Social media for mobilising community and service learning in higher education: A case study of student volunteers following earthquakes in New Zealand

Nicki Dabner

Social media for mobilising community and service learning in higher education: A case study of student volunteers following earthquakes in New Zealand


Nicki Dabner

University of Canterbury

New Zealand


Abstract: On September 4th 2010 and February 21st 2011, two devastating earthquakes struck the Canterbury region in New Zealand. Students at the University of Canterbury responded to the needs of the wider community twice by designing and implementing community volunteer services that received local, national and international acclaim. This case study describes these student initiatives and the application of web 2.0 tools and the social network site ‘facebook’ within them. The findings indicate that students in higher education use web 2.0 as part of their everyday lives and can use them in powerful, innovative ways if the need arises. The immediate and extended impact on the university, local, and international community provides evidence that endorses the value of service learning and volunteer initiatives within higher education settings. Implications for higher education include students informing institutional utilisation of web 2.0 tools for communication and learning, especially when designing service-learning and volunteer initiatives. (150 words)


Keywords: Social Media, Service Learning, Volunteering, Network Communities, Facebook, Web 2.0 Tools, Disaster Response, Millennial Generation, Higher Education

Social media for mobilising community and service learning in higher education: A case study of student volunteers following earthquakes in New Zealand




1.1. Introduction

Many higher education institutions create opportunities for their students to engage with the wider community whilst studying. These opportunities often take the form of service learning components embedded within qualification-bearing courses but can also manifest as student- initiated volunteering efforts, as happened after two recent earthquakes in New Zealand. The first earthquake struck the Canterbury region in the South Island of New Zealand on 4th September, 2010. Although land, buildings and infrastructure were badly damaged in the earthquake, no lives were lost. Some damage was sustained at the University of Canterbury (UC), an institution with a student body of over 22,000 and situated forty kilometres from the epicentre, causing its closure for a two-week period. However, institutional information was made available on the University website, and a university space in the social network site ‘facebook’ that enabled on-going dialogue between staff and students at the institution. Facebook also became the platform used by a group of Canterbury University students to organise a highly effective student- initiated volunteer clean-up event that involved over 2000 students from higher education institutions across the region.

As a teacher education lecturer at the university involved in the design, facilitation and research of online communities (Dabner, 2011a, 2011b, 2006; Dabner & Davis, 2009), my fascination with the students’ use of Web 2.0 tools to organise this volunteer initiative encouraged me to study this emergent community. This research was nearly completed when a second massive earthquake struck the city on 21st February, 2011. This shallow earthquake devastated the central business district and many Christchurch suburbs, taking 184 lives and destroying many homes. Again the university was damaged and the physical campus inaccessible to both students and staff. When power returned, the student volunteers mobilised online again to meet the needs of the community, causing me to extend the study. The resulting two-part case study describes the community-service responses instigated by these students, illustrates how they utilised social media, and in particular the social network site ‘facebook’, to organise and implement the initiatives, and explores the impact these had on the university, local, and international community. The study aims to make a contribution by exemplifying the powerful affordances of social media when used by higher education students as a communication and mobilisation platform, and the impact volunteer and service-learning initiatives in higher education can have within the community. It also celebrates the valuable contributions of a large group of community-minded young people in very challenging times.

1.2. Student Volunteering and Service Learning in Higher Education

Higher education is increasingly recognised as playing an important role in social and economic development (Thompson, 2008). Mott (2005) proposed that institutions have rich potential to educate the next wave of community leaders given their contact with a generation of students who possess strong orientation to service, and their potential to address this learning within academic programmes. Subsequently, many higher education institutions are encouraging and/or creating opportunities for students to engage within the community; opportunities that also serve to enrich the students’ overall educational experience and potentially enhance their employment opportunities (National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, 2009).  Community engagement in higher education often manifests as either student-initiated volunteering or service learning components included within academic courses. Although both forms of engagement involve students working in, with, and/or for their community, there are some significant differences between these two ways of working (see Table 1).



Student Volunteering


Service Learning

Informal: voluntary

Formal: Institutional developed modules where subject area learning is linked to a voluntary placement/ May be a compulsory part of a course

Student choice of volunteering area

Course content/ subject area may dictate the volunteering area/ focus

Volunteering connection initiated by the student volunteer

Volunteering connection initiated/ organised by the institution

Intrinsic benefits gained by student (e.g. satisfaction gained from  making a  contribution)

Intrinsic and extrinsic benefits gained by student (e.g. course credits)

Timing and time dedicated to project decided by the student (e.g. volunteering in free time)

Timing and time allocated within the course design and established by the course designer (e.g.. volunteering may be in course time or associated independent study time allocated to course)

Involves action; reflection at the choice of the student volunteer

Involves cycles of action and reflection

Table 1: A comparison of ‘student volunteering’ and ‘service learning’ in Higher Education


As illustrated in Table 1, student volunteering is usually not formally linked to academic learning and as such, does not directly relate to a student’s academic goals. Student volunteering involves a high degree of student choice. Students have control over the time, place, context and design of their volunteering engagement. They can also choose to volunteer for different reasons (Smith, Holmes, Haski-Leventhal, Cnaan, Handy, & Brudney, 2010). Whilst both forms of community engagement offer intrinsic benefits to students, service learning initiatives also provide extrinsic benefits; somebody to organisation and manage the volunteering programme, and dedicated time to volunteer if implemented within course delivery hours. The significance of time in both volunteering models should not be underestimated. In his 2010 publication ‘Cognitive Surplus’, Clay Shirky, a popular commentator and researcher of the interrelated effects of social and technological networks, suggested that young people in the 21st century are increasingly choosing to use their free time (i.e. cognitive surplus) for acts of participation rather than acts of consumption as prevailed in the late 20th century , stating “one thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects rather than a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time” (p.10).


