Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter    2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  8, Issue  4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.


Making a Civic Investment through Technology


Debra S. McDowell, Southwest Missouri State University


Dr. McDowell was the principle coordinator for the “Making a Civic Investment” project at SMSU supported by MCI WorldCom and Campus Compact.



While more individuals and communities are becoming connected to technology and the Internet, a gap still remains.  If communities intend to be competitive, they must develop and cultivate a well-trained workforce to stay viable. This research identified a working model that developed a strong partnership between the university and four community partners to help close the digital divide in a Midwestern metropolitan area.  It was found that a high degree of communication and coordination between the university and the community partners is paramount for success. 



On 16 May 1999 the Making a Civic Investment program was launched.  Funded by MCI WorldCom and coordinated by Campus Compact, this nationwide grant program was a three-year effort (Fall 2000 through Spring 2003) that provided monies to link schools and community based organizations with universities to implement educational technology projects to bridge the digital divide for children in grades K-12.  The goal of the program was to increase the use of technology for educational attainment and civic engagement by preparing children and parents in underserved communities for success in a technology-based world (Campus Compact Making a Civic Investment website, p. 1). 


Research pertaining to service-learning and the digital divide indicates that service-learning engages students in meaningful service and provides learning experiences to enhance classroom teaching (Astin & Sax, 1998).  Research on university student impact shows that service-learning enhances psychological and moral reasoning abilities of students (Boss, 1994; Kuh, Douglas, Lund, & Ramin-Gyurnek, 1994).  Faculties have been found to benefit from involvement in service-learning through the application of theory and knowledge to local problem-solving (Lynton, 1995).  Vernon and Ward (1999) found that communities overwhelmingly have positive perceptions if there is ample coordination and communication with those from the campus with whom they work.  They further described the advantages of having properly trained college students who understand the purpose and expectations of the service initiatives at their agencies because of their enthusiasm, energy, new ideas/perspectives, and their ability to get work done (pp. 33-35).


Concerning technology and service-learning, Gerald Boerner (Campus Compact website) identified using technology as a means of providing the service to the community agency and as a product produced for the community agency.  He emphasizes that these “high tech” services can be provided without decreasing the focus on the “high touch” traditions of service-learning.  Faculties need to listen to agency personnel and identify what skills their students might apply to help define a solution.


Description and Procedures


The Project

Monies from the grant were awarded to Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU) for a project entitled Students as Citizens: Linking Families, Schools, Communities and Universities to Enhance Learning Through Technology.  The University in coordination with the Springfield Public Schools (SPS) and three other community organizations (Founders Park, History Museum, and Public Library) formed a partnership to research the history of Springfield from 1829-1929.  This supplemental study of Missouri history allowed 396 third and fourth graders in five Title I elementary schools over a three year period to pilot curriculum that accessed historical archives via a website and traditional resources in after-school computer clubs.  A total of 130 university service-learning (SL) students assisted five elementary school site coordinators over the three years by their presence at the club locations. The computer clubs met one night a week for two hours at each school for eight weeks each semester, i.e., a total of sixteen sessions per academic year.  The curriculum and prototype resource websites developed by history and computer science students, professors, and two curriculum writers helped expand the capabilities of the Internet by being a resource of information for elementary teachers, students and the larger community. 


Site Coordinators in the five pilot schools recruited children in the third and fourth grades.  Because there were 20 computers in each of the elementary schools, space was limited to 20 students per school or a maximum of 100 students per semester.  Site Coordinators recruited students through class presentations and information brochures that were sent home with the children.  The first twenty students to return signed parental permission forms had the opportunity to participate in the after-school computer clubs. 


