Changing the World on an iPhone? Virtual Volunteerism & Social Change

What does volunteerism and social change look like in a the digitally/physically blended life? While some studies and critics indicate that Internet use is deteriorating family time and other face-to-face social interactions, that isn’t the full story. The other side of the story is about people using mobile technologies to be more active in trying promote positive change in the physical world, in connecting with others in meaningful ways. Toward that end, Linton Weeks wrote an excellent article at back in 2009 on The Extraordinaries: Will Microvolunteering Work? Weeks writes, “Shazzam! Charity meets brevity. Crowdsourcing for the common good. Turning ADD into AID.”

This article highlights the side of mobile technologies and digital culture that seems to re-connecting us to the physical world around us, not to mention the physical world half a planet away. Many of us have, in the words of John Muir (although I’m admittedly re-purposing the quote) lived “on the world but not in the world” for some time.

The full quote is,

“Most people are on the world, not in it – having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them – undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate”

Even when we are AWK, wandering the physical streets, we sometimes walk right past the hurting and the problems all around us. While I’m the last person to propose that mobile technologies or any other invention will solve this proclivity of human nature, it is fascinating to see how some are making use of mobile devices to get back into the world, reach out, help out, speak up, get up, chip in, and live in their local communities…even if it is just via a text message or a quick cell phone photo sent to public works to fix a pothole. Or, thanks to services like, Donors Choose, and Global Giving; we get a very different picture of what is taking place when we see a man sitting on the subway typing on a two-inch keypad, seemingly oblivious to the people right to him. Who knows, he might be the in the middle of giving a no interest loan to a an aspiring low-income entrepreneur on the other side of the world.

Impact the World in Your Pajamas – Virtual Volunteerism for Educators

Yes, I’m one of those “I want to make a positive contribution to the world!” people. I say it with excitement and a genuine desire to contribute to projects that have substance, significance and benefit to the lives of others in tangible ways. There is something wonderfully engaging about participating in a high impact community of purpose, possibility, and measurable impact. There is also something rewarding about helping out with the small and simple needs around us.. I interact with enough people in person and online to know that I am far from alone in this.

As we are gifted with such opportunities to serve and volunteer, there are any number of benefits.  With this in mind, there are several organizations that champion the idea of blending service, volunteerism and learning. As one reads and learns about the unschooling movement for example, it is striking to read and hear countless stories about the lessons learned through volunteering. Whether it is working for free at a place where one hopes to learn something new or engaging in a formal volunteer project on the other side of the world, it is clear that these people are having a positive impact on the world (or at least the lives of the people that they serve through their work).

From the National Service Learning Clearinghouse

Through service-learning, young people—from kindergarteners to college students—use what they learn in the classroom to solve real-life problems. They not only learn the practical applications of their studies, they become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service they perform.

Simply stated, service learning is about serving through our learning and learning through our service. I’ve used the many excellent resources at the Service Learning Clearinghouse in the past to explore this idea of service learning with my undergraduate and graduate students.  At the same time, as I continue to learn more about self-directed learning, unschooling, and learning by doing; I also see value in simple service and volunteerism that does not necessarily integrate with a formal school curriculum or larger formal education plan. People just do things that matter to them, the help others, and learn a great deal along the way.

The “make a difference mindset” is especially prevalent among educators that I meet, whether they be University professors, early childhood teachers, or community educators; there is something that drives many of us that goes well beyond a salary. There is a desire to influence in a way that benefits, to guide, empower, support, encourage, create, collaborate, and to teach.

In the digital world, it is possible to get started now, even without walking out the front door of our home. I’m referring to the growing number of virtual volunteer opportunities related to education. I wrote about this in one way before, when I explore the idea of building a Personal Teaching Network, creating or participating in any number of pre-existing opportunities to share your educational gifts, talents and abilities through any number of online activities like teaching open courses, leading Google Hangout book clubs, being a volunteer writing for the growing number of wikis on the web, contributing to blogs, volunteering at online conferences, or making positive contributions in social media.

For those who are looking for more formal virtual volunteer options, I’ve put together a short list of links to get you started.  Check them out and let me know what you think.  Or, if you have others to add, please suggest them via a comment.

All for Good – From the site, “All for Good helps you find and share ways to do good.” If you click on “search opportunities”, you can limit your search to virtual options.  The last I checked there were over 500 such listings. As more educators get involved with these sorts of virtual volunteering efforts, it might also provoke some ideas on how to engage learners in virtual volunteering or even some new forms of virtual service learning.

Tutor Chat Live – This non-profit offers free live online tutoring to disadvantaged students, and they are looking for qualified volunteers.

United Nations Volunteers – This site provides information about virtual volunteer opportunities that seek to meet needs around the world, and they have a dedicated section to “education” volunteer opportunities.

Volunteer Match – Limit your search to “virtual” and there are ample virtual volunteer opportunities in education.

MicroMentor – This one focuses upon providing fee business mentoring online.  If you have an entrepreneurship background this might make for a great virtual volunteer project. – This is a site dedicated to helping coordinate and support different types of drives. You can find and existing drive to support or promote, or you can start a new drive. This one might be called a sort of blended volunteerism, as it mixes online advocacy with drives for actual physical items.