Student-initiated volunteering and service learning have proven to be beneficial to students, institutions and communities. Eyler Giles, Stenson & Gray’s (2001) review of service learning literature revealed that inclusion in courses can have a positive effect on a student personal and interpersonal development, their sense of social responsibility and citizenship skills, their cultural & racial understanding and their community service involvement after graduation (pp.1-2). Likewise, the findings from a 14-Nation Study conducted by Haski-Leventhal, GrÖNlund, Holmes, Meijs, Lucas, Cnaan, Handy, Brudney, Hustinx, Kang, Kassam, Pessi, Ranade, Smith, Yamauchi, & Zrinscak, (2010) suggested the benefits of volunteering for young people included personal development, career opportunities, increased confidence, and pro-social behaviour. It has also been clearly established that both models can positively impact communities, and institutional community relationships (Mott, 2005; Eley, 2003; Eyler et al 2001; Driscoll, Holland, Gelmon, & Kerrigan, 1996). Interestingly, Haski-Leventhal et al reported that although service learning and volunteering is becoming increasingly important in universities and colleges globally, “volunteering by university students has rarely been the focus of inquiry” (p.162). It is intended this study helps to address this issue. 

1.3. Digital Technologies, Social Media and Students in Higher Education


Digital technologies and social media are increasingly being woven into the operational life of voluntary organisations and groups. Rainie, Purcell & Smith’s (2011) findings from an American survey investigating the social side of the internet revealed that 57% of internet users in America have been invited online to join a voluntary group or organisation, and that the internet has become as important as face-to-face meetings to keep voluntary groups or organisations together and inform members (p.24). They also revealed that voluntary groups were increasingly using digital tools to enhance group communication and identity, that social media users that volunteer were more likely than non-user to say the internet has a major impact on their group activities and that younger volunteers were more likely to use electronic communication than older volunteers.

There is much in the literature confirming that different generations use digital technologies to varying degrees, and in different ways (Zickuhr, 2011; Rainie et al, 2011; Taylor & Keeter, 2010; Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, 2006). The categorising of age-groups, first introduced by Strauss and Howe in 1991, has been adopted by some writers as a construct to signify these generational differences. The term ‘Millennials’, defined by Kathryn Zickuhr in her 2011 report ‘Generations and their Gadgets’ as the generation born after 1977, encompasses the majority of students involved in higher education. Shirky (2010) proposes that theories of generational difference make sense if they explore environmental rather than psychological differences. Taylor & Keeter (2010) portray the Millennial generation as being “history’s first ‘always connected’ generation” (p.1) and suggest that “steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand held gadgets almost like a body part” (p.1).  Zickuhr’s (2011) findings appears to confirm this, revealing that 95% of Millennials surveyed owned a cell phone, 70% a laptop computer and 74% an MP3 player (p.3). Zickuhr concluded that not only were this generation the most likely to own technological devices, they also took greater advantage of a wider range of functions and features available in the devices, including social media.

Social media can be described as internet-and mobile-based spaces and devices that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction enabling the construction, co-construction and dissemination of words, images (static and moving) and audio in a multi-directional matter(Dabner, 2011a). The term Web 2.0 describes the range of user-centred, interactive web applications that facilitate these activities. Although the use of Social media and web 2.0 tools in the education of the Millennial generation has become the focal area of many researchers (Hamid, Chang & Kurnia; 2009; Mack, Behler, Roberts & Rimland, 2007), its contemporary and innovative use in higher education contexts requires continued examination. As Shirky suggests “When we change the way we communicate, we change society” (p.17).

Social networking sites (SNS) are one of the leading forms of web 2.0 tools used by the millennial generation in both America (Taylor & Keeter, 2010, p.28) and New Zealand (The Nielsen Group, 2010). These sites enable users to create networks of ‘weak and strong ties’ (Hogan & Quan-Haase, 2010) by sustaining their existing networks of friends and acquaintances, and establishing new networks with people who may have shared or complementary interests. The leading social network site currently used by students in higher education globally, and the most popular in New Zealand, is ‘facebook’ (The Nielsen Group, 2010). Facebook can be accessed via internet or mobile technologies, with facebook Mobile enabling users to update their Status, browse their News Feed and view friends' Profiles from a mobile phone. Facebook users are able to participate in a range of activities in the site. Once they have created an account, they are able to develop a personal profile with user defined privacy options, upload and share photos, create and join groups (with open or closed membership), and organise and join facebook ’events’. Users are able to invite and recommend an ‘event’ to other users, an important facet of the student volunteering events described in this study.

