One widespread misconception is that the Internet is a place for people to express malevolence toward one another, but that's not true. People are generalizing from a handful of social media forums. Flaming is actually a situation-dependent activity and is isolated to places such as YouTube.
In reality, the Internet is fundamentally a place of widespread benevolence and cooperation where people voluntarily come together to help people whom they have never met, often in other countries. For instance, within days of the earthquake in Haiti, people from all over the world came together for “disaster camps,” which were meetings with no agenda other than to find a way to help the people in Haiti from home. One result was the creation of the Tradui app, which allowed responders to communicate with people on the ground. The data for the app was created by volunteers around the world who recorded translations of Haitian phrases into and from languages that the responders spoke. Another way is the Open Street Map, which combined post-disaster satellite images with a Google map overlay that allowed hundreds of people to tag the map with information about downed buildings and hospitals, blocked rivers, and so on. (http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/02/crisis-mapping-haiti).
Both apps saved lives and were created by the voluntary efforts of people around the world coming together through the Internet. Similarly, the United Nations used a “Standby Taskforce” of over 700 volunteers around the world to gather information about the crisis in Libya and record it in the Ushahidi crisis map to inform the efforts of rescuers on the ground (https://vimeo.com/32908608).
These are not isolated efforts. Today, the volunteer work of people around the world is being used to address a variety of problems. The Internet has demonstrated that there is a massive amount of benevolence in this world that could not be harnessed—until now. The many-to-many communication style allows people to collaborate on projects that were never before possible.
This opens up opportunities for instructors to provide students with both real-world experience, applying the principles they learn in class, and the motivation of knowing that they are doing it for some reason other than just to get a grade. There are numerous websites that allow people to choose the projects they want to work on. For instance, the United Nations has a website that gathers projects that people can work on at home (https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en). Some projects involve research, such as the project “Preventing Violent Extremism Programmes in Asia and the Pacific” from the UN Bangkok Regional Hub, which is looking for a research report to provide an analysis of “drivers of radicalization, the key actors in radicalization, the role of volunteerism in Preventing Violent Extremism, and to identify gaps, priority areas, recommendations and successful projects in PVE.” The project requires an estimated 6 to 10 hours per week for four weeks.
There are projects on this website that can serve a variety of classes. A business course might want to tackle the project asking for a report on fund-raising options for the Africa Youths for Peace and Development Organization. Some projects allow the students to become teachers, such as the one from the Twenty-First Century African Youth Movement in Sierra Leone asking for people with a tech understanding “to help with research and training two staff members on how to use digital currencies (Bitcoins) for fundraising.”
Foreign-language teachers might be interested in the numerous translation projects, such as the one asking for “Translation English to French of a quarterly diaspora engagement newsletter.” Crisis maps also provide a wealth of translation opportunities, such as the Syria Crisis Map (http://syria.liveuamap.com), which uses volunteers to translate news stories or other information about current events in Syria.
Journalism instructors might want to look at the project to “[d]raft 15 news stories related to the Perez-Guerrero Trust Fund Projects for publishable quality, both digital and printed distribution . . . [that] support critical economic and technical cooperation activities among developing countries.” Art teachers might be interested in the project from the Microfinance and Development Organization to “develop promotional materials for campaigns and create graphic guidelines” that support their mission to “promote and realize direct and indirect development activities primarily for the poor and marginalized in the areas of inclusive finance, microeconomics of microinsurance and local economic development in Cameroon and Africa.”
Those are just a sampling of the projects available on a handful of websites among many asking for volunteers. The opportunities to provide real-life application of course concepts are endless, and the inherent motivation in students knowing that they are helping others will improve performance and learning outcomes. Assigning volunteer projects in your course is a win-win for everyone involved.