By Elena Petrovich

Today’s world is one that is permeated with civic engagement as millennials have out paced older generations in community service rates. American colleges and universities are in the midst of revolution as they are now pushing civic concerns and engagement resources to the forefront of academia.

Though such an increase in community involvement is undoubtedly advantageous, it also demands an accessible and thorough training process as people begin working with communities, cultures, and demographics outside of their own.

Unfortunately, such training seems to be lacking in many volunteer organizations and across college campuses. A cohesive educational strategy towards civic engagement demands time and resources, and many charities and non-profits operate on limited budgets, making many traditional training methods impractical and difficult to implement.

Thus exists the conflict, as integrated and intentional learning is necessary for truly effective community outreach.

Caryn Musil astutely defines the characteristics that differentiate between lacking civic engagement and prosperous community partnerships in Educating for Citizenship. In this article Musil outlines what she names the

6 phases/faces of citizenship:

  • exclusionary
  • oblivious
  • naïve
  • charitable
  • reciprocal
  • generative

Using the descriptions of each of phase of civic engagement, we will see how eLearning can help progress organizations and individuals to a more reciprocal or generative phase of citizenship, and ultimately discover the full potential of volunteers and the communities of which they engage with.

Though all charities, non-profits, and campus community service groups are not identical, in general it is safe to say that these organizations run on larger scale than confined office or classrooms environments, and they rely on volunteers without a formal hiring process, making it a higher likelihood that a network of volunteers have greater variation in personality and interests.

These unique characteristics of civic engagement groups are the core of what makes traditional training methods impractical, and what would make eLearning an immensely valuable tool.

The efficiency, effectiveness, and accessibility of eLearning should be a major draw for those organizing volunteers. Musil emphasizes the necessity for civic learning to shift from randomness to purposeful pathways (Musil 2).

All too often civic engagement works as a mode of involvement that occurs offstage and afterhours, like an afterthought. This is often because volunteer networks both operate from a diverse range of locations and entirely different schedules depending on interests, status, and lifestyles, making their use of traditional training methods inefficient or non-existent all together.

About 60% of volunteers in the U.S. have outside jobs as either part time or full time employees (Volunteers in the U.S., 2014- Bureau of Labor Statistics).  With the transparency of eLearning, volunteers can access information they otherwise wouldn’t have; during times they otherwise wouldn’t have been able.  Progress can be saved and training revisited, there are usually no time limitations, and its mobility allows volunteers to learn from almost anywhere.

These are all characteristics of eLearning that suit the last two levels of citizenship- reciprocal and generative. These levels require civic and societal knowledge, analytical perspectives, understanding about diversity and inequality, democratic arts, thoughtful self-reflection, and the ability to apply knowledge to solve complex social problems (Musil 3).

Volunteers often lack the necessary knowledge about the communities in which they are engaging in, such as their history, culture, demographics, and lack the self-reflection necessary in understanding how their own background influences the way they perceive and interact with other communities. These gaps of knowledge and skills are what lead many organizations to fall under the earlier phases of citizenship: exclusionary, oblivious, or naïve. These phases operate largely from a single vantage point, with a lack of historical knowledge, and are monoculture or acultural in nature (6).

Advancing these skills and knowledge is very difficult to implement through the traditional training methods many charitable organizations are using, which is why the effectiveness of civic engagement is often lacking, only serving immediate needs for small amounts of time.

This is what makes the thoroughness, efficiency, and accessibility of eLearning a method of training that all civic engagement groups should utilize. After all, for work this important, we should aim for nothing short of the best.

Importantly, eLearning also serves as a unifying experience. A 2015 study showed that the behavioral attribute that most contributes to the success of a learning development professional is working collaboratively across an organization (Learning and Development 2015 Annual Survey Report).

Musil also acknowledges interconnectedness as a necessary attribute in the generative phase of citizenship, seeing a oneness between the volunteers and the community they are engaging with (Musil 6). Elearning makes for a collaborative and unifying experience that may boost individuals and organizations into higher phases of citizenship.

Online, an entire volunteer network will be able to benefit from a social environment in which they are able to share opinions, issues, problems, and experiences, which only enhances learning.

Elearning also makes it easy for communities themselves to participate in this process, sharing their experience and knowledge alongside the volunteers. This creates an atmosphere in which volunteers and communities are equals, growing and learning together. It helps volunteers see the community as a resource to empower and be empowered by, and as something that is interdependent and filled with possibilities.

These are levels of understanding that are necessary to reach the reciprocal and generative phases of citizenship (6).  For volunteers and the communities they engage with, eLearning might just be the exact tool needed to extract the full potential of this civic engagement revolution.

Musil, Educating for Citizenship


Musil, Caryn M. T. “Educating for Citizenship.” Peer Review. 5.3 (2003): 4-8.