Given the popularity of facebook with students, its use within higher education has become an area of interest to many researchers (Quan-Haase & Young, 2010; Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman & Witty, 2010; Pempek, Yermolayeva & Calvert, 2009; Armstrong & Franklin, 2008; Lampe, Ellison and Steinfield, 2008; Valenzuela, Park & Kee, 2008; Subrahmanyam, Reich, Waechter & Espinoza, 2008),  including studies that highlight emerging issues in the areas of privacy, safety, and accountability (Cain, Scott & Akers, 2009; Olson, Clough & Penning, 2009; Hewitt & Forte, 2006; Oradini & Saunders, 2008). Other researchers have conducted case studies exploring this generation’s use of social media in response to global crisis events. These studies have exemplified instances where social media have been used in innovative ways in times of crisis. For example, Palen, Vieweg, Liu, & Hughes’s (2009) study of the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 reported on the use of Wikipedia by students at Virginia Tech to create a list of victims before the official release by the university, and Liu, Palen, Sutton, Hughes & Vieweg (2008) investigated of the use of photo-sharing website ‘Flickr’ during six disasters. Additionally, Qu, Wu & Wang (2009) reported on the use of a web community to provide information and assistance following the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. This study also aims to contribute to the case studies in this area.

2.1. Research Design

The purpose of the study was to investigate why and how a group of higher education students organised and facilitated two student volunteer clean-up initiatives after two devastating earthquakes in New Zealand, and explore the role social media played in these initiatives. The study was the third of three qualitative investigations conducted by the researcher in 2010 that explored the utilisation of digital technologies by staff and students at the University of Canterbury for a distinct purpose. Each of these studies has been documented and published as a separate intrinsic case study. Yin (1994) promoted a case study design as a sound methodological approach when conducting an in-depth qualitative investigation; with Stake (1995) contending this approach enables the researcher to gain a deep understanding the uniqueness and complexity of the case study foci, as well as its embeddedness and interaction with its associated contexts.


2.2. Participants

Ethical approval was gained from the University of Canterbury Human Ethics Committee prior to conducting the study. This was achieved quickly at a disruptive time at the university because permission was gained for this investigation to become an extension of an approved study. The key participant in part one of this study was the leader and developer of the student volunteer clean-up event, Sam Johnson, a third-year law & political science student at the University. The participant numbers were extended in the second part of the study to include five student volunteer army organisers. Given the immediacy of both events, interviews were not conducted with individual students who participated as volunteers. All participants were informed of the aims of the study and written consent was gained prior to any data being collected from them. To ensure an ethic of ‘truth’ (Bassey, 1999) would underpin this study, interview transcripts and drafts of the findings were returned to participants for member checking as the study developed. This included drafts of this paper being circulated for comment and feedback after the second event. Conducting research in electronic environments can raise ethical issues in the areas of privacy and informed consent (Eysenbach & Till, 2001). These were address by obtaining approval from the University of Canterbury Human Ethics Committee and by ensuring the supporting evidence analysed in the study was available in the public domain.


2.3. Data Gathering

Given the prominence of both the earthquakes and the student volunteer events, the amount of data available to inform this study was extensive; meaning converging lines of inquiry could be developed by gathering data and evidence from multiple sources. Sources included media reports, articles, and commentary publicly available on Internet and printed publications; artefacts and data available to users on the two student volunteer facebook spaces (and websites linked to these spaces), and semi-structured interviews with the developers and organisers of the student initiatives. In addition, facebook user data was generated after the second initiative and was provided by the SVA organisers in the form of screen shots.

2.4. Data Analysis

The analysis of data and evidence can be difficult when conducting case studies, and it is important researchers have clear strategies in place prior to completing this analysis. The general strategy employed in this study was descriptive and the analytic strategy involved direct interpretation (Stake, 1995, p.24). In order to do this, timelines were constructed that helped situate these initiatives within the context of each earthquake, then the case described in more depth using the broad range of evidence gathered as each initiatives progressed. A more rigorous analysis of the use of social media within the initiatives was also conducted because of its centrality to the research question. There appeared to be conflictions in the evidence at times, and so emails were sent to student participants in the study for accuracy checking. Once the case was summarised, it was reviewed again against the evidence and returned to student participants for final review and comment. The resulting case is presented as a two-part descriptive narrative.


3. 1. Findings

3. 2. The ‘Student Volunteer Base for Earthquake Clean-up’ Event

We now have communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change (Shirky, 2008, p.20)

The first earthquake struck the Canterbury region at 4:35am on Saturday September 4th, 2010, and caused considerable damage to land, buildings, and services in the greater Canterbury region. Many Christchurch suburbs were badly affected by soil liquefaction, a phenomenon whereby soil behaves like a liquid after losing its strength in response to the shaking. This caused significant structural damage to buildings, land, and water and sewerage pipes in the ground. This initial damage was compounded as Christchurch continued to be hammered by aftershocks numbering over 4000 by February 2011.It was estimated 100,000 of the 160,000 homes in the Canterbury region were damaged. The New Zealand Earthquake Commission (EQC), established by the Government in 1945 to cover New Zealand residential property owners for damage caused by natural disasters, estimated their recovery costs at $2.75 billion to $3.5 billion (Earthquake Commission, 2010). This resulted in the largest single insurance event in New Zealand’s history, and was ranked as the fourth-most expensive earthquake internationally for insurers since 1970 after California in 1994, Central and Southern Chile in 2010, and Japan, in 1995 (New Zealand Herald, 2010).


