Virtual Classroom: Integrating EService‐Learning into Online Leadership Education.” Journal of Leadership Studies 11, no. 1 (2017): 65–70.
Schwehm, Jeremy S., Tennille Lasker-Scott, and Oluwakemi Elufiede. “A Comparison of Learning Outcomes for Adult Students in On-Site and Online Service-Learning.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 20, no. 1 (2017): n1.
University of Minnesota Rochester. “Public Engagement Action Plan.” 2017. https://engagement.umn.edu/sites/ope.umn.edu/files/rochester-engagement-action-plan.pdf.
Van Hoover, Cheri. “Innovation in Health Policy Education: Project-Based Service Learning at a Distance for Graduate Midwifery Students.” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 60, no. 5 (2015): 554–60. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmwh.12264.
Vavasseur, Cynthia B., Courtney R. Hebert, and Tobey S. Naquin. “Pre-Service Teachers Serving Students: Service-Learning through Virtual Tutoring—A Case Study.” Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education 2 (2013): 47–61.
York, Reginald O. “Comparing Three Modes of Instruction in a Graduate Social Work Program.” Journal of Social Work Education 44, no. 2 (2008): 157–72.
Angie Mejia, PhD, is an assistant professor and civic engagement scholar in the Center of Learning Innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester. Her research uses a feminist intersectional and critical sociology approach to the study of mental health inequities in Communities of Color. Her work has appeared in several academic journals, including Theory in Action, Action Research, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and Cultural Studies <-> Critical Methodologies. https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9136-9345
- University of Minnesota Rochester, “Public Engagement Action Plan,” 2017, 3, https://engagement.umn.edu/sites/ope.umn.edu/files/rochester-engagement-action-plan.pdf.
- Here I am drawing inspiration from Sarah Ahmed’s work on complaint as Feminist of Color praxis.
- Kim Becnel and Robin A. Moeller, “Community-Embedded Learning Experiences: Putting the Pedagogy of Service-Learning to Work in Online Courses,” Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 32, no. 1 (2017): 56–65, https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2016.1265443; Cheri Van Hoover, “Innovation in Health Policy Education: Project-Based Service Learning at a Distance for Graduate Midwifery Students,” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 60, no. 5 (2015): 554–60, https://doi.org/10.1111/jmwh.12264.
- David Jaffee, “Asynchronous Learning: Technology and Pedagogical Strategy in a Distance Learning Course,” Teaching Sociology 25, no. 4 (1997): 262–77, https://doi.org/10.2307/1319295; Jennifer A. Maddrell, “Designing Authentic Educational Experiences through Virtual Service Learning,” in The Design of Learning Experience: Creating the Future of Educational Technology, ed. Brad Hokanson, Gregory Clinton, and Monica W. Tracey, 215–29 (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16504-2_15.
- Betsy Eudey, “Civic Engagement, Cyberfeminism, and Online Learning: Activism and Service Learning in Women’s and Gender Studies Courses,” Feminist Teacher 22, no. 3 (2012): 233–50; Kathy L. Guthrie, Holly McCracken, and Terry Anderson, “Teaching and Learning Social Justice through Online Service-Learning Courses,” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 11, no. 3 (2010): 78–94, https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v11i3.894.
- Reginald O. York, “Comparing Three Modes of Instruction in a Graduate Social Work Program,” Journal of Social Work Education 44, no. 2 (2008): 157–72; Jeremy S. Schwehm, Tennille Lasker-Scott, and Oluwakemi Elufiede, “A Comparison of Learning Outcomes for Adult Students in On-Site and Online Service-Learning,” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 20, no. 1 (2017): n1.
- Jennifer W. Purcell, “Community‐Engaged Pedagogy in the Virtual Classroom: Integrating EService‐Learning into Online Leadership Education,” Journal of Leadership Studies 11, no. 1 (2017): 65–70.
- Jessica McLean, Sophia Maalsen, and Alana Grech, “Learning about Feminism in Digital Spaces: Online Methodologies and Participatory Mapping,” Australian Geographer 47, no. 2 (2016): 157–77.
- Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987, 102.