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Integrating service-learning in the new Information and Society course at Seattle Pacific University

Posted on Monday, December 6th, 2021


Today's guest post is co-authored by Kristen Hoffman and Liz Gruchala-Gilbert. Kristen is the Psychology and Scholarly Communications Librarian, and Liz is the College of Arts and Sciences Librarian.

Sometimes an idea hits you like a bolt of lightning and what seemed like unconnected thoughts come together to make a dynamic, energized plan. That’s exactly what happened to Kristen after attending the Colloquium on Libraries and Service-Learning in 2017. At the airport preparing to fly home, she suddenly realized that service-learning (S-L) would fit perfectly into the new Information and Society class (INF 3500) she and a colleague were creating at Seattle Pacific University (SPU). When Liz later came on board to co-teach the class, she whole-heartedly agreed that adding an S-L component made perfect sense even though she was still learning all the ins and outs of S-L pedagogy. Ultimately, we created a well-integrated, meaningful experience that benefited both students and the City of Seattle – a 5-credit course using S-L  as a framework to understand the ways in which digital equity (or lack thereof) affects those living in the Seattle area. Students partnered with the City of Seattle and Seattle’s Community Technology Advisory Board (CTAB) and reviewed applications for Technology Matching Fund Grants. Each grant of up to $25,000 provides funding for local non-profit organizations to complete digital equity projects related to internet connectivity, technology access, and/or skills training. 

The SPU Library’s Information Studies Minor explores the intersection of our lives with information and technology. One of the three main courses in the minor is mainly theoretical; another, internally-focused and personally practical. The third, our INF 3500 course, is centered around the history, systems, and structures that lead to information inequality and inequity. Altering this course into an externally-focused experience for our students would balance out the three core courses in the minor and provide a practical learning environment for them. We wanted S-L to be the foundational to understanding the concepts of the course. As we teach at a faith-based institution, one of our overarching goals is to connect learning and faith in our local context. Service-learning would enable us to do just that – to engage with our city and partner with those working toward equity.

When first planning the class, we looked to see what, if anything, the City of Seattle was doing regarding digital equity. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that it has been a leader in this area and is committed to digital equity. We added course content into INF 3500 that asked students to explore the results of a community technology survey as well as the city’s digital equity strategic plans. We wanted the S-L experience to connect to this very important work of the city. Liz knew someone working on the digital equity initiatives who offered some great suggestions for S-L projects. After considering several options, the project most appealing to us was the Technology Matching Fund Grant. 

We felt the timeline, format, and accessibility of the work involved suited our needs and the city’s needs. The grant process timeline overlapped with our 10-week term. As a result, our students participated in each step of the project, from orientation to funding allocation. In addition, most of the service work could be completed remotely, and at the student’s own pace. Students attended (either in-person or online) the monthly meetings of CTAB, which partners with Seattle IT on this grant process, and the all-reviewer meeting at the end of the process. As we considered transportation and accessibility needs for our students, this project was ideal.

We worked backward from the approximate date of the final grant application reviewing meeting and determined deadlines for students to complete the grant scoring and other course assignments. We also mapped all activities to our program, course-specific, and S-L outcomes. 

Because reflection is a core component of any S-L project (Eyler & Giles, 1999), we designed critical reflection essays to allow students to document their service and learning. We assigned a total of six essay: one after the initial orientation with the city grant lead, three during the grant scoring process, another after attending the all-reviewer meeting, and one reflecting on the entire S-L experience. 

We asked students to follow Ash and Clayton’s DEAL model, which stands for Describe, Examine, and Articulate Learning (2009). Students described the service experience: what they did, where it took place, how long it was, who was there, etc. Next, we asked them to examine the experience through six or seven prompting questions, such as:

  • “What surprised you about the experience?”
  • “How was the experience similar to or different from your previous service this quarter?”
  • “In what ways do the readings, discussion, or other class activities relate to the service?”

Finally, we asked students to describe what they learned, when they realized they learned it, why the learning mattered, and what they would change in the future in light of this learning.

In addition to these essays, we assigned other readings, films, and assignments related to more information and society topics, including the cultural role of information in history, information and technology, information inequity, and future trends in information. We scheduled these assignments primarily to the weeks when the service expectations would be less intense. These assignments, while supplementary to the service, provided rich theoretical and foundational knowledge from which students could draw while writing their reflection essays.

