Community-Based Learning During a Pandemic

December 17, 2020
Professor Bob Spires connects his students with anti-trafficking advocates, researchers, and NGO workers across the world

Bob Spires is an associate professor of education in the School of Professional & Continuing Studies. During the fall semester, Spires taught Human Trafficking: Myth or Scourge (FYS). With Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) course support grants, Spires invited anti-trafficking advocates, researchers, and NGO workers across the world to be guest speakers in the fully online class. Professor Spires and a student in the course, Olivia Kivort, '24, shared a little about the virtual experience.

How did the course connect with the local and international community virtually?

Spires: I had several guests from local anti-trafficking NGOs and organizations, but with different approaches. I had Richmond Justice Initiative that provides educational curriculum to middle and high school teachers; Legal Aid Justice Initiative which does advocacy and investigative work on migrant working conditions around the state; and Bon Secours forensic nursing who also runs a regional collaborative task force between nonprofits, healthcare and law enforcement to share information and strategies for addressing trafficking in the Richmond area. 

Internationally, I had guest speakers from several different countries, including anti-trafficking NGOs, independent researchers, and advocates. These different perspectives are provided alongside assignments that encourage critical thinking by the students, without prescriptive answers, encouraging students to think critically about the topics, but even about the potential biases of these guest speakers. I even have the students work together on graphic organizers where they decided the strengths and weaknesses of the guest speakers’ perspectives together in groups.

Kivort: Before taking this course, I thought of human trafficking as a distant problem, occuring in foreign countries. I quickly realized how wrong I was. Human trafficking happens at the local, national, and international level at a rate I did not think possible. I was shocked to know that approximately 27 million people live as modern day slaves. Now, I pay more attention to news programs and feel more aware and informed on what is going on in the world. I have heard from a number of non-governmental organizations around the world through this class and can better understand the types of trafficking and approaches to preventing trafficking in different regions. With my broader scope of knowledge on the topic of human trafficking, I am better able to make an educated opinion on the matter.

How does your involvement in this course intersect with your area of study?

Kivort: I am planning on majoring in political science. My first year seminar course with Dr. Spires on the subject of human trafficking has solidified my belief that meaningful change is made through policy. Government intervention is critical to manage a matter that has grown so much throughout the past two decades. This course has shown me how different governments have reacted to human trafficking, and I have read much of the policy writen on the subject. It is crucial that governments respond to trafficking in the correct manner, as the freedom of many people is at stake. This course gave me needed knowledge on an issue that many powerful governments are tackling right now and showed me how influential policy can be.

What do you feel is important about community-based learning?

Spires: Authenticity is key to making learning impactful and meaningful for students. When students suspect that what is being taught to them in their courses is disconnected from the ‘real world’ they automatically file it away as something they need to pass the test but not for their lives. When students see others working in the field, in my case anti-trafficking organizations, they see what we learn about in the course as applicable to what these practitioners do every day. Course content becomes more real, and the stakes become higher as this is not just about passing the course, but also knowledge that shapes real-world actors.

Kivort: Community-based learning is the most powerful type of learning one can receive. Learning in a classroom is still beneficial, but community-based learning enhances the real life experience of the given area of study. Having the chance to talk to the members of a series of non-governmental organizations through Dr. Spires’ course gave me first hand knowledge on what it is like to work in the field of human trafficking while also highlighting the scope of human trafficking. The mixture of Dr. Spires’ lectures and the presentations from non-governmental organizations brought the issue of human trafficking to light in a way that a regular course might not accomplish. Participating in a class that uses community-based learning adds an extra layer of understanding on any subject matter.