Engaged Citizenship Through e-Service Learning

Kristy C. Verdi

Michael J. Berson

University of South Florida



 Kristy C. Verdi

There is a general consensus that having our children involved in service to their community is a good thing. Communities benefit as volunteers help address important issues and needs. Young people benefit as they build character, gain real-world experience, and avoid the trouble that idle time can often create. Participation in service can also provide students with college scholarship opportunities at a time when other sources are becoming harder to find. Doing service for those in need, quite simply, is good for youth and for our democratic community.


When children engage in service, they build “social capital”, defined by Musick & Wilson (2008) as “the generalized trust and norms of reciprocity that make democratic politics possible” (p. 141). Moreover, research suggests volunteering is very important as young people learn to interrelate with their community and “develop the skills, values, and sense of empowerment necessary to become active citizens” (Corporation for National and Community Service [CNCS], 2005). A list of best practices in civic education was published by Kahne and Middaugh (2008) of what works in civic education. Among the items listed were “learning about community problems and ways to respond” and “working on service learning projects” (Poole, Berson, & Levine, 2011). So who is facilitating youth-led responses to community problems and where do we find opportunities for service-learning projects? If we want active citizens in our democratic society, our state and local systems of education have a duty to increase access to learning opportunities that allow civic engagement and meaningful service-learning.



Michael J. Berson

This article explores the use of a virtual classroom as a means to promote civic education and engagement, and increase opportunities for high quality service-learning to secondary students. Engaged Citizenship through e-Service Learning would allow students to lead in the creation of service opportunities while they meet civic education goals and build leadership skills. Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction, and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. (National Service-Learning Clearinghouse [NSLC], 2011) As a teaching strategy, service learning can be utilized by individual teachers in any classroom. However, restrained by pacing charts, testing preparations, and a lack of service-learning training, many teachers deem it as additional work and employ the strategy on a very limited scale. According to a Learn & Serve America (2008) survey, many schools are likely to place service activities outside of the curriculum and use methods other than service-learning in the classroom when faced with budget constraints and state curriculum requirements (as cited from CNCS, 2011). Principals ultimately depend on overworked teachers to take the reins of extracurricular organizations to plan service opportunities which generally fall short of best practices in service-learning. The NSLC website contains an extensive compilation of research touting the impact service-learning has on student achievement and civic engagement. The issue now is to make service learning available to as many students as possible. 


The Traditional Secondary Service-Learning Class

Some schools have already realized the benefit to establishing a classroom of service-learners. A few model programs are thriving at the secondary level. A service-learning leadership course allows students to build important 21st Century skills, as outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2008), as well as address multiple academic standards and engage in civic responsibilities. A preliminary search for classes around the country produced a few models. These traditional service-learning classrooms could play a vital role in the development of an e-service course framework. These traditional classrooms could also utilize the e-service framework to improve the quality of their traditional classroom structures.

In Florida, there are several service-learning leadership courses at both the middle and high school level. Before the elimination of Florida Learn & Serve in early 2011, service-learning practitioners around the state were able to encourage the Florida Department of Education to approve course codes for middle and high school service-learning courses entitled Engaged Citizenship through Service-Learning. (Florida Learn & Serve, 2011) Some schools are utilizing the curricula while others use course codes related to critical thinking or leadership.

Randall Middle School in Hillsborough County transformed a youth service learning club into the Randall Area Youth Service (R.A.Y.S.) Council class in 2009. According to the 2010 Florida Learn & Serve project database, Miami-Dade’s Killian High School instituted an elective service-learning/leadership class called Cougars Make A Difference. Lake County High School’s Eagle Learn & Serve class is available to area students (Florida Learn & Serve, 2011). In all of these classrooms, the teacher facilitates the opportunity for the students to investigate community needs, plan actions and align curricular benchmarks that could address these needs, complete the service, and then reflect on the experience. These programs have experienced success, some due to the support of their local administrators and others from the district level, however, the recent elimination of K-12 Learn & Serve funding will likely impact all of these programs. These traditional classrooms are only able to accommodate a limited number of students. The teachers all maintain full teaching schedules in their fields of certification which leaves little time for coordinating service-learning projects with multiple students.