The University of Canterbury’s communication with students after the closure of the campus was immediate and carefully co-ordinated. In conjunction with email, two main communication spaces were utilised by the university throughout the post-earthquake period. These were a) the UC website (and a dedicated ‘UC Re-start’ space within this) and b) a UC Quake Recovery site on the social network site ‘facebook’ that provided forums for multi- level communication. The use of social media for communication and engagement by the university throughout this period became the focus of a case study conducted by the writer in 2010 (Dabner, 2011a). A student-initiated event on facebook, entitled ‘Student Volunteer Base for Earthquake Clean-up’ became the third most utilised space by UC students over this period of time. This event became the focus of this case study.

Minutes after the September earthquake, the first post about the quake appeared on Twitter. As the minutes passed, the number of posts onto social networking sites surged. Immediately after the earthquake, Sam Johnson, a law student at the University of Canterbury, did for him what was the ‘obvious thing’ - check out the internet and in particular his facebook site. Living in an area only slightly impacted by the quake, Sam soon realised the gravity of the situation in other areas of the community and immediately decided to do something about it. The university announced its closure; leaving, in Sam’s opinion, students with time on the hands and hands to help. That night he created an event on facebook entitled ‘Student volunteer base for clean-up’ (Figure 1) and immediately linked the event to 200 people on facebook, including students from the law, commerce and engineering society’s and his own ‘friends’ via his facebook page. Given the viral nature of sharing amongst facebook users, over 1000 people had been invited by the end of the following day. As users continued to invite others via their personal pages, this soon grew to 9000 people being invited, with over 3000 indicating they would attend the clean-up event. The student volunteer plan was initially simple, with the statement: “We will to do what needs to be done. In teams we will offer to help clear properties. Wheelbarrows, shovels, gumboots, brooms- hunt them out”.  



Figure 1. The ‘Student Volunteer base for Earthquake clean-up’ event on facebook

Through the event, Sam and a small team of organisers worked with the local authorities who gave them a list of priority areas in the community that needed help. Thousands of students travelled to stricken areas to help residents clean-up, in particular removing barrow-loads of silt that resulted from the liquefaction of the ground. On the first day of the clean-up event, about 150 students turned up. This number grew to 300 the following day and then increased, with the biggest turn-out on day four when over 1000 students mobilised around the city. 100 students worked that day in conjunction with Civil Defence and the NZ army in one of the most damaged area in Canterbury. When asked why he believed students responded so willingly, Sam proposed that most didn’t have their own house or family to tend to, and that they had a genuine desire to help:

“For some students the overarching feeling and emotion was to find a way to turn the feeling of helplessness that so many of us felt after the earthquake into a constructive resource that would help the people of Christchurch in their time of need”(Ministry of Youth and Development Newsletter, 12th December, 2010)

Given the enormity of the event, it did not come without challenges to organisers and local authorities. In the initial days of the event the organisers struggled to get support from the city council. Sam explained:

“I rang somebody at the city council and said I had these volunteers who want to do something. He said they already had systems set up to manage that- ‘just go out and do some digging’. They nearly shot the whole thing down so I met with the mayor and said I think we should give it a try. But some of the councils' staff members were very, very frosty”. (Sam Johnson, Interview transcript)

The council could be excused from underestimating the numbers that would be involved in the clean up event, given that this surprised the student organisers. After the first day of the event, Sam visited the council to try to put some procedures in place. Whilst there, he offered 20 volunteers to help in their call centre because they were attempting to ring volunteers individually. He admits to being surprised by their lack of resources and unwillingness to try new things but appreciating the potential risk for the council in terms of liability. Processes were finally established between the two groups and the student event continued.


Figure 2. Student clean-up volunteers working in the community

The event was well supported by local businesses in the provision of food, transport, shovels, and petrol, and was further supported on day five by a cash grant by the Ministry of Social Development.  This proved invaluable, as Sam explained:

“The thing is, when dealing with students who are working, you have to feed them- and this actually became one of the hardest parts of the event. All our personal bank accounts drained in a day. The money from the Ministry took the project to a new level and gave us the confidence we could do this. Then came the challenges of co-ordinating the feeding of 100 people who were spread across the city” (Sam Johnson, Interview transcript)

Once the event was underway, the facebook site was updated regularly, with some volunteers making this their prime responsibility. As Sam mused, “The site took all of 30 seconds to create but it took a core team of six people to run it” (Interview transcript). These organisers made over 44 hours of calls in a ten-day period and group texts were used to update volunteers daily. As well as queries about the event, messages of thanks were posted on the site from people who had been helped, and over 5000 messages of support posted from around the world. When reviewing the use of a facebook ‘event’ for this initiative, Sam identified some limitations. These included the time-based nature of events (i.e. they stop at a defined time), the need for participants to have to visit the site regularly (i.e. because event posts do not appear automatically on a user’s personal page wall) and the 5000 message limit within the system (i.e. it treats any more than this number as spam). To address these issues, Sam suggested it may have been a better option to develop a facebook page for this event.

3.3. The Impact of the First Volunteer Initiative

The first volunteer event not only raised the spirits of the Canterbury community, it appeared to capture the hearts of the nation, and received international recognition. The student event was acknowledged in New Zealand parliament (New Zealand House of Representatives, 2010), and the student volunteers received accolades from the New Zealand Prime Minister, who assured “At the worst of times you see the best of New Zealand. You are the best of New Zealand” (Voxy, 2010). The benefits to the community continued well after the clean-up had finished. Shovels used by the student volunteers were signed by notable entertainers and auctioned on an online trading site and a benefit concert was organised in the region to raise money for the earthquake relief fund.

