Teaching the digital divide: connecting students to community, knowledge, and service learning.

Author:Marrall, Rebecca M.

Service Learning & The LIS Profession

Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles' classic, the 1999 text Where's the Learning in Service Learning?, was a critical turning point in the national conversation about service learning (commonly abbreviated as SL) in academia. The authors reported that incorporation of service learning activities into university classrooms had resulted in higher levels of compassion for others; greater respect for diversity; and a stronger commitment to citizenship (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Reviewing the literature outside the field of library and information science reveals similar themes, the first of which is that service learning endeavors addresses the noted decline of national civic engagement among youth in the United States (Barber, 1992; Bennett, 1997; Hildreth, 2006). Another common message is that service learning activities in academia creates reciprocal relationships between the university and the community, which reduces the perceived gap between the "ivory tower" and the surrounding region (Blouin and Perry, 2009; Lewis, 2004).

Within the field of library and information science, academic librarians have also incorporated service learning activities into their curriculum. The existing literature shows that since former ALA President Nancy Kranich called for higher engagement of SL in the profession, librarians have certainly heeded the call. In their article on training LIS students in service learning during their graduate program, authors Cuban and Hayes argued that SL combined theory with practice by highlighting the complexities of teaching information literacy to adult learners (2001). And in his article "Where's the Library in Service Learning?" author John S. Riddle comments on the relative scarcity of service learning opportunities in academic library settings until after Kranich's call for engaged library instruction and stronger connections to community organizations through her presidency goals. Riddle concludes that when academic librarians engage in service learning-related instruction, they increase their own academic and professional relevance, stress the importance of civic education to their students, and contribute significantly to pedagogy (2003).

In Lynn Westney's 2006 article, "Conspicuous by Their Absence," the author provides an overview of service learning in the field of library and information science, operating on the clear distinction between service learning--educational service through which both students and community partners benefit--and volunteer service, which is service primarily for the benefit of a community organization. Westney cites several examples of public libraries that have successfully partnered with community and/or nonprofit organizations, and maintains that if academic librarians want to remain relevant to their surrounding community they would benefit from incorporating service learning principles into their work (2006). Countless scholars have since echoed these conclusions for projects that have occurred in academic libraries: Meyer & Miller's 2008 article "The Library as Service Learning Partner" cited the successful service learning project where students conducted RefWorks workshops, which resulted in better understanding by students of academic libraries and scholarly communication. Nutefall's 2011 article discusses the importance of service learning in academic libraries for engaging collegiate students, and for increasing the relevance of library services to both the host institution and the surrounding community.

The professional and scholarly conversation continued on in Nancy Herther's article "Service Learning and Engagement in the Academic Library," where she defines service learning as a combination of community service and traditional classroom curriculum. Herther cites statistical data on incoming college and university students, which demonstrates high exposure to service learning opportunities throughout their K-12 school experience. While service learning is means more work and effort for instructors, Herther maintains that service learning in an academic library setting provides a rich and unique experience because students are required to go beyond the traditional needs of classroom curricula. In short, they must define their own information needs, manage time obligations to community partner, and must demonstrate an overall greater level of responsibility (2008). Lastly, Mary Ball's 2008 article "Practicums and Service Learning in LIS education" called for increased service learning opportunities in LIS graduate education, and after citing a thorough overview of the development of service learning curricula, argued that students benefit greatly from experiential education.

The Digital Divide & The Academy

The concept of a digital divide began appearing in the mid-1980s, and described a gap between certain demographics with regards to access to computer and information technology (Mossberger 2007). As the World Wide Web has evolved from a Web 1.0 paradigm in the 1990s to a nascent Web 3.0 worldview, the definition of the Digital Divide has evolved correspondingly. Now in 2013, the Digital Divide doesn't just address the lack of physical access to computer and information technology but also describes a discrepancy of technological and information-related skill sets between demographic throughout the United States (and the globe) (Kaplinsky 2005). This phenomenon, subsequently, impacts cultural, economic, and personal participation for individuals within these groups on the Web (Shelley et al 2004). Furthermore, individuals from these groups who have historically experience reduced access to technology, and may now have a desktop or smartphone, are how facing reduced skills in information literacy (Mossberger 2007).

In addition to examining the importance of service learning in the profession, in LIS education and in practice, it is necessary--for the purposes of this article--to examine efforts around teaching the Digital Divide phenomenon in collegiate settings. Here, the literature yields very mixed results, as there exist both scholarly assessments and practical projects but both in limited numbers. The former can be found in articles such as Patricia Overall's work, "The Effect of Service Learning...

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