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Designing Community Service Learning (CSL) for complex issues

Community service learning (CSL) initiatives are developed to address societal issues that range from simple to complex problems. Complex issues don’t have clear-cut solutions and involve many stakeholders with different values and priorities. This module provides examples of different approaches and models adapted by VU Amsterdam to address such complex issues in CSL.

In Community Service Learning (CSL), students use their academic skills to contribute to societal issues. This happens in close cooperation and interaction with a community partner. However, not all societal issues are created the same. On the one hand, some issues are less complex. For instance, if a community partner is seeking advice on a suitable business for an online platform, then students from a Business Administration programme may be able to directly contribute to addressing the problem relying solely on their own course work. But what if the issue to be addressed is loneliness or plastic pollution in Amsterdam? These highly complex issues are different because they don't have clear-cut solutions, and they involve many stakeholders with different values and priorities. This type of issue is often referred as "wicked problems", i.e. problems that are complex because, according to Rotmans & Loorbach (2009):

  • they are deeply embedded in societal, economic, political and/or institutional structures
  • their uncertainty is structural and hardly reducible
  • they are difficult to manage given the variety of actors with diverse interests involved
  • they are hard to comprehend fully, as they are ill-structured and difficult to interpret

Indeed, addressing ‘wicked’ problems requires an approach that builds upon various (disciplinary) perspectives (Fitzgerald et al, 2012; Huang and London, 2016; Ramaley, 2014). This makes it necessary to establish new kinds of engagement that build true university–community partnerships based on reciprocity and mutual benefits and with an intentional focus on resolving a wide range of complex societal problems (Fitzgerald et al., 2012). At the VU Amsterdam, the CSL team has implement two approaches to address complex societal issues within CSL.

Approaches to address complex issues within CSL