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Online Service-Learning: Exercises for Students

Exercises that Establish a Sense of Place and Create Connection

The following 3 exercises are designed to help students in online service-learning courses develop a sense of place and prepare them for responsible service. Working to create a sense of place, despite being in a virtual environment, “can increase the likelihood that students will enhance their sense of belonging to particular geographic locations; it can also encourage active participation in the stewardship and care of localities and their inhabitants” (Sandy & Franco, 2014, p. 222).

Tip: For more information on getting started with online service-learning, see our “Online Service-Learning in Nutshell” resource.

Exercises 1, 2 & 3

This exercise can be completed for any type of service-learning course, whether it is face-to-face, online, or hybrid. The first set of questions will help familiarize students with the organization(s) they are serving. The second set of questions are reflective and will allow you to gauge the amount of knowledge students bring with them to the course. This may help guide your readings or course discussion topics.

Tip: Have students answer the second set of questions again at the end of the semester to see how their understanding of the community has changed.

Exercise Title: Getting to Know Your Service Organization

This assignment is designed to familiarize you with your service organization. It will first require you to use the internet to do research and then ask you to take time for reflection without using the internet.

Begin by spending some time on your organization’s website. If your organization does not have a website or the website is limited, use your preferred search engine to find reliable sources of additional information about your organization. Then answer the following questions. Make sure to cite your sources and use quotation marks where appropriate.

  1. What is the name of your organization?
  2. What is the organization’s official mission or vision and which of their activities or services seem to serve it most directly?
  3. How would you characterize the size of the organization? (How many employees? Locations? People served? Etc.)
  4. What community does this organization serve? And what need in this community is this organization addressing?


For the following questions, answer based on your current knowledge and experience. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, and you should not use the internet to inform your answers.

  1. Have you had any direct interactions with members of the community this organizations serves? Describe those interactions.
  2. What do you know about this community?
  3. What assumptions do you have about this community?
  4. What would you like to learn about this community? What do you need to learn about this community to complete your project and to perform responsible service?
  5. Why is the work of this organization important?
  6. How does this organization, this community, or the work you’re planning to do with this community connect with the person you want to be in the future? (Your answer may be career related but it does not have to be)

This next exercise is helpful for service-learning courses where students will complete their service without going to the service site or for students preparing to travel outside of their own community for service-learning such as international service-learning trips or alternative breaks embedded into courses. By preparing ahead of time, students participating in the latter will have more familiarity with the area once they arrive and can be more readily productive.

 Tip: To ensure students have the technical skills to complete this experience, consider modeling this activity for them through a voiceover recording where you walk through how to use Google Maps. Additionally, to increase accessibility for students, use Google’s guide to accessibility.

Exercise Title: The Virtual Field Trip

For this assignment you will get to know more about your organization based on its location. You will need to use Google Maps ( to take yourself on a virtual field trip. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with your organization and the community in which it resides before you begin your service there.

Begin by going to Google Maps and entering the address of your organization. Use the Street View and the Search Nearby functions to answer the following questions.

  1. Use the street view to see the location of your organization, and then describe the building where your organization is located. If street view is unavailable, use other features such as the satellite view, photos in Google Maps or a search in Google images.
  2. Use the street view features to navigate around the area or use the satellite view. Describe the neighborhood around your building (Is it residential or commercial? Located on a busy street, a side street? In a large city, downtown? New construction? Lots of vacant buildings? Clean? Dirty? etc.).
  3. Use the street view or search nearby. What businesses are located near this organization?
  4. Use the search nearby and type in “restaurants.” What kinds of restaurants are in the neighborhood?
  5. Choose a restaurant that looks like one you would actually choose to patronize. What restaurant did you choose? Why? Check out their menu. If you worked at your organization on-site and went to this restaurant for lunch, what would you order?
  6. Use the search nearby and type in “grocery store.” How many grocery stores are within 1 mile? How far away is the closest grocery store?
  7. Using the information you’ve collected above, what do you think you have learned about the location of your organization? What assumptions might you make about the organization based on the information that you’ve gathered? How might you confirm or challenge those assumptions?
  8. Choose one of your assumptions and use the internet to confirm or correct it. Report what you find.


Optional Assignment Add-on: Consider creating a Google My Maps and have students add their service organizations to the map and/or other points of interest that they discovered through this exercise. This works especially well for students serving at different locations.

This final exercise helps students connect with the community they are serving by inviting members of that community into your “classroom.” If you are working with a single service organization, work with them to identify community members who would be willing to attend a Zoom class and answer questions from students. Alternatively, consider submitting questions to the service partner and have them record community members answering them. If students are serving at a variety of organizations, guide them in how to ask their service partner to set up an interview with a community member. After completing the exercise, have students respond to the following reflection prompts.

Tip: Take time before the interviews to develop cultural competency with your students and discuss appropriate interview conduct. Consider pre-screening any questions students plan to ask.

Exercise Title: Meet the Community

After you have completed the community interviews, take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned as you answer the following questions.

  1. What surprised you most about the interview(s)?
  2. What information did you learn that you did not previously know?
  3. Has your perception of this community changed? How so?
  4. How has meeting member(s) of this community affected the way you plan to approach your service?
  5. What questions do you still have about this community? What do you feel you still need to learn before beginning your service?



Sandy, M., & Franco, Z. (2014). Grounding Service Learning in the Digital Age: Exploring a virtual sense of geographic place through online collaborative mapping and mixed media. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 18(4), 201-232).