February 2, 2012
Four Keys to Successful Service Learning in Online Courses
Many faculty members may believe that service learning and distance education are mutually exclusive endeavors. However, David Pratt, associate professor of education and coordinator of learning and technology for Purdue University North Central, has found otherwise. He has successfully integrated a service learning component into an online course, and the lessons he has learned are applicable for anyone planning to do likewise.
Service learning may be one of the more effective ways of engaging students in the learning process, particularly for the current generation of Millennials. It is worth the effort to add a real-world learning experience to a course, and this extends to online courses, where the challenges are even more complex than in a face-to-face course.
Pratt has taught an online course, “Classroom Applications of Educational Technology,” for several years. This course teaches student teachers how to apply technology in their future classrooms, and Pratt saw the value of adding a service learning component. So, he found a local school that had just received new technologies; the teachers at this school were not receiving sufficient professional development training to adequately use these technologies.
Students in Pratt’s class consulted with the client teachers to learn about the technologies available to them, then did independent research on how each individual teacher could better use the resources at his or her disposal. Pratt’s students met one time face-to-face with their client teacher to present their findings, leaving the client teacher with a USB drive containing resources they could use in the classroom. Students discussed their experiences via online Blackboard discussion and completed a reflection paper as part of their grade; the client teachers also provided feedback on the presentation and value of the consultation.
Through adding this service learning component to his course, Pratt was able to learn the following lessons:
1. Pick a goal, and integrate it into the course
“The key is to meet the needs of the student in the course [as well as] the community organization,” Pratt says. “Pick a goal in your course that could be better met with an organization in your community.” In this case, he found a way to encourage his students to research uses of technology in the K-6 classroom while serving teachers who were already there.
“The next big part is to integrate it as a part of the class and not just an add-on,” he says. This may mean that the introduction of a service learning project will displace other projects. Faculty, Pratt says, need to “appreciate how much time it will take the students” to complete the service learning project and plan accordingly.
Faculty must also appreciate the value of students learning from professionals other than themselves. “It is hard for faculty to give up control, but it’s worth it,” he says. “Trust other people to help your students learn.”
2. Pursue funding
Pratt points out that pursuing funding for a service learning project is not always necessary to achieve the course goals. “You really don’t need any money, but it is nice,” he says. The organization typically is “paid” for its participation in free labor, and the students are typically “paid” in course credit, so no money needs to change hands.
However, Pratt was able to secure a university-provided grant in the amount of $1,000 for his project, and an outside organization called Indiana Campus Compact awarded him $3,000. This money allowed students to provide a USB drive to their client teachers as well as a book they selected, and it allows Pratt to present his findings at conferences.
3. Know when to keep and when to surrender control
One of the challenging aspects of a service learning project for many faculty is giving up some control. This is particularly necessary in a distance learning version of a service learning project, because the professor will need to rely on others to help the project move forward.
“You do have to have a point person at the site, especially for distance learning,” Pratt comments. Since there is no assurance that students will be working at a stipulated time or be coming from the same place, a point person at the client site can help troubleshoot issues. This need can be indicated in the contract between the university and the client organization.
This worked well for Pratt, whose course is offered through a regional campus; although it is online, most students come from a relatively small area, so he could choose a single client organization. The distance nature of the course does mean that Pratt has less control over student interaction with the client school. “With an online course, I can’t really tell students to be a certain place at a certain time, so I had them do a certain amount of research online and then [hold] one meeting,” he explains.
He adds that, had he allowed students to find their own client site, he likely would have asked the students to submit a few possible options for his selection and approval. Keeping control over the array of client sites is important.
4. Have back-up plans
“You have to have a back-up plan for student issues or site issues,” says Pratt. For example, have plans in place for what will happen if a student shows up in unacceptable dress, or in the case of inclement weather. Knowing how to handle these circumstances will make addressing them easier.
Additionally, Pratt recommends having back-up assignments ready for students who cannot attend a site meeting. Although he only required one on-site meeting and gave the students a month to arrange meetings, he did not feel he could require students to attend the meeting if they had work issues or the like. These conflicts are perhaps more likely to come up in the distance education environment, so it helps to have assignments ready the students can complete if they cannot go onsite.
Pratt also recommends faculty give students the opportunity to plan. After the first term he integrated service learning into his course, Pratt found some students were unhappy about the service learning requirement. “Some were upset they didn’t get notified up front,” he says. He recommends faculty make this information available at registration.
Pratt suggests that faculty teaching a relatively new course not try to integrate service learning into it; rather, he believes this is “for someone who has taught a course for several years and is ready to take it to the next level.” Even for experienced faculty, service learning will require skills that the faculty members have not necessarily developed. “It is OK if you’re not good at all things; it can still have a huge benefit for the students,” he says. However, he is sold on the value of service learning. “A more engaging, interactive, real-world approach is more messy but more emotionally [fulfilling]. If any experience can be done in a real-world environment, do it,” he urges.
Reprinted from Hill, C. (2010). The 4 Keys to Successful Service Learning in Online Courses. Distance Education Report, 14 (24), 4, 8.