IST Faculty Academy fellow aims to enhance civic engagement through new course

A new "Community Informatics" course will use service learning and project-based experiences to help students understand their roles as citizens and the context of our modern communities. Credit: Andy Colwell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Over the past 25 years, Jack Carroll has focused on enhancing civic engagement through the use of information technologies and applications. Now, as one of the inaugural fellows in Penn State’s Faculty Academy for Engaged Scholarship, Carroll is continuing to reimagine how we think about our local communities and reflecting on our role as citizens through new research and a new undergraduate course focused on community informatics.

“Community was a fabulously successful innovation during those difficult Paleolithic times,” said Carroll, distinguished professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). “It protected us and gave us the confidence to spread across the earth. But community doesn’t stand still. Today, community is about new technologies and information structures, and new roles and responsibilities for citizens.”

Offered this fall by the College of IST, Carroll’s new IST 222 course will be aptly named “Community Informatics.” The interdisciplinary offering – which is open to any Penn State undergraduate student as a general education course – explores how community members use information and communication technologies to achieve shared objectives, such as cultural engagement or economic growth.

Given this dynamic and the emerging ways technology is integrated into communities, Carroll believes that students’ understanding of how communities solve problems, communicate, and collaborate will lead to a more engaged citizenry.

“Some students may not have reflected upon their current and future roles in communities, or critically analyzed the consequences and responsibilities of community membership,” he suggested. “But they are precisely at a point in life where such reflections and critical analysis will do them, their peers, and all of society the most good.”

Often taught at the graduate level by researchers in the field, Carroll has identified the growing need for undergraduate students to understand how they can relate educational experiences to their life experiences through community informatics. For example, many students are engaged in multiple local communities: the campus community in which their university is located; the community in which their university resides; the community where their families live; and their social communities, both in-person and online.

By leveraging these communities, Carroll knows there are countless opportunities to connect students directly with the concepts taught in the class. Project-based and service learning experiences will provide unique opportunities for students to engage with real-world scenarios while mastering the course concepts.

Moreover, Carroll adds, the communities will benefit, too.

“The town-gown stereotype of students who see the town as a dorm with bars, and town residents who see students merely as visitors who sometimes misbehave is limiting for all concerned. It does not serve the students, the town, or society,” he said. “This new course will leverage off-campus service learning possibilities and create a more effective course experience, while also mutually engaging the student and the local community.”

The course will cover a variety of topics, ranging from broad concepts like the modern contextualization of community to specific ideas such as eGovernment and the sharing economy. Students will focus on contemporary issues affecting their communities to keep the class timely and relevant.

“My goal is to help everyone reflect on their roles as citizens. I think we should reconceive of community as a supportive context for human innovation,” concluded Carroll. “We all need to keep inventing human community — it’s fun to do and no one else can do it for us.”

The Faculty Academy, which is housed under the newly formed Student Engagement Network, draws on diverse academic experiences to develop new research and curriculum that spurs sustainable opportunities. Selected by a committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students, the 2017-18 Faculty Academy fellows and scholars are focused on expanding the scholarship of engagement and broadening the discourse, conversations, and assessment of such efforts.

The Student Engagement Network is a joint initiative between Undergraduate EducationStudent Affairs, and Outreach and Online Education. The mission of the Student Engagement Network is to advance the power of participation by connecting students with experiences that empower them to make a positive impact as citizens and leaders of the world.

For more information about the Student Engagement Network, visit or email

Jack Carroll, distinguished professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated March 20, 2018