Negotiating the Challenges of Online Learning and Community-engaged Scholarship

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at

By Ashley E Nickels, PhD and Leslie Bowser, MPA Candidate

There are many benefits to community-engaged scholarship. As academics, we have the opportunity to use higher education as a tool for democracy and a mechanism for enhancing social equity. As educators, community-engaged scholarship can give students “hands-on” experiences and practical skills development. As more programs move toward online curricula, community-engaged scholarship becomes more challenging. It is time consuming, and, if done poorly, might reinforce inequalities rather than promote social equity. Online students come from diverse locations, often work full-time jobs and have family responsibilities, and attend asynchronous classes, none of which lends itself to engaging in community projects.

Yet, for scholars who work at the intersections of urban politics, public policy, and nonprofit administration, I think we can provide ways to engage online students with social issues and produce not only tangible deliverables, but also meaningful relationships.  This past semester I took on this challenge, teaching the course Nonprofit Advocacy and the Policy Process, a 7-week intensive, asynchronous, fully-online graduate course in our MPA program, which I co-developed with my colleague Dr. Danny Chand.  Following is a recent interview with a student, Leslie Bowser, from this class who successfully engaged with her community, to illustrate how it can work.


How did you choose the nonprofit you worked with on this project, and what is their mission?

Family Promise of Summit County (FPSC) is a homeless services organization exclusively serving families with children. Their mission is to help families stay together while transitioning to sustainable independence. I chose them because my church is one of their overnight host locations, and because homelessness is a growing public policy problem from which children suffer the most.  

Collaborating with a community partner to develop a nonprofit advocacy plan involved understanding both the organization and the policy environment. How did you identify the policy areas that were important to the organization and to the community?

Both my research and my interview with the FPSC staff indicated that the inadequate supply of low-income housing, exacerbated by stagnating wages, rising rental prices, and reduced federal assistance, is causing increased homelessness. More and more families cannot afford a home even if they are working.   Summit County, where I live, currently has about 20,000 people on the waitlist for low-income housing.

What happened when the class was over?

I submitted my plan to the nonprofit when I submitted it for class, and was thrilled when the director emailed me a week later inviting me to be on the planning committee to implement it.  We met right away with several key public administrators and community leaders, and though some potential hurdles came up, everyone agreed to explore the possibilities further.  The Director traveled to Columbus the next week to meet with the founder of a Housing Trust Fund I recommended as a model, and we are meeting again later this month to discuss next steps.

What have you learned through this process?

I learned that nonprofits not only can lobby, they should, because they are often the only voice for those without a seat at the policy table. I also learned how important individual citizen-driven initiatives can be, if they are launched at a politically optimal moment and directed toward the right policy makers.

This project required a lot of students, especially given the 7-week, asynchronous, fully online program design, and the fact that most of our graduate students have full-time jobs. What did you view as the challenges and benefits of the “community engagement” component of this assignment?

The biggest challenge was the short time-frame. Creating an advocacy plan from scratch in a couple of weeks, along with a full-time job and family responsibilities, was very challenging, but the benefits were worth it! I wanted to make a difference, not just a good grade, and saw it as an opportunity to do volunteer work at the systemic level. I got to meet local government officials, legislators and community leaders, offering them a possible way to solve a real policy problem.  It was so rewarding to have a chance to make an impact on my community while earning class credit.

What can we do in MPA programs—as more and more move online—to foster community-engaged scholarship?

Students may need reminding that this kind of project gives them the chance to have substantive interaction with community leaders, and to develop local contacts and resume content, which will make them more marketable when they graduate.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Ashley E. Nickels, PhD, is assistant professor of political science at Kent State University. Dr. Nickels’ research interests include urban politics and governance, as well as grassroots and community-based organizations. Dr. Nickels is the co-editor of the book, Community Development and Public Administration Theory: Promoting Democratic Principles to Improve Communities (2018). Her work has also be published in State and Local Government Review, Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy, and Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change.

Leslie Bowser is Senior Global Programs Advisor in the Office of Global Education at Kent State University, and a current student in Kent State’s MPA program. Prior to joining Kent State, her experience includes 10 years as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, as well as several years working in the corporate and nonprofit sectors.  She earned a B.A. in International Studies from the University of North Carolina, and plans to apply her MPA degree to both her full-time job and her volunteer work.

*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.

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