In Washington, the Seattle school district has three schools that offer a Global Leadership Class that is identified as, “an innovative approach to High School Social Studies. The class focuses on social and environmental justice through service learning and hands-on leadership skill building”. According to the Highline Public Schools website, these classrooms are designed to make students responsible for their own learning yet accountable to their own classmates. The goal is to prepare the students to be responsible citizens in a global society. (Highline Public Schools, 2011) 

Existing Models of e-Service Learning

While no on-line courses have been identified for secondary students, there are a few courses at the college level that offer insight into many aspects that must be considered when developing a secondary course framework. Almost all of the college courses are clearly designed for connection to a distinct program of collegial study with criteria demonstrating a clear linkage between the service activity and the course content. The focus in the Bemidji State University’s DLiTE (Distributed Learning in Teacher Education) Program is leadership development in pre-service teachers (Sener, 2007). The program links students with a community partner to help the organization address a need while the student explores various leadership styles and skills. The following is an example of how a student conducted a service-learning project: 

“One student contacted the local library, did a needs assessment, and determined that the elementary science tradebooks were not being checked out. She then created a system to "introduce" new books to the local children by creating bulletin boards featuring these stories. The librarian then reported that they couldn't keep the books on the shelves. The success of the student's instruction and the bulletin boards increased the use of the science books by 500 percent in two months. This same student then created a guideline handout for parents, helping them assist children in choosing books and determining the appropriate level of the texts. The library staff estimated that the local community's use of the library escalated dramatically, with 45 percent more books being checked out over the two-month span of the project than in the previous six months combined.”

The course has been favorably received by teachers, students, and partners. According to a case study completed by Sener, several students reported through reflection that the e-service component was their most valuable experience working with children and learning how to use community resources. The study goes on to say “the community partners were pleased that the on-line course prepared the students for service and they were very pleased to have much needed help during a bad economy” (Sener, 2007).

Although the focus of this article is e-Service for secondary students, the college-level courses offer relevant insight into establishing asynchronous service learning for secondary students as well. A University of Central Florida course for service-learning in health-related fields provides a definition of e-Service Learning as “an electronic form of experiential education. It is delivered on-line and uses the Internet and state of the art technologies that permit students, faculty, and community partners to collaborate at a distance in an organized, focused, experiential service learning activity, which simultaneously promotes civic responsibility and meets community needs” (Malvey, Hamby, & Fottler, 2006). According to the Malvey, Hamby, & Fottler report, among the stated advantages of the UCF e-Service course are that it has expanded access for students and the community partners in need. Development of the course also enhanced the potential to standardize service-learning experiences across the curriculum. This could also be an advantage for traditional service-learning classes as a support for teachers willing to take the job but who lack training in service-learning or the time to plan quality learning activities.

A 2005 case study explored a service-learning pedagogy delivered in an online format, specifically describing the way one institution, University of Illinois at Springfield, successfully uses the Internet to provide such instruction. In 2010, Guthrie and McCracken released the study in which a qualitative methodology was used “to identify the philosophical intersection at which multiple pedagogies meet: social justice, service-learning, civic engagement, and leadership as instructed in a web-based environment”. This Guthrie and McCracken study illustrates the capacity for intentionally constructed online educational experiences focused on social justice, civic engagement, and leadership to affect learning and to provide educators with pedagogical best practices to facilitate requisite change in teaching practice. The data indicated that students studying social justice though a combined approach using online classrooms and on-site experiences did indeed report a positive impact on their learning. Specifically, three main themes emerged as having the most impact: learning new concepts or theories about social justice, engaging in critical discourse with peers related to social justice, and participating in opportunities for structured reflection about course materials and activities as well as on-site experiences (Guthrie & McCracken, 2010).

Obstacles & Opportunities: Developing a Secondary e-Service-Learning Course

In making the case for development of an e-Service course for secondary students, there is much to consider. An e-Service course would allow motivated students to independently investigate needs and issues within their community, create a plan for invoking change, and possibly leading other youth into positive action. This course, which may not exist otherwise in the local school, would allow this student and any others that participate to experience civic engagement and efficacy. In states such as Florida, a student in this course might create a community service opportunity for an entire school at a time when students must document service if they hope to qualify for any level of state scholarship funds (Florida Department of Education, 2011). The development of an e-Service Learning course would allow students to develop as leaders in the 21st Century. Furthermore, the course could potentially be available in schools, homes, community centers, public libraries, and in any other location with a wireless connection, making civic engagement available to a diverse population of future citizen leaders.