Goals of the Project

Project goals included (1) provide a service-learning experience for university students focused on community outreaching; (2) provide experiential learning opportunities for low income students focused on the applications of the computer and Internet in learning more about Springfield/Missouri history; (3) provide an opportunity for parents and students to work cooperatively on computer projects; and (4) enhance the community’s understanding of the history of Springfield through historical websites and a community production.  The objective of goal one focused on the collaboration of university and elementary students with the public school site coordinators.  Goal two focused on increasing student knowledge through the use of the computer as a learning tool.  It included increasing student engagement in history research via the Internet while also utilizing other traditional community resources such as books, museums, and public authorities.  Goal three encouraged collaboration among university students and faculty with public school parents, students, and teachers researching Springfield/Missouri history via Internet access during the computer club sessions.  Goal four promoted the development of a community history website and five elementary school websites.  It also allowed people engaged in the project to share their knowledge of Springfield history through a historical reenactment stage production at Founders Park for the larger community by the end of the first academic year.


Documentation Procedures

Curriculum was developed in accordance with Missouri and national social studies standards promote citizenship, multiculturalism, current events, history, geography, economics, and government.  Theme I of the Springfield history curriculum compared the past to the present.  Issues of student exploration included settlement, Native Americans, slavery, communication, transportation, family life, clothing, daily life and economic system for the time periods.  Theme II of the curriculum included community life, county/town government, and economic structures.  Documentation of elementary student learning included attendance logs, drawings, journal writings, photographs, student’s notes from field trips, student/parent show-and-tell interactions, and computer activities at the school sites.  More concrete data was collected through pre- and post-evaluation of student history knowledge, anecdotal remarks, and projects of students linked to school and the Springfield history websites.  The pre-survey documenting the children’s basic knowledge of Springfield history was administered at the first meeting of each of the five after-school computer clubs.  At the end of each eight-week session, a post survey asking the same questions was administered to document what history knowledge was retained as a result of the children’s Internet research and club interactions.  A pre-and post-computer survey was also administered to identify knowledge of the computer and its functions. The computer surveys were administered at the beginning and end of the eight-week computer club sessions to test knowledge of the parts of the computer and computer programs, i.e., word processing, editing, and spell check. 


Civic learning outcomes of service-learning students were documented through personal interviews, reflection journals, synthesis papers, and the historic biographical website postings at  Websites created by computer science and history students expanded the opportunities for elementary teachers, students, and families to access teaching aids, curriculum, and Internet resources.  A five-point Likert Scale assessment tool was completed at the end of each semester to determine the degree of personal satisfaction in the skills and experiences gained by participating in the computer project. 


Parents of the elementary students previously had not been involved in their child’s education.  This project allowed the parents and/or grandparents to assist site coordinators during the computer club session and participate in field trips.  For those who did not or could not (because of a negative background check) participate in club activities, an open house celebration at the end of each 8-week session allowed for intergenerational interactions.  Parents/caregivers were surveyed before the semester began and then again at the end of each semester to determine their knowledge and understanding of the computer and the Internet as a result of working with their children.  Focus Group interviews of community partners, site coordinators, and parent/caregivers also were conducted to collect data on project impact.




Through site coordinator assessments, it was found that student computer skills for both the university and elementary students were enhanced.  All children accomplished Internet resource retrieval from the Springfield history websites created by the university students.  All elementary students demonstrated responsible computer usage of word processing programs and staying on task and not straying to websites that were not a part of the history initiative. 


Pre- and post-surveys of the elementary student knowledge of Springfield history indicated that the combined efforts of one-on-one computer experience with the enhancement of field trips to historical sites helped students remember facts.  The elementary student’s journals provided insights into their ability to process what they learned and demonstrated an internalization of facts.  Drawings, short stories written about Springfield, and re-enactment experiences further provided evidence of their learning.  Post-test findings by the third year indicated that the children retained 90% of the curriculum information.  This increased by 6% from pre-test results.


Pre- and post-testing of the elementary students indicated that 50% of the children were able to scan pictures into a computer, open and use more than one program, conduct file management through saving documents created on the computer, and use word processing software to create/edit writing assignments at the end of one year.  By the third year, pre- and post-testing of the students indicated that 77.5% of the children were able to open and use more than one program, conduct file management, and utilize word processing software. These results rose 15% over the student’s pre-test evaluations.