The event also appeared to have impacted the Civil Defence organisation in constructive ways. Ironically, social media provided a platform for the critique of the Civil Defence organisation’s own use of social media, with interesting commentary appeared in blogs and on various facebook pages. Writers in the Online Solutions page on facebook suggested that although the civil defence movement had done a great job supporting Canterbury residents, their use of social media channels during the emergency had “exposed a wider need for many government organisations to up-skill their staff on the part social media has to play in distributing and processing information” (6th September, Online Solutions, 2010). It appeared these agencies acknowledged there were lessons to learn in this area, because Sam was invited to present at the 10th Annual Emergency Management Conference in Wellington in October 2010. The two-day conference focussed upon the response, communication, co-ordination and team management aspects of the earthquake.

Reflecting on the success of the first initiative, Sam was thrilled with the outcome suggesting “…this project has been one of the best things I have ever been involved with- to see so many students work so hard and be so community spirited has been wonderful “(UC Communications, 10th September). Although, with tongue in cheek, he also proposed the outbreak of community spirit could have drawback for Canterbury’s student populations, lamenting “it has certainly ruined our ‘reputation’ for being useless”. Given the positive response from the public, including one Christchurch resident who stated “if anyone never had faith in young people, well now they should” (New Zealand Herald, 2010), it appeared this initiative did much to enhance the nation’s perception of higher education students.

A range of new initiatives emerged following this student event. Members of the Christchurch business community muted developing mentoring relationships with students who helped their businesses during the event (Gourlay, 2010). A further student-lead initiative included the proposed development of a committee of volunteer co-ordinators, who it was intended would work with student leaders at secondary and tertiary education institutions to provide support to volunteering organisations in the Canterbury region. Importantly, it also lead to the formation of a new student club at the university entitled ‘The Student Volunteer Army’- an initiative that provided invaluable in the second earthquake that was unfortunately soon to follow.

3.4. The ‘UC Student Volunteer Army’ (SVA)

Social media don’t create collective action- but they do remove obstacles to it using simple, readily available tools that people have access to and are comfortable using in their daily lives (Shirky, 2008, p.160)

Although of a lesser magnitude, the second earthquake was far more damaging. Striking in the middle of the day, this earthquake took the lives of 185 people, devastated the central business district, and significantly damaged land and homes in many Christchurch suburbs. The university again closed immediately, and utilised their website and Recovery site on facebook as the main portals for information sharing and multi-level communication. Within days of the second earthquake, the Student volunteer group sprung back in action on facebook.

The student enrolment period at the university was progressing in a relatively normal manner the day before the February earthquake. The student orientation programme began that day, with student ‘club’ enrolment days planned for 22nd and 23rd.  At the beginning of 2011, Sam and his team had registered a new student club at the university entitled the ‘UC Student Volunteer Army’ or the SVA.  A site had been developed on facebook for the club (Figure 3) and the inaugural club event planned for February 25th: a beach clean-up day.








   Figure 3. The 2011 UC Student Volunteer Army (SVA) site on facebook

The organising group had designed a logo for the club, and ordered a large banner for this first community event. Some students had already joined the club prior using a new online joining system. When the second earthquake hit the region on February 21st, Sam was ironically talking at another emergency management conference in the North Island. He immediately flew back into the nearest open airport in the South Island and drove back to Christchurch. By the next day the ‘Student Volunteer Army’ (SVA) group sprung into action on their new facebook site. The first message posted by the organisers on the wall of the site was short and simple: Post this page everywhere. This page will be used at recruit volunteers in the coming days” (SVA wall post, 22nd February, 2011). The second of five messages posted that day encouraged potential recruits to work in their local areas until they had carefully co-ordinated the student army response with the civil defence organisation:

Our team are meeting in the morning. Volunteers asked to help in their neighbourhoods until we are working in with Civil Defence. Please be patient, look after each other. Kia Kaha, Sam (SVA wall post, 23rd February, 2011).

238 replies were posted on the SVA facebook wall by users in response to these five posts that day, followed by 388 replies to ten SVA posts the following day. The army initiative officially started working in the community on 24th February and by 9:36am the buses organised to take the volunteers around the city were full. While the initial group worked around the city, the ‘likes’ on the facebook site continued to increase, and over 400 posts were added by people both offering and requesting immediate help. That evening, a new process appeared on the site to better cope with these requests. People needing or offering help could now fill out an online form and the information accessed by the student organisers using a dedicated space on the website of GEOOP  (, a job dispatch and mobile workforce management system designed to manage and display the status and location of jobs and volunteers/staff using mobile and online technologies. Volunteers could also sign up at a large marquee situated in the car park at the university campus (Figure 5).  This large marquee soon became the central hub for the student army group.


Figure 5. The SVA base in the marquee in a campus car park

An administrative team of 100 volunteers helped Sam co-ordinate the work this time, with volunteers working through sections of the city "quite methodically" to ensure that work was completed as quickly as possible. By the 27th February, a three-tier organisational structure, an extension of the ‘army’ theme, had been developed and three student projects were in operation: 

PROJECT ONE: SQUADRONS - Groups of 3-5 volunteers with their own transport and gear, assigned to jobs and who worked as a mobile unit of the SVA across the city. 

