Similar to participating in fieldwork, service learning positions students to apply their postsecondary coursework in the community. Where fieldwork is focused primarily on student development, service learning places equal emphasis on serving the community. It is in this service that students expand their understanding and commitment to the larger community. Heffernan (2001) writes, “Rather than focusing on preparing students for a particular job, service prepares students for practical community-based problem solving (p. 2).” Service learning provides students with rich opportunities that can take many different forms, including: “pure” service learning courses, discipline-based service learning courses, problem-based service learning courses, capstone courses, service internships, and community-based action research (Heffernan, 2001).
Key features of the strategy
While service learning can take many forms, several key features of effective service learning experiences help to maximize the learning experience for students. First, Nilson (2010) recommends that service learning experiences should align with course learning outcomes. Those courses with outcomes that emphasize affective, ethical, and social experiences may be the best candidates for a service component. She also cautions that the instructor should be conscious of possible ethical questions and issues related to service. Requiring students to engage in work that runs counter to their political, ethical, and/or moral beliefs may not be appropriate. Finally, similar to fieldwork, Gross Davis (2009) reminds us that simply engaging in service to the community will not necessarily translate in learning experiences for students. We must build in connections to course content and provide students with reflective experience that help to make these connections explicit.
Examples and Variations
At Carnegie Mellon University, students enrolled in Technology Consulting in the Community provide consulting services to local and distant community organizations as part of their Information Technology program. Students have to apply their IT knowledge as they help their clients to analyze complex situations and solve problems. In the process of engaging in the service component of the course, students develop leadership and communication skills, contribute valuable service within the community, and provide students with opportunities to explore possible career paths in community agencies. To ensure they develop these understandings and experiences, students are required to submit regular status reports, two project reports, and a professional quality final consulting report.
In her Ending Homelessness in Our Community course at the University of South Florida, Bonnie Beth Greenball designed a course in which students explore ways to support the needs of the homeless in Sarasota by partnering with Resurrection House. Students sign up for various duties within the shelter, regularly rotating so that they have the opportunity to experience all aspects of the day-to-day operations. This close work with the homeless in the field helped students to better understand the public policy issues related to homelessness in America. At the conclusion of the course, students present research papers that explore these issues while providing suggestions for improvement.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, students in Kristin Reed’s Poetry and Social Change course join residents from the city jail (who are also enrolled in the course) to read and respond to texts from diverse authors. The overarching goal of the course is to “explore the ways language impacts us or others, the power we have when we tell stories, our responsibility as storytellers, and the evolving role of poetry in public discourse.” To help students to make the most from the experience, Reed requires them to create portfolios of their work, including six poems and short writing assignments.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Through service learning, students engage in authentic and real-world opportunities to construct knowledge, an important dimension of 21st century learning design. In order to make sense of what they experience, they often must translate and/or apply what they’ve learned from the fieldwork in their academic study – a key skill in the knowledge construction domain. In many cases, service learning experiences are also framed as opportunities to contribute to the solving complex problems in the community, another key aspect of 21st century learning.
Similar to fieldwork, digital technologies can help students both capture elements of their fieldwork and demonstrate their learning. Digital audio and video recorders can help students both collect data and document their experience in the field. Simple word processing tools, note taking applications (e.g., OneNote and Evernote), and blogs can help students to capture their emerging thinking along the way. Students can then share their understanding by developing digital products of their learning, including papers, digital presentations, videos, and physical or virtual exhibits (perhaps using a wiki tool).
How might service learning enrich your courses?
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