Is There Service in Computing Service Learning?


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Presentation for my talk at SIGCSE 2012.

Abstract is as follows: A variety of researchers have advocated for service learning projects in post-secondary computing programs. While these projects can achieve important disciplinary outcomes for the students, what has been under examined is the benefit that these projects have for the service recipients and their community. This paper argues that since service learning projects are meant to benefit both student donors and community recipients, we must examine much more carefully how computing service projects interact with all the social actors affected by the projects. Taking such an approach will require recognizing that ICT by itself will not improve or increase democracy, equality, social inclusion, or any other social good. Analogous to the experience of foreign aid recipients in the developing world, some service learning projects may actually do more harm than good. The paper concludes by providing some sample computer learning projects that are oriented more strongly towards achieving true service for the recipients.

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Is There Service in Computing Service Learning?

  1. 1. Is There Service in Is There Service inComputing Service Learning? Randy Connolly Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada
  2. 2. My Theme?“Good intentions may do as much harm may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding ” lack understanding.
  3. 3. One of the most heartening developmentsin the educational pedagogyof the 1990s was the( )(re)discovery of service learning y g
  4. 4. service learning is a“ Teaching and learning strategy that g g gy integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, i h h l i i teach civic responsibility, p y, and strengthen communities.”
  5. 5. Service learning hasbeen widely andenthusiastically adopted h i i ll d din the United States.
  6. 6. More than half of all high schools andover 900 higher education institutions inthe United States use service learning intheir curriculum.
  7. 7. In the past decade, a widevariety of service-learning i f i l iexperiments in computingeducation h d ti have b been reported. t d
  8. 8. Purported Benefits?Students are able to “experience a real IT environment,”that they are “able to add this experience to their resumes,”and …
  9. 9. that students can f l d b“feel good about … [their] contribution.contribution.”
  10. 10. What is often under argued under-arguedis the benefit to thecommunity in computingservice learning.
  11. 11. It is typically assumedin bli h di published accounts on computing service learning i i l ithat by providing free laborfor a non-profit organization, p g ,service learning projects areby definition of benefit tothe recipients.
  12. 12. This presentation will providesome critiques of thi stance. iti f this t
  13. 13. Will argue that, analogous tothe experience encountered byforeign aid recipients in thedeveloping world, p gsome service-learningprojects may, despite thebest f ib of intentions, actually i llbe harmful for the recipientsand/or their surroundingcommunity.
  14. 14. Categorizing CategorizingComputing ComputingService Learning
  15. 15. A wide variety of practiceshave been grouped underthe service-learning umbrella
  16. 16. Furco, A. 2002. “Is Service-Learning Really Better than Community Service?”Service-Learning: The Essence of the Pedagogy. g g gy
  17. 17. True service learning, according to Furco’s continuum, is the Furco sattempt to balance the approaches of the other two so thatboth the community recipient and the student provider receiveroughly equal benefits.
  18. 18. So where do most reportedcomputing service learningprograms fall in this continuum?
  19. 19. It is this paper’s contention thatthere is a definite tendencytoward adopting the internshipapproach with its emphasis on pp pstudent learning.
  20. 20. This type of service-learning isreally not that different fromtraditional forms of experientiallearning such as co-ops, work- g p,terms, and real-world capstoneprojects.
  21. 21. Of course there is nothing wrongwith such a student driven student-drivenpurpose.
  22. 22. One of the key hopes motivating the adoptionof service-learning is that the student will gain some type of civic-mindedness through his or her service l i learning experience. i i
  23. 23. Using the terminology of sociology and political science,many advocates of service learninghave argued that it willincrease the social capitalof the participating studentsas well as broaden participation with,and deepen the commitment to thesurrounding civil society.
  24. 24. Most computing service-learning service learningprograms examined for this paperdo attempt to satisfy the civic goalsof service l f i learning b selecting i by l tirecipients within the non-profitsector.
  25. 25. Reported non-profit recipients in thecomputing service learning literatureinclude:schools or other education organizations,governments,charitable organizations,and the developing world.Typical reported service projectsare websites, databases and b it d t b dhardware or software support.
  26. 26. Where, then, do these types of freecomputer consulting projects for non- nonprofit organizations fall on theservice continuum?
  27. 27. Finding the Finding theService in Computing Service S iLearning
  28. 28. The existing computer servicelearning literature appears to havea very strong emphasis on theperceived student benefits.
  29. 29. This is not uncommon
  30. 30. Abes, Jackson, and James found intheir review of the wider servicelearning literature that the mainmotivation for teachers and facultyin d ii adopting service l i learning i the i is hperception that it improves studentlearning.
  31. 31. Maybach observed that“in reality, the current paradigm of service learning is focused of service learning is focusedalmost exclusively on the growth of the individual student providers” id ”and that the“effects of the service provided, however, are very rarely however are very rarelyresearched.”
  32. 32. Butin in his evaluation of K-16service programs more stronglyclaims that i id bl l“there is considerably less “thevidence that service learning has provided much benefit for the provided much benefit for therecipients.”
  33. 33. What about withcomputer servicelearning?