There are obstacles to overcome. Access to technology and the ability to use it are essential for this course. Students (and their teachers) will need access to much more than a computer. There will need to be an avenue for collaboration through chat rooms, discussion boards, email, or possibly even videoconferencing. The computer must have the capacity and the student must learn how to stream video and host the prescribed learning platform. Finding the right on-line learning platform for this course should not be a challenge. Preliminary explorations of several platforms have indicated that an e-Service Learning class would not be technically different from any other online course.

There are teachers with the training and enthusiasm to lead students in service- learning. There are many more teachers with the technological background to lead students in an on-line environment. The issue will be finding teachers who have both experience in service-learning and working in an asynchronous environment. A primary step in making this course a reality will be preparing teachers as facilitators of the e-Service Learning classroom.

Each student will choose a different path to service so the course framework must be established to accommodate the differences. All students would benefit from introductory activities such as those displayed in Table 1. The student will need to define the community in which they hope to address a need or issue, and developing this definition can be a problem because there could be both a physical and an online community to consider. According to Barab and Duffy (2000), we still have much to learn about online community development and efforts sometimes “end with fragile and even fractured groups communicating intermittently” (Barab, Gray, & Kling, 2004) Each student must be able to identify with an on-line community as a support system as they plan their service-learning project.

The criteria for the secondary e-Service Learning course could easily be drawn from collegial models of e-Service but must remain at once flexible and structured. The course should guide students to address the standards outlined by the Corporation for National and Community Service for best practice in service-learning: to meet a need in the community, participate in meaningful service that involves reciprocity (meaning mutual benefit between course and community that results in students’ increased civic awareness and engagement while also meeting the needs of the agency or organization), involves structured reflection, and involves a collaboration with an appropriate agency representative. Kaye (2010) has outlined stages or steps to implementing successful service-learning projects in her book The Complete Guide to Service-Learning (2nd Edition) that are very useful in structuring a service-learning project. These proposed stages can be aligned with on-line activities to help students as they progress through the course (see Table 2). The demonstration stage will align with culminating activities that can produce final products for student evaluation and assessment as well as measurement of project effectiveness.

At the forefront of consideration, the safety of students must always be of concern. The nature of service-learning will have students engaging in communication with people outside of the safety of the school building. Teachers must carefully monitor student interactions online and verify that student face-to-face interactions are supervised by parents or authorized adults.

Despite the challenges, it is time to consider an asynchronous service-learning course for secondary students that develops leadership capabilities and could potentially create community service opportunities for many other students who need help finding them. Offering a service-learning leadership class as a virtual school course will enable a few students to lead many to become engaged citizens in our democratic society.


Barab, S. A., Gray, J. H., & Kling, R. (2004). Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

The civic mission of schools. (2003). New York, NY: CIRCLE; Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Corporation for National and Community Service. (2008). Office of research and policy development, community service and service-learning in America's schools No. 2011). Washington, DC: Retrieved from http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/08_1112_lsa_prevalence.pdf

Florida Department of Education. (2011). Florida student scholarship and Grants Program. Retrieved November 18, 2011, from http://www.floridastudentfinancialaid.org/ssfad/bf/

Guthrie, K. L., & McCracken, H. (2010). Making a difference online: Facilitating service-learning through distance education. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(3), 153-157. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.02.006

Highline Public Schools. (2010). Academy of citizenship & empowerment: Global connections high school. Retrieved November 18, 2011.

Kahne, J., & Middaugh, E. (2008). High quality civic education: What is it and who gets it? Social Education, 72(1), 34.

Kaye, C. B. (2010). Complete guide to service learning (Second ed.). Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Kirlin, M. (2003). The role of civic skills in fostering civic engagement. No. 6). University of Maryland: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Levine, P. 1. (2007). The future of democracy : Developing the next generation of american citizens / Peter Levine. Medford, Mass. : Hanover: Tufts University Press ; Published by University Press of New England.