PROJECT TWO: ARMY Dubbed the ‘silt-worms’, volunteers transported around the city on buses to clean silt arising from liquefaction from properties; asked to bring own shovels and wheelbarrows but clearing gear was provided if required.

PROJECT THREE: STREET TEAM - Visited the hardest hit areas in the suburbs and provided hand-to-hand information and support. Travelled in buses to areas in serious

The volunteers were provided with highly visible green SVA t-shirts, hand sanitizer and water; given important safety briefings and information about the day’s project, then set to work in the community. Student team co-ordinators accompanied the groups and dealt with any emergent issues at each of the sites. At the end of each day, the co-ordinators reported on their group’s progress and helped develop the plan for the following day. Sam and the other organisers met regularly with the two company’s charged with cleaning silt from the streets to determine which parts of the city the project teams should visit. Seven days after the event, the student volunteer IT head Jonas Bergier reported that 2329 jobs had been registered on SVA website and that over 1200 registered volunteers working in the squadrons of army had completed 865 of them by that day. The Street team, who worked on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), had hand delivered 170,000 fliers and provided face-to-face information to eastern suburb residents who were still without services and had almost no communication with the outside world. This represented over half of the city's population. In addition, more than 1,100 student volunteers joined the army travelling in 20 buses continued in a mission to clear tonnes of silt from properties and the streets. Throughout day and night, there continued to be plentiful activity on the SVA facebook site (Figure 6). Although the vast majority of interaction occurred on the site ‘wall’, the organising group housed the daily updates for volunteers in the notes section of the site. This made it easier for volunteers to access the daily planning details which, due to a combination of factors, including safety, civil defence regulations, volunteer welfare and weather events, could not be planned more than 12 hours in advance. The organisers also had their own private space on facebook which they used as the communication platform in the evenings. The SVA organisers made 179 posts on the wall between 21st February and 4th March. These included posts with up to date information regarding access to essential services, planning updates, images from daily events, links to support agencies and other support groups, newspaper articles and blogs, requests for immediate assistance and equipment. They also passed on messages from people in the community who had been helped by the volunteers, many of which still had no power so could not post their own messages of thanks.











             Figure 6. The SVA facebook site on 4th March 2011

The facebook ‘Insights’ statistics feature was available to SVA organisers after this earthquake due to their utilisation of a facebook ‘site’ in this second iteration instead of an ‘event’. These statistics revealed that between the 4th February and 5th March, the site recorded 46,294 active users, and by 8st March, 18,627 posts had been added to the SVA site wall. The statistics also reported that by 8th March, 66% of users were aged 18—34 and 65% of users were female. An analysis of posts added to the facebook site wall by users between 25th February and 2nd March revealed approximately 32% of the posts made over this time were messages of support, followed by 18% offers of help, 10% requests for help, 10% links to other sites and information, 7% each user questions and advertising of fundraising events and 6% thanks for help. The remaining 10% of posts were user suggestions, businesses offering help and user commentary. 179 images and videos were also posted or linked to the site at this time.

Ten days after the event, the ‘like’s’ on the SVA site recorded at 25,036. The site continued to grow as both the volunteers and the local, national and international community worked together to support to the people of Canterbury. A wide variety of new support and fundraising activities emerged on other facebook sites, with many linked back to the SVA site. Two examples supported by the SVA included ‘The Christchurch Baking Army’ - formed to deliver baking to volunteers or organizations around Christchurch that need ‘refuelling’ and ‘Comfort for Christchurch’-volunteers supporting the young and elderly in badly affected areas. Additional forms of social media evident within the site at this time included us of Google Maps and Google Person Finder by the earthquake commission, video material housed on YouTube and Vimeo, earthquake commentary on a number of blogs, and Twitter, with text messaging initiatives as illustrated below;

“If any parents are in need of childcare, please send a txt to 5627 starting with #HELPME and include the number of children you have, their age, and the time you require care for. We're working in with COMFORT FOR CHRISTCHURCH! Please ON this.” (SVA wall post, February 2011)

The student army took their first day break after working for ten days, although there were still hundreds of jobs waiting to be completed after the weekend. With the university staged re-start planned for 14th March, the majority of the student army volunteers had just one week left to do whatever they could to help. That this second initiative had already impacted the community positively was evident in hundreds of posts on the SVA facebook site, and the statements made by members of the community in numerous local and international news reports. One post added by a facebook user who had been helped reflected the sentiments of many others:

For all of you that have helped through this terrible situation, I am so proud of each and every one of you... through your own fear or uncertainty you have stepped up and are helping others. This city was built by people that had passion for a community and now I have faith that Christchurch is in good hands... the youth of today are here to help and rebuild it. You have done and continue to do yourself proud for people that desperately need help and I for one am so proud of all of you. Thanks to these young people that care. (SVA wall post- paraphrased)