  34. 34. Almost without exception, all thecomputing papers examined in mypaper assume (directly or indirectly) thatby providing free computerconsulting work f non-profit li k for fiorganizations,they are,by definitionproviding a valuable communityservice. i
  35. 35. This is perhaps anunsurprisingassumption
  36. 36. We computingprofessionals andprofessors often makethe assumption that ICT is and hence providingultimately a social good free ICT consulting is by definition a social good as well
  37. 37. This assumption lies at the heart ofthe computing service learningliterature.
  38. 38. It substantially ignores thecomplexities involved in theinterrelationship between computingtechnology and the social world inwhich i i embedded. hi h it is b dd d
  39. 39. In the messy real world, what mightseem beneficial to a profit or non-profit organization might not bebeneficial to all its employees or itsclients.
  40. 40. For instance, what mightseem beneficial to an organizationat time0 might not be so at timeNafter on-going support costs arefactored i the cost-benefitf d into h b fiequation.
  41. 41. The real costs of a website, like with any software , ydevelopment project lienot in its initialdevelopment but in itsongoing maintenance andsupport.
  42. 42. Student-created web sites can alsoshift the agencies limited resources agencies’away from their main organizationalpurpose to instead support andupgrade the new technological d h h l i lsystem.
  43. 43. As Cameron noted, rather“than enhancing the shelter’s ability to service its constituency, the student placements actually th t d t l t t lldrain the organization’s resources.resources.”
  44. 44. Even when the provision of freesoftware to a non-profitorganization benefits theorganization, it might not benefit its h b femployees or its clients.
  45. 45. Reisner describes a service learningproject in which the students createda mobile application to be used byvisitors to an arboretum.While this project may indeed havebeen beneficial to the arboretumand its clients, what was left clientsunexamined was …
  46. 46. … the effect this student serviceproject might have had on thearboretum’s employees or volunteersin that existing tour guidespotentially may h i ll have bbeen made dredundant and unnecessary due tothe new software.
  47. 47. Finally, providing free ICT workmight benefit an organization buthurt the wider community.
  48. 48. Service learning projects thatprovide computing to lessdevelopedde eloped areas …
  49. 49. … may actually undermine localexpertise by depressing local priceconditions and thereby make itdifficult for local startups toeconomically compete against the i ll i hfree SL options.
  50. 50. Interestingly, this is afrequently observedeffect of certain typesof foreign aid aid.
  51. 51. In the 1950s and 1960s, so-calledmodernization theory was thedominant paradigm in internationaleconomics, comparative politicalscience, as well as across a variety i ll iof international organizations suchas the United Nations and theWorld Bank.
  52. 52. Modernization project supportersbelieved that countries in the lessdeveloped world could “catch up catch up”to those in the developed worldthrough the injection of moderntechnology.
  53. 53. Unfortunately modernization theoryended up being a failed project project,both academically and in terms ofreal-world outcomes.
  54. 54. The typical technology injections ofthe 1950s and 1960s tended toreinforce existing power relationsand thereby had little impact onimproving the relative i b li i h l i imbalancebetween the developed and non-developed world.
  55. 55. They failed in short becausesupplying technology is not thesolution to problems of inequality,poverty, i j ti etc. t injustice, t
  56. 56. It is this paper’s contention that whenwe blithely assume that providingfree computer help to non-profitorganizations is by definition asocial and community good, we are i l d i dmaking an analogous error to themodernization planners of the1950s and 1960s.
  57. 57. If we are interested in trulyproviding services that benefit therecipients, the first step towards thatgoal should be the jettisoning of thisbeliefb li f …
  58. 58. …and replacing it with a moresophisticated and contemporarysocial theory, one that recognizesthat technologies exist within aninstitutional d i li i i l and social contextand it is this context that determineshow or if new technologies alterpower relationships and socialstructures.
  59. 59. the method for creating truecomputing service projects is not toinject ICT into non-profitorganizations, but instead tocarefully study the social structures f ll d h i land the relationships within andbetween the organization and itssurrounding social actorsbeforehand.
  60. 60. That is, we need to see how ICT ismight be used to makethe organization,its employees,and its communitymore equitable, just, and sociallyinclusive.
  61. 61. This will require that those setting upcomputer service learning projectsfocus quite a bit less on studentdisciplinary learning outcomesanddfocus quite a bit more on achievingtrue service for all the recipientsocial actors involved in the serviceproject.
  62. 62. Adding True gService
  63. 63. It has been this paper’s contentionthat many of the reported servicelearning projects may perhapsunwittingly not always be beneficialfor i h hf either the service recipient or the i i i hbroader community.
  64. 64. As well, by focusing almostexclusively on disciplinary studentoutcomes, these computing servicelearning projects have not realizedthe potential transformative effect h i l f i ffof service learning.
  65. 65. Robinson notes that service learningprograms that are limited to short- shortterm work in non-profitorganizations provides“poor training for critical citizenship, political reasoning, or citizenship political reasoning orsocial transformation.”