We began the teaching term with a well-formed plan in place. The first step of the S-L process for the students was attending an in-class orientation to the grant review process offered by the city grant lead. They invited students to consider their own biases and to be aware of those tendencies while scoring applications which is a foundational step in this work that aims to further equity, diversity, and inclusion. We assigned each student about 18 grant applications to grade against a rubric and recommended that they review 2-3 applications one week, 6-7 each of the next two weeks, and the remaining applications the week after, so as to submit all their scores online by the deadline. Once all reviewers submitted their scores, they met in person for more than three hours to select finalists and allocate funding.

Throughout the process, we navigated multiple challenges, not the least of which was the time commitment involved in creating the course and learning about S-L pedagogy and best practices. Kristen participated in a faculty community of practice around S-L the previous year and attended the colloquium, which gave us basic knowledge to get started. From there, we invested extensive time into course planning and connecting with the city. We attended some of the City of Seattle CTAB meetings in the months prior to teaching, and continued attending them with the students during the course. We also volunteered for a digital equity subcommittee whose purpose it was to analyze the technology survey. 

Another challenge was the time commitment we expected of the students and the need to be flexible with our course plan. While we anticipated that students would take approximately 15-20 minutes to review each grant application, from their feedback we learned that it took at least 25 minutes on average. We expected the final meeting to be 2-3 hours in person, and it lasted more than 3 ½ hours. Based on that feedback, we assigned fewer essays in subsequent quarters, which also allowed us to expect deeper reflection from students in the “Articulate Learning” section of each essay. We volunteered as grant reviewers the next year since INF 3500 was not being offered and we wanted to maintain our community partnership with the city. As we scored applications, our understanding of what students had experienced deepened, and we further refined course expectations. 

We experienced an additional challenge when the city changed their grant application timeline to overlap with our Winter quarter classes (rather than Spring). we moved our course to a new term. If we had not been able to do so, we would have needed to find a new project (or multiple project options, perhaps from one of the grant awardees), and revised all our essay prompts to align with the new project. 

Even through the challenges, students viewed the project favorably. They admitted that it was a lot of work and took them longer to complete than expected, but they valued having the opportunity to make a real, positive contribution to digital equity in our city. Scoring the grant applications and working with the team of community members to allocate funding empowered them, allowing them to be civically engaged in the work of local government.  In reading through and scoring the applications, students learned about local ongoing digital equity efforts and the organizations and populations working to address these challenges in their communities. Students identified elements of well-crafted grant proposals and learned to both question and trust their own judgement in scoring them. And they partnered with city staff and employees of major companies in the area, who all volunteered together on this project. Our students recognized that they were viewed as a welcome and vital part of a team. Their unique voice and perspective, as undergraduate students, was beneficial to increasing the diversity of the team. Because of this project, one student plans to volunteer with one of the organizations that had applied for a grant. Another student volunteered on this grant-scoring committee after she graduated. 

For those teaching information-related courses, service-learning is a powerful learning modality, connecting class learning to engagement in the local community. This type of service-learning project is not for the faint of heart, as the time and planning involved can be intense. We still attend monthly CTAB meetings throughout the year as we’re able, which is a commitment not only to our course, but to the ongoing digital equity work of the city. And during seasons of low enrollment when our course might be cancelled for the year, we would consider serving again in this capacity, not only to keep consistency with providing reviewers for this project, but also because the work has deep meaning for us now. Our students learned about digital equity because they saw it firsthand, and they partnered with others doing this work. Our students changed. And so have we. 


Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25–48.

Eyler, J., & Giles, D. (1999). Where's the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Author Bios

Kristen Hoffman is the Psychology and Scholarly Communications Librarian, which includes being the liaison to the four departments in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community and leading the library's scholarly communication program and institutional repository. With Liz Gruchala-Gilbert, she co-teaches INF 3500: Information and Society.

Liz Gruchala-Gilbert is the liaison librarian for seven departments in the College of Arts and Sciences at SPU, focusing on the Arts & Humanities plus Family & Consumer Sciences. An Associate Professor, she teaches University Colloquium (a first year seminar class) and INF 3500: Information & Society. Additionally, Liz is the Lead for the library’s Instruction Program, Co-founded and Co-coordinates the Research, Reading, & Writing Studio, and serves on the University-wide Curriculum Committee.