Service-Learning in a Virtual World

Student works on computer with online icons scattered around screen

The pandemic has required faculty to rethink many things about the way they teach.  Perhaps nothing has been more pedagogically confounding than trying to imagine how to teach a service-learning course in the virtual world.  Service-learning, by definition, requires doing service; providing a tangible service that would be otherwise unattainable to the people being served.  For decades, service-learning has involved students leaving campus and going into communities to provide practical services in a wide variety of physical environments.  Then COVID-19 changed our physical and social worlds.  Now many students are attending classes virtually and community partners are understandably apprehensive about allowing students to enter their physical spaces.  Yet, students still want (and sometimes need) service-learning experiences that are built into their college curriculum, and faculty still have a desire to incorporate service-based pedagogy into their courses.  Since many of the numerous benefits of service-learning are hard to replicate in other ways, faculty are reimagining how they can facilitate service-learning opportunities when actual physical interactions are severely restricted.  Despite the challenges, it is possible to continue to teach service-learning courses.  To do so requires a renewed focus on the core elements of service-learning and a creative look at the emerging service needs in our communities.

“Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes”  (Jacoby 1996).  When unpacking this definition, two things should stand out.  First, the mutually beneficial relationship of service-learning, to both the students providing the service and the community members being served, and second, the emphasis on reflection and making academic connections to meet specific learning objectives.  Kolb’s experiential learning theory, which serves as a common foundation for service-learning pedagogy, further emphasizes the importance of reflection and evaluation of learning experiences (Kolb and Kolb 2008).  Thus, one way to start reimagining virtual service-learning is to place a renewed emphasis on the reflective components.  While the actual service aspect may be less intense quantifiably (e.g. fewer numbers of hours, fewer human contact experiences), the reflective learning component can become more of a focus.  Couple that shift with a creative look at what emerging service needs to exist in the community and new opportunities abound, including those that can be completed from behind a computer screen. 

Here are three suggested steps to help reimagine service-learning in an increasingly virtual world:

  1. Simplify the experiences.  The type of experience, number of hours, and quality of encounters may be less rigorous than in previous semesters.  While at first glance that feels like a loss, by emphasizing the reflection and conceptualization components of service-learning it may actually become an asset to learning.  Service-based experiences must still be a part of the process, but giving ourselves and our student’s permission to think about those experiences differently and with less pressure for quantity of interactions gives us space to focus on the quality of both the experience and the subsequent learning.
  2. Focus on reflection.  Every service-based encounter, whether large or small, has the potential for learning through reflection and connection with academic content.  Use the time that would have been previously spent in the community to focus on the reflective aspect of service-learning.  Instead of reflection being a single assignment or end of semester activity, it can become a major element of the class.  Multiple smaller-scale service encounters can be interspersed with academic content and intentional reflection and reconceptualization activities. This can be done through individual writing and can also include discussions, presentations, and synthesis projects.
  3. Think creatively about community needs.  While students may not be able to go out into the community to provide a service, many of the people they would have been serving are also now leading more isolated lives, with new priorities and challenges.  Students can work within virtual platforms to identify the shifting needs of isolated communities and work to address those needs, many of which have emerged from the circumstances of the pandemic. 

While the pandemic has necessitated a re-imagining of many service-learning based courses, it also provides an opportunity to develop new collaborative service-learning experiences across disciplines.  Collaboration has always been a valuable skill, and it is perhaps more important than ever, but also more challenging due to physical distancing.  By making connections across departments, faculty can create service experiences that better mimic the multi-dimensional problems of real life, and students will learn new and transferrable skills by working with students with different areas of expertise.  Through cross-campus partnerships, faculty and students can discover unique and creative solutions to emerging needs, solutions that were previously unthinkable.

While virtual service-learning cannot replace all of the practical service needs that had been met by college students prior to the pandemic, it can provide a meaningful learning experience while meeting new community needs.  Here are some examples of emerging needs and possible collaborative service-learning projects designed to meet them. Let these ideas inspire your own creativity as you learn what the needs are in your community and match them with the departments and resources of your university.

  • Problem: Limited access to libraries and other educational resources in the community because of pandemic related restrictions.
  • Solution: Creating educational subscription boxes by mail that teach about health, history, philosophy, or other subject areas.  This could be a collaboration between students with the content area expertise and marketing students who can help explore the business aspect of creating an economical, desirable product.
  • Problem: The rise in telehealth means technological savviness is now a requirement to interact with some medical professionals, and there are some population groups, such as the elderly or intellectually disabled, that struggle with this new demand.
  • Solution: Assisting elderly community members with tele-health needs.  This could be a collaboration between information technology students who help with the technology set-up and support needs, and biology or health science students who can help translate electronic health information into understandable language.
  • Problem: After-school programs for at-risk youth have been cancelled. 
  • Solution: Students can offer virtual after-school programs that teach, entertain, and inspire. Education majors, students studying foreign language, social work majors, art, music, and recreation majors can all get involved in organizing and leading Zoom-based after-school programs that provide tutoring, games, physical activity, social support, and more.

Jill Lassiter, EdD, is an assistant professor in the department of health sciences at James Madison University.  She is a certified health educator and teaches primarily in the area of health promotions, with a focus on community engagement.


Jacoby, Barbara. “Service-Learning in Today’s Higher Education.” In Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices, edited by Barbara Jacoby & Associates, 3-25. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996

Kolb, Alice Y. and Kolb, David A. Experiential learning theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development. In SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development, edited by Steve J. Armstrong and Cynthia V. Fukami, 42–68. London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2009.