Does Community Engagement Have a Place in a Placeless University?

By Dan W. Butin

NEJHE on Models that Will Change Higher Ed Forever

It will be truly ironic if the most impersonal technology of all ends up saving the most personal kind of teaching and learning in higher education.

I speak about the dramatic rise of online learning and MOOCs. Everyone, it seems, is talking about and questioning the relevance and “value proposition” of higher education. From Thomas Friedman’s exuberant op-eds to President Obama’s suggestion in his State of the Union address to rethink accreditation from the ground up, the question of the future of the university is upon us.

These are not idle speculations of the twittering class. A bill currently in front of the California Legislature proposes that the 50 most oversubscribed lower-division courses across the state’s entire higher education system be made available online through MOOCs for college credit. Similarly, the State University of New York Board of Trustees has just endorsed “Open SUNY,” a major initiative to expand enrollment by up to one 100,000 students through a combination of online learning opportunities and prior-learning assessments. The disruption of higher education is here and our traditional models of teaching and learning have forevermore been shattered.

It makes this disruptive moment that much more unexpected. For even as I embrace certain aspects of this technological transformation, I would argue that it is a perfect time (or maybe just a last-ditch opportunity?) to make the case for place-based community-engaged learning. The global reach of MOOCs, I want to suggest, may actually help us reconnect with our local communities.

Let me explain.

I have long argued that we have reached an “engagement ceiling” in higher education. For all the community service hours, glossy pictures of neighborhood revitalization and anecdotal success stories, college and university engagement with their communities is too often shallow and ephemeral. There is little that is sustained or meaningful to our students, faculty or community partners. There is, put simply, a vast gap between the rhetoric of what we say and the reality of what we do regarding community engagement.

This is a shame. Community engagement—which I take as an umbrella term for the multiplicity of practices and philosophies such as service-learning, participatory action research, civic learning, democratic engagement, and community-based teaching and learning—can be an incredibly powerful mode of linking theory to practice and campuses with their local communities.

It is one of the few “high-impact” practices that the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has shown to substantially affect student learning and retention. Indeed, research has found service-learning to have statistically significant positive impacts across multiple social, cognitive, and cultural domains. Moreover, national data on faculty attitudes coming out of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show that close to 90% of all faculty believe that “colleges and universities have a responsibility to work with their surrounding communities to address local issues.”

David Scobey, executive dean of the New School for Public Engagement, has suggested we are at a “Copernican Moment” in the civic engagement field, and nowhere is this more eloquently articulated than in the Crucible Moment, a report put out last year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education, which argues that higher education must “embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed priority … where education for democracy and civic responsibility is pervasive, not partial; central, not peripheral.”

The problem, though, is that we have heard this rhetoric for too long. We can look to Ernest Boyer’s clarion call a generation ago for a “scholarship of engagement,” or further back to the turn of the 20th century to the University of Wisconsin’s articulation of the “Wisconsin idea” that the “boundaries of the university should be the boundaries of the state,” or even further back to the Morrill Act of 1862, which formed land-grant universities.

But what we see is that lasting and meaningful successes have been few and far between. Twenty years ago, an AASC&U report put it bluntly: “While the idea of public engagement is frequently embraced by college and university presidents, there is considerable evidence that deep engagement is rare—there is more smoke than fire, more rhetoric than reality.” Just a few years ago, a white paper sponsored by the Kettering Foundation reported a very similar phenomenon:  that there was a “sense of drift and stalled momentum” in the civic engagement movement because of “imprecise and even conflicting language,” a “highly fragmented and compartmentalized” set of networks, and a “remarkably apolitical” civic agenda.

The data, unfortunately, confirm this state of affairs. I have begun calling this the “ten percent engagement ceiling,” as only about 10% or so of faculty appear to use any type of experiential field-based learning and less than 10% of students report taking a service-learning course. As researchers at Siena College’s Siena Research Institute starkly put it regarding data from their National Assessment of Service and Community Engagement (NASCE) surveys, “NASCE shows that in many areas, little service is done and few students are deeply engaged.”

So what we have is a deeply embedded and seemingly dysfunctional pattern: We demand transformation in how we bridge town-gown divisions, foster community revitalization, and emphasize civic and democratic engagement; and then we go back to business as usual until the next rhetorical cycle.

Until now.

For all of a sudden, there is no more business as usual. Online education in California and New York, and everywhere else for that matter, is quickly becoming the norm for an increasingly substantial number of postsecondary students. There is no longer any surety, no guarantee, that there will be a place for place-based learning.

So where does that leave us? Does online learning undermine the raison d’être of community-based models of teaching, learning and research? Can face-to-face engagement with local communities survive, much less have resonance, in an automated, machine-driven, web-based pedagogical environment? Does the civic have a place in a placeless world?


Perhaps, because suddenly, we have to figure out what community voice looks like in a networked and too-often anonymous learning environment. Perhaps, because we now have to rethink what community impact means and looks like when the “community” may be global and distributed. Perhaps, because we now have to recalibrate and rearticulate what social justice means. Perhaps, because notions of respect, relevance and reciprocity—foundational to the community engagement field—have become unmoored from the locations we thought them to inhabit.

Put otherwise, this disruptive MOOC-driven moment is forcing us—and helping us—to disrupt our own deeply engrained patterns of how we view and enact community engagement.

This is exciting stuff. The community engagement field has been in a slow spiral of diminishing returns in exhorting the next generation of students, faculty and higher education leaders to embrace civic learning and practices. Service-learning had begun to feel like one of those “been there, done that” experiences for students and faculty committed to a better world.

But now, faster than you can register for “Democratic Development” on Coursera’s platform, the world has changed. For the world can now register for that course. And according to the course description, the instructor hopes that “students in developing or prospective democracies will use the theories, ideas and lessons in the class to help build or improve democracy in their own countries.”

Wow. Imagine 10,000, 100,000, a million, students taking such a course. And then changing their local and global communities.

Or perhaps not. For as we have begun to discover, the vast majority of such MOOC registrants never make it past the first week and only about 10% end up finishing the course. What is thus truly unknown, and what we must figure out, is how we come to think about and enact community engagement both within and against the coming online transformation.

This is the state of community engagement in the disrupted university. It is a precipitous moment where traditional models and norms no longer apply so easily or thoroughly. In some cases, there are immense opportunities to be gained as faculty discover how to make their work public and bring the public into their work. In other cases, there are immense opportunities to be lost as marginalized populations and communities become ever more disenfranchised from the institutions just blocks away, yet gigabytes apart.

This moment is an opportunity that could lead us to new and better means and modes of engaging and improving our communities. Or it is a moment just before the civic engagement bubble bursts. Or maybe even both.

In the end, MOOCs may save us. Or not. But at least they have given us the opportunity to figure it out.

Dan W. Butin is an associate professor and founding dean of the school of education at Merrimack College and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.


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