A positive outcome of the after-school project was the change in the elementary student’s behavior at school so as not to be excluded from the program.  Absenteeism declined 25 % and completion of homework rose 50% for those students who were part of the computer clubs.   


In the elementary student’s words:

“Computer Club is fun!  I liked going on the field trip to the History Museum, getting on the Internet and being with my friends.”  -- Stuart


“Computer Club is educational.  I like getting to work with computers, going on line, and learning about the inside of a computer.  I liked learning how to scan things.”  -- Charlie


“I liked dressing up at the History Museum and looking for the historical markers on our field trip.”  -- Jessie


All SL students indicated in their journals that writing historical biographies and publishing them on the websites had enhanced their personal portfolios.  A 5-point Likert assessment tool administered at the end of each semester revealed a high level of satisfaction with the project.  The Likert Scale measured the degree of personal learning and skills that the students believed they had gained as a result of their service-learning experience.  A 5 indicated high satisfaction and a 1 indicated low satisfaction with 4.5 being the average score of all SL students.


In the words of one of the history students:

“Writing the biographies was a very interesting and actually fun project.  Being able to see and sift through documents on history that I was not at all familiar with was interesting.    The service-learning project has been a good add-on to my other course work.  The service-learning project . . . was a great experience for me as an education major in the history department.    Participating in service-learning is a very good idea for anyone who is going to be going into teaching.  It helps you to get some hands-on experience in the field, which is very valuable.    This project also helped me to understand just how much of an impact a person can make on a group of young kids by simply visiting them once a week for a couple of months.  The students began to expect my visits to the classroom and seemed really excited whenever I walked in the door.  It was a fun experience that definitely helped reinforce my decision to be a teacher.”     -- Justin Minard


Interviews revealed that parents, community partners, and site coordinators preferred working with the children in the computer club context.  Parent-child relationships were enhanced for those who participated during each eight-week period.  Communication between parents and elementary students improved through the active participation with the children.  Site celebrations were an excellent way to bring all constituents together and engage the students in learning activities and interaction with the larger community.


Sustainability of the Project

The piloted curriculum was written into the Springfield Public Schools (SPS) elementary history curriculum.  This curriculum meets Missouri Show-Me Standards and can be used by other educators in the school system by accessing the curriculum on the history websites.


The history websites were created by computer science and history service-learning students.  These websites contain curriculum and a variety of references on local history including biographies of past citizens and histories of important landmarks and buildings.  Accessibility to Springfield history curriculum is found at and


Site coordinators and curriculum writers saw a change in the elementary students involved in the computer clubs.  Their personal understanding of Springfield history and the Internet increased because of the historical research they conducted in developing the curriculum.  In the words of one of the curriculum writers:


“In writing the curriculum for the grant, I have become more aware of what the Internet has to offer.  I am using the Internet as a source in other subject matter.  The opportunities for children are remarkable!”  -- Jamie Quirk


Implications and Conclusions


The Title I elementary students for this project were identified as at-risk and low-income. They needed a sense of history because their families moved frequently and did not have a knowledge or understanding of the history of the greater Springfield community. The SL students received a sense of the community beyond the academic world.  The project provided the university students the opportunity to apply their computer and history.  The SL students could network and develop contacts for future employment in the public school system as well as in the agencies and organizations involved in the project.  The computer aspect of the project also gave both the children and the SL students’ extensive one-on-one experience with technology that could not have been received through other means.


Several conclusions can be made from this study: (1) At-risk children learn computer skills and build confidence best when in a safe and supportive environment.  (2) Student learning of historical concepts and computer skills improves as a result of the support of responsible adults in the lives of children.  The computer clubs provided an environment that allowed students, parents, and community based organizations to work toward a common goal.  (3) There is power in partnerships between campuses and communities.  When the campus and community are equal partners and engaged in social change, the elementary learning of students was enhanced.  Through clear communication and coordination by project coordinators, the closing of the digital divide for elementary students was possible.  This research further supports the impact of service-learning bringing about social change as identified by Morton (1995), Rhodes (1997), and Vernon & Ward (1999).



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