3.5. The Impact of the Second Volunteer Initiative

Five Representatives from the SVA organisational team met two months after the second earthquake and reflected on their experiences of the second iteration of the volunteer initiative. The group were still receiving requests for help from people in the community at this time and these were now posted on the SVA facebook site. Given that lectures had resumed, the army now adopted the role of a facilitator rather than an organiser of potential volunteers, and willing students continued to respond to these requests most often working in the weekends. Although there were only five months between the two earthquakes, it appeared evident that the students’ experiences in the first clean-up event positively informed the development of their second initiative, with one representative musing ‘if we had not had the September ‘practice run’, we would not have been able to function as well as we did, as big as we did, as fast as we did”. For example, the SVA organisers worked very closely with the civil defence movement in the first two days after the second earthquake and prior to mobilising the volunteers, resulting in a carefully co-ordinated, cohesive response once the initiative was underway. The division of the students army into organised ‘squadrons’ and ‘teams’ with key jobs to complete and their careful co-ordination by students who adopted leadership roles, provided further evidence of lessons learned from the first initiative. It also appears the student volunteers were greeted warmly and well supported by the local and national government agencies this time. This was perhaps both an acknowledgement of the remarkable work the volunteer group undertook after the first earthquake and evidence of the impact Sam had, speaking on behalf of the SVA to a wide variety of key government organisations and agencies in the months following the first quake. The new SVA club site on facebook proved to be incredibly valuable after this second quake. Not only was the online infrastructure ready to go and clearly linked to the UC student association site, volunteers knew immediately where to go to both offer and seek help because of the publicity gained after the first initiative. The SVA use of a facebook site rather than an event addressed many of the organisational issues encountered in the first iteration. The utilisation of the web programme available on GEOOP, used to recruit helpers and record requests for help, further streamlined the volunteer response. Links were created to a much wider range of online support agencies and organisations, as experience had shown both the Facebook users and SVA organisers which material had the greatest value in times of need. Other forms of social media used successfully after the first quake, for example group texts, were utilised again by the SVA organisers, but this time to a greater extent. New forms of social media, such as Google Maps, emerged and were heavily utilised as the facebook site users co-constructed a map of vital information needed by those in the community. However, given the loss of essential services to a large part of the Christchurch community after the second quake, low-tech solutions (e.g. SVA hand delivering flyers with the information) became as vital as high-tech solutions.

In looking to the future, the SVA organisers had collectively decided to use what they had learned to develop a student volunteering model that could become a part of any community’s emergency management response structure; a model that would embrace higher education students and enable them to work in an organised manner in the community in times of crisis. The imperative for this model was endorsed after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. As a direct consequence of their work, Sam and another SVA organiser were invited by the Global DIRT (Disaster Immediate Response Team) to spend a fortnight in Japan to help establish a university Student volunteer project in Japan’s north-east coast, the region worst hit by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami. Members of the Global DIRT organisation had spent time with the SVA following the February quake and suggested they shared their management systems with universities’ in Japan. The outcomes of this visit were both tangible and long–term:


“The team met with Associate Professor Christopher Pokarier from Waseda University to seek their support for the New Japanese Volunteer Programme, named Student Volunteer Army – SILS. The organisers heading this new group will be able to utilise a communication strategies document the University of Canterbury SVA prepared in Japanese” (UC Chronicle, 2011)


The SVA organisers also expressed their intention to form a charitable ‘Volunteer Army foundation’. The foundation would use sponsorship funds the SVA had received and not used to help earthquake recovery projects in the community, further develop their model of student volunteering, initiate a volunteer student exchange scheme to Japan and sponsor events that promote community involvement for young people. Since the meeting the SVA have used funds to sponsor an important youth event in the city, ’Youth Vision 2050’. This event provided a forum for 100 young people from the region to share ideas that could help meeting the challenges Christchurch will face in the future.  At the conclusion of the three-day event, participants produced a document that one of the leaders of the Student Volunteer Army suggested would contribute to "an intergenerational narrative that informs the redesign, planning and rebuild of Christchurch".

An important outcome of the SVA initiative has been the development of new community service elective course at the University of Canterbury. Although a service learning component had already been implemented within a range of qualification-bearing courses at the university, with positive outcomes on student engagement (O’Steen, Perry, Cammock, Kingham, Pawson, Stowell & Perry, 2010), this course was the first to situate service learning as the core component. Developed by Dr Billy O’Steen and Mr Lane Perry, ‘CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch-An Introduction to Community Engagement in Tertiary Studies’, was designed to critically examine the concept of community engagement within tertiary studies, and explore how this concept is implemented in Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, UK and US tertiary institutions.  The first offering of CHCH101, has been purposely designed to integrate academic content with a formal recognition of the student’s community engagement with Canterbury earthquake relief efforts, with the intention that upon passing the course, course fees will be refunded as a scholarship in recognition of contribution. It is anticipated that in the future the course will encompass a concurrent service-learning component, where students will have the opportunity to provide, and reflect critically and theoretically on, service performed in the community in the reconstruction phase of Christchurch, not just in the emergency response phase.  A facebook space ‘CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch’ was developed to enable the course co-ordinators to communicate with interested students and glean their ideas regarding potential community service projects in the future. In a UC press release, UCSA President, Kohan McNab acknowledged the value of providing an avenue that would encourage students to reflect on the magnitude of their contribution. “UC students are unique in that they have consistently shown that they are prepared to step up and contribute to their community. CHCH101 gives students a great opportunity to engage more in thinking about this contribution, allowing them to better understand the value it provides to their community and to themselves.”

