Re-thinking our approach to curricular Community Service Learning

The storm of staff departures in 2007 left no staff in the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI), the entity that had been created to advance curricular Community Service Learning (CSL). I tried to recruit a new manager for the initiative in May 2007 but I could not find a suitable candidate.

The PIECe committee

Given the challenges we faced in the first year of implementing the proposed model for curricular CSL and the absence of staff for the initiative, I was not sure how I was going to make the model work. But I went ahead with the ancillary things I had promised to do in the proposal to the McConnell Foundation. In early May I held the first meeting of the Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation Committee (called the PIECe committee). This was a committee consisting of four faculty members (including two heads of departments or units), three staff members (all holding positions at the Director level), one graduate student, one undergraduate student, and three representatives from community organizations.


I hoped this group would help determine how to address the nitty-gritty challenges of introducing curricular CSL into a large research-intensive university. I wanted the group to give me advice and support. I also hoped the group members would themselves get involved in promoting CSL. The members were invited to sit on the committee because of their positions (e.g., the Director of Planning and Institutional Research could help us with our research agenda; the Director of Student Development could help achieve our goals around student-led projects; the Director of Human Resources’ Organizational Development and Learning unit could help us develop the leadership capacity of project leaders; the Director of Teaching and Academic Growth could help develop faculty capacity for CSL). But I also wanted these people on the committee because of their personalities. All the members were known to be energetic, creative, and oriented towards working collaboratively. All of them had some kind of direct experience with some aspect of our CSL work.

At the first meeting, in an attempt to create a container for our work that would be characterized by honesty and a commitment to a common purpose, I asked people to introduce themselves by not just giving their name and title, but by talking a bit about why they thought it was important for UBC to offer more students the chance to do CSL. I started the round of introductions and tried to model what I was looking for. I talked about what I had heard from students about the profound effects CSL can have and the amazing work I had seen students do in the community. As we went around the table, others matched my comments with similarly direct and personal statements of the value of CSL as they saw it, based on their own experiences.

I believe that introductory circle set a tone that influenced the entire course of this group’s work together over the next two and a half years. It was the most honest, productive and enjoyable committee experience I have ever had. We talked openly about some of the well-known but rarely-discussed weaknesses of university teaching and learning. We bounced around ideas, including half-baked ones, about how to change the status quo. We also laughed a lot. At the end of one of the first meetings, one of the faculty members came over to me and said, “You know, I am so happy to be part of this group. I have been waiting my entire career to have this kind of conversation.”

Making CSL central to the course

The meetings obviously planted seeds in people’s minds. In the course of setting the context for the work of the committee, I outlined what I saw as some of the challenges of institutionalizing high-quality CSL. I said that too many of the CSL projects we had done were not linked strongly enough to the curriculum and in too many courses CSL was an add-on rather than being integral to the way the course was conceived and taught. In the two or three weeks following that PIECe meeting, three of the faculty members on the committee independently contacted me. They said something like, “I’m thinking about how to incorporate CSL into a course I’m developing where it would be an integral part of the student experience and the course content. Can we talk about what kind of support you and the UBC-CLI might be able to provide?” My ensuing discussions with these faculty members opened up a way that I could support their emerging ideas and solve my personnel problem at the same time.

Reallocating resources

chopping tomatoes
(photo copyright UBC)

I decided to rethink the way financial resources were allocated in the UBC-CLI. Instead of using most of the available funds to hire centrally-located professional staff, I would distribute the funds to faculty members who were designing innovative ways to integrate CSL into courses. I saw this approach as having several advantages. It would get faculty members interacting directly with community partners rather than relying on my staff to mediate the relationships. This would address the complaint we had heard from both faculty and community partners who said there were too many cooks in the kitchen. In addition, this new approach would move responsibility and accountability into the faculties. This was very much in keeping with university culture—faculties resist efforts by central administrators to direct or even coordinate their efforts. And I hoped this approach would lead to diverse ways of using financial resources to implement CSL, innovations we could learn from.

feet in gardenOn the basis of my discussions with members of the PIECe committee, some funds for the second year of the McConnell grant were allocated to the three professors who had come forward with ideas. Their courses were in civil engineering, land and food systems, and geography. It was anticipated that, together, their three courses would involve about 500 students, almost meeting the target for participation for that year. Thus, this new approach would also address the challenge of engaging enough students to meet student participation targets in the absence of uptake by faculty of the original idea of doing CSL projects in the spring and summer.

The three professors who were granted funds hired part-time staff or senior students as course coordinators and teaching assistants. In addition, small grants were made available to community partners to pay for CSL project expenses. Funds were also distributed to Student Development to support student-led activities, specifically the initiation of Student-Directed Seminars that included a CSL component. Funds also went to Teaching and Academic Growth to host training sessions for faculty to build their capacity to do good CSL. And funds went to Organizational Development and Learning to support their efforts to build the training program for CSL project leaders. Funds were also set aside for a competitive granting process designed to encourage faculty to do research on CSL. I hired one central coordinator to help keep all this activity organized and accounted for.

The amounts of funding that were distributed were not large. But the fact that units and individual faculty members had control over these funds made a difference. The responsibility to implement the new model became shared; my colleagues became part owners of the UBC-CLI.

Dispersed activity with central support

The ideas and activities that arose from the PIECe committee opened up a way for CSL to grow at UBC without the impetus coming only from a centralized unit. Those three courses where CSL was central to the curriculum offered examples of viable ways to ground the growth of CSL in the faculties. In the next few years, the UBC-CLI entered into agreements with four faculties to locate a CSL coordinator in each faculty. The coordinators helped faculty members incorporate CSL into their courses and facilitated linkages with community partners. These positions were jointly funded and jointly supervised by the faculty and the UBC-CLI. A centralized infrastructure gradually emerged again, with the UBC-CLI making sure the work in the faculties was linked to institutional goals and priorities, setting standards for best practices, mediating relationships with community partners, and encouraging research and evaluation related to CSL. But the centre of gravity shifted.

For more detail on how the UBC-CLI evolved, read our annual reports to the McConnell Foundation for 2008,  2009, and 2010 and the report of the evaluation done by our graduate research assistant, Kate Murray. Also see From the margins to the centre: CSL

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to The strategic plan for CSL and CBR.