Malvey, D. M., Hamby, E. F., & Fottler, M. D. (2006). E-service learning: A pedagogic innovation for healthcare management education. Journal of Health Administration Education, 23(2), 181-182-98.

Musick, M. A., & Wilson, J. (2008). Volunteers: A social profile. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. (2011). National service-learning clearinghouse for learn & serve america. Retrieved November 15, 2011.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011). Overview: Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved October 30, 2011.

Poole, K. D., Berson, M. J., & Levine, P. (2011). On becoming a legislative aide: Enhancing civic engagement through a digital simulation action in teacher education
vol. 32, iss. 4, 2011. Action in Teacher Education, 32(4), 70-71-82. doi:10.1080/01626620.2010.549733

Sener, J., & The Sloan Consortium. (2007). E-service: Creating experiential service learning opportunities for online courses. (Effective Practice Abstract The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/effective_practices/e-service-creating-experiential-service-learning-opportunities-online-courses

Theoretical foundations of service-learning. Retrieved June 29, 2011.

Waldner, L., McGorry, S., & and Widener, M. (2010). Extreme E-service learning (XE-SL): E-service learning in the 100% online course. Creative Commons Attribution.



Table 1

Sample Introductory Modules for e-Service Learning

History of Social Activism and Reform

Planned learning activities that incorporate digital primary and secondary sources about social activist and reform movements and their leaders.

Partners Awaiting Your Leadership

Planned learning activities that require interaction with a database that identifies the history, mission, and contact information for local organizations and agencies that either offer community service opportunities or are seeking assistance for various programs.

Building Character and Establishing Values

Tools to determine individual a student’s system of beliefs and values, and readings that help them put those beliefs and values in perspective before they begin a search for service.

Becoming a 21st Century Learner and Leader

Tools to determine a student’s skills and abilities in communication, leadership, collaboration, and technology. This section would also include access to tutorials to improve skills needed for this course.



Table 2

Steps in Service Learning & Learning Activities

(aligned with Kaye, 2010)


Needs Assessment

Partner Search

Measurement Strategies

Planning & Preparation

Planning a Budget

Grant Search

Project Timeline

Legal Review


Logistics Checklist

Documentation & Forms

On-Site Reflection


Digital Scrapbooking

Video Editing


Demonstration & Celebration


Communication Skills



Photos: All permissions have been granted

Students can contribute to beautification projects on public grounds

Students can organize advocacy campaigns to promote important social issues

Effective environmental clean-ups require planning and preparation


Student leaders can organize creative projects to benefit local non-profit organizations


Many local agencies could use the skills and energy of student leaders. 


Kristy C. Verdi, Doctoral Candidate in Social Science Education at the University of South Florida, is Service-Learning Coordinator/Instructor and Social Studies teacher at Randall Middle School in the School District of Hillsborough County, Florida. Ms. Verdi has initiated sustainable service-learning programs at both the middle school and high school level during her 20 year teaching career. She has presented on service-learning and social studies topics at the Florida and Georgia State Social Studies Conferences and at National Youth Leadership Council Service Learning Conferences. She can be contacted at kverdi@mail.usf.edu

Michael J. Berson, Professor of Social Science Education at the University of South Florida, is director of the USF iteach program and a Senior Fellow in The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. His award-winning courses have been acknowledged for integrating emerging technologies into instruction and modeling dynamic and fluid pedagogy. Dr. Berson has extensively published books, chapters, and journal articles and presented worldwide. His research on child advocacy and technology in social studies education has achieved global recognition. He can be contacted at berson@usf.edu.

Contact Information:

Kristy C. Verdi
Service Learning Coordinator
Randall Middle School
PhD Candidate, 2010 Cohort
Social Science Education
University of South Florida
College of Education
Department of Secondary Education
6006 Merlinwood Drive
Lithia, Florida 33547
Phone: (813) 727-9813
Email: kverdi@mail.usf.edu

Michael J. Berson, Ph.D.
Professor of Social Science Education
Senior Fellow, The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship
University of South Florida
College of Education
Department of Secondary Education
4202 East Fowler Avenue, EDU105
Tampa, Florida 33620 - 5650
Phone: (813) 974-7917
Fax: (813) 974-3837
Skype: mjberson
Email: berson@usf.edu