Both SVA initiatives were proudly acknowledged and endorsed throughout the university, and were then fêted in an advertising campaign entitled ‘UCan’. This campaign was designed to celebrate and further promote the spirit behind the Students’ volunteer army and demonstrate the university’s commitment to the city and people of Christchurch. Vice-Chancellor Dr Rod Carr reported “We are undertaking this campaign because we believe it is important to promote our commitment. We are a major employer in the Christchurch community, and an educator of many of the future skilled citizens who will contribute to the city that Christchurch will become.  Like many local organisations we are recovering from the impact of the earthquake and want to demonstrate confidence in the future of Christchurch.” Members of the student army appeared on a range of advertising material (Figure 7), wearing the SVA green t-shirts that, as a tangible marker of involvement, became something students continued to wear with pride long after their volunteering contributions had concluded.


Figure 7. The SVA featured in the university promotion campaign

4. 1.Discussion

Shirky (2010) suggested that by exploring the means, motives and opportunities of new behaviours in society we can better understand them; ‘means’ and ‘motive’ being the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the action and ‘opportunity’ being the ‘where’ and ‘with whom’(p.28). In this case study, social media housed in the virtual world provided the means for a group of higher education students to coordinate two volunteer events in the physical world. The student participants used the inherent capacities of the media to connect, communicate and mobilise in acts of public participation in response to pressing community needs. The opportunities arose because the university was shut after the earthquakes, thereby providing students with the free time that enabled participation. Importantly, by organising these initiatives, the SVA group established a new virtual community that also served to restore an existing student community at a time when peer support was vitally needed by students, on an individual and collective basis.

Given television and internet services became quickly accessible in many areas of Christchurch after the earthquakes, the closure of the university presented an enhanced opportunity for students to relax and spend times of friends. However many chose to take this opportunity to contribute to the community. The findings suggested this group of students chose to position themselves as active participants rather than passive receivers after the two earthquakes and that they used social media and web 2.0 tools to facilitate this action because they were so used to using them as a part of their everyday lives. Shirky (2008) offered the following pertinent observation in relation to this;

Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn’t create change; it has to have been around for long enough that most of society is using it-then the really profound changes happen. For many young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous…and invisible is coming. (p.105)

Perhaps active participation increased their feelings of powerfulness at a time where so many in the region felt powerless. Perhaps community and community-service was important to them; servicing their student community, their local community and the international community. The findings certainly suggested that meeting and working with other students in civically-minded endeavours that were social, physical, and acknowledged locally, nationally and globally provided intrinsic rewards to those who were involved. That their contributions impacted positively on the university and wider community is without question.

This case study illustrated one higher education student group’s response to unexpected events; however the findings provide insights that may help inform the use of social media in other higher education settings. Although one can hope others will not experience crisis situations similar to those described in the study, instances such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan suggest otherwise. Therefore, institutions may be interested in the SVA volunteering model when it is made available globally. It is my intention to work with the SVA group to help ensure this is widely publicised and disseminated. In addition, the findings suggest that student input could has value when developing volunteering and service learning initiatives within higher education programmes, and the utilisation of social media within these programmes. Finally, as institutions continue to explore their potential uses of social media, the findings indicate they would be wise to gain a deeper understand of why, how and when their students choose to use the various forms, and use this understanding to inform their policy and practices. The ideas and actions of the generation of students ‘steeped in social media’ (Taylor & Ketter, 2010) have much to contribute to this debate.

All studies have limitations. Stake (1995) warns that the interpretations of the researcher can overshadow the interpretations of those being studied when conducting a case study. Given the complexity of interviewing all of the SVA organisers in very challenging times, the study re-presents only a representative view of the organisers. Decisions of what to include and what to omit became difficult as increasing amounts of evidence became available. Member checking and revision by colleagues were strategies used to address these issues, and as Stake reminds those involved in case study research, ‘there are other to tell the rest of the story; the other stories” (p.135). Further investigations planned to extend this study include the implementation of the new service learning course at the university later in the year, the impact of the SVA volunteer model once disseminated to other higher education institutions and the work of the newly developed charitable ‘Volunteer Army Foundation’.

5. 1. Conclusion

This case study explored two initiatives organised by higher education students following two earthquakes in New Zealand and illustrated how they used a range of social media, in particular the social network site ‘facebook’, to mobilise volunteers for highly effective community service events. It must be emphasised that whilst technology enabled these initiatives to happen, the volunteers did the work that impacted the community. These student volunteers engaged responsibly in activities that positively benefitted their community at times of great hardship, suggesting that perhaps they just needed a valid reason, and the time, to engage within their community and the satisfaction of knowing their engagement and ideas had value. This study confirms they certainly did.


I would like to first acknowledge the people adversely affected by the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, including the staff, students and extended community at the University of Canterbury. I would like to publicly commend the thousands of students who volunteered for the events described in this paper for the difference they made to the lives of so many in fragile times. Particular thanks to Sam Johnson for his participation in this study, and his mammoth effort and boundless enthusiasm working tirelessly to lead the initiatives in the Christchurch community. Finally, an acknowledgement of Dr Niki Davis, Professor of e-Learning at the University of Canterbury, for supporting in my research endeavours and the University of Canterbury College of Education Research Committee for funding this study.

Appendix A. Websites associated with the study

Student Volunteer Base for Earthquake clean up (facebook event):!/event.php?eid=111867635538916

UC Student Volunteer Army (facebook site):

‘CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch’:

Geo op:

Time-Lapse Visualisation web site develop by Paul Nicholls, (Digital Media Group, University of Canterbury):

UC Earthquake Recovery (facebook site):

UC Restart:


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