  66. 66. Niemi et al in their evaluation of thepolitical and participatory impact ofhigh school service learning foundthat the hoped-for long-term civicmindedness outcome was only i d d lachieved when service learning wasprefaced with political and socialcontextualization and when theservice work was explicitly tied topolitical or social justice goals. liti l i l j ti l
  67. 67. Various service learning researchersoutside of computing have arguedthat successful service learningprojects need to move beyondservice l i learning as charity and i h i dinstead embrace service learning asjustice.
  68. 68. Such an advocacy orientation might,at first glance, seem too political for glancea computer science course.
  69. 69. Goldweber et al have argued thatcomputing students are very muchmotivated by a desire to benefitsociety and that explicitlyembracing that desire may in reality b i h d i i libe a key way to increaseenrollments in computing disciplines.
  70. 70. Just because we are “only”computing professionals it doesn t professionals, doesn’tmean that such an explicit socialjustice approach cannot be addedto our service l i learning projects. i j
  71. 71. Twenty years ago teaching ethicswas considered the exclusivepurview of philosophy d i f hil h departments t tand yet today almost 90% ofcomputer science programs includecomputing ethics instruction and thatinstruction is li t ti i almost always provided t l id dby computer science faculty.
  72. 72. Simply by prefacing computingservice learning projects withinstruction in the complexitiesbetween technology and societyb t t h l d i tand
  73. 73. by showing how computing can s ow g ow co pu g caimprove or distort power relationsbetween individuals, groups, andinstitutionsthere is a chance
  74. 74. that our students will gain more thanjust disciplinary computing outcomesfrom their service learningexperience.
  75. 75. Similarly
  76. 76. if we are going to make use ofservice learning projects, we, asteachersneed to pay closer attention to thesocial and political outcomes of suchprojects and
  77. 77. perhaps onlyapprove of onesthat are orientedmore explicitly tomaximizing socialjustice for a widerrange of communityactors.
  78. 78. One way that this can beaccomplished is by reversing orintegrating the recipient andprovider roles, an approach thathas been used successfully in someh b d f ll iinnovative service programs.
  79. 79. Rather than treat non-profitorganizations as clients forcomputing consulting, why not, forinstance, have homeless individualsteach our students about the h d b hdifficulties of finding vitalgovernment and charitable servicesin the new internet- and mobile-onlyenvironment when one doesn’t own acell phone or a computer. ll h t
  80. 80. The students could then work withthe homeless to show them how tofind free internet-enabledcomputing and how to use websearch for locating those services services.Alternately, the students could set upthose services via an informationalkiosk in a homeless shelter;the students would also work together with theshelter sshelter’s clients so that they could themselvesoperate the kiosk in the future.
  81. 81. In this type of so called so-calledborder-crossing service-learning project, the studentis i lti simultaneously l l learning ifrom as well as empoweringthe recipient.
  82. 82. Another type of justice-oriented yp jservice project might be one inwhich the student works with peoplewho have become unemployed dueto ICT-enabled outsourcing.
  83. 83. The recipient can teach the studentabout the social reality of ICTadvances, while the student can helpthe recipient by, for instance,together setting up an online h i liresume/portfolio and making use ofonline job boards.
  84. 84. Another example of a border-crossing service project would beone in which students collaboratewith employees working withinenvironments i which the employees i in hi h h lare being electronically monitored.
  85. 85. Once again, students could learnfrom the recipients about thepotentially disciplinary nature of ICTadvances and then help therecipients i setting up encryption i i in i isystems on their personal computerdevices or how to make use of freeonline services that are lessvulnerable to employee monitoring
  86. 86. This last example is of coursepotentially quite controversial sinceemployers have legal, and oftenlegitimate reasons for electronicallymonitoring their employees; i i h i lnonetheless, working with such aluminal case may provide the mostimportant lessons in the civicimplications of real-world computing
  87. 87. Setting up these types of computerservice learning projects would besignificantly more challenging thanthe usual ICT projects for non-profitorganizations. i i
  88. 88. As Mitchell notes, involving studentsin social change projects is moredifficult than traditional internship-style approaches and thatprofessors f
  89. 89. “may need to work outside traditional non profits and traditional non‐profits andcommunity‐based organizations to partner with groups actively working to change systems and ki t h t dstructures.”
  90. 90. Conclusion
  91. 91. It is this paper’s contention thatcomputing service learning has beentoo preoccupied with the students’attainment of disciplinary outcomes.
  92. 92. One of the consequences of thisppreoccupation has been a lack of pcritical awareness of the effect thatcomputing projects have on theirrecipients.recipients
  93. 93. By re-orienting computing servicelearning towards the communityrecipients in a social-justice manner,our students can actually make apositive diff i i difference to their h icommunity as well as transform theirunderstanding of the socialimplications of computing.
  94. 94. Finally, without “an accountability for or an understanding of the for or an understanding of theneeds of the individuals in the urban community, the effects of service‐learning projects may i l i j tindeed be viewed as malevolent by the very individuals whose by the very individuals whoselives the service was intended to enhance, despite the best of intentions.intentions ”
  95. 95. This is an outcome wemust strive to avoid.
  96. 96. Randy ConnollyDept. Computer Science & Information SystemsMount Royal University, Calgary, @