Online Learning and Service-Learning: How They Can Work Together

Written by: Julie Phillips
Published On: April 6, 2012

The benefits of having students engage in service activities to help create richer and more meaningful connection to course material have been well documented and utilized in higher education. However, using this tried-and-true practice is relatively new in the online classroom, so as educators and administrators we're still learning how we can implement this method of education in the online environment to its fullest extent.

Service-Learning Course Design Workshop & ConsultationIf you have been thinking about implementing service-learning in your online class, here are some best practices and helpful tips that I've established based upon my experience with this endeavor. This certainly is not an exhaustive list but is a good starting point of some issues and suggestions to think about if you're interested in adding service-learning to your online courses. The future is bright for incorporating service-learning into online courses as we're only beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to what can be done and how it can be done in the virtual environment.

Select the appropriate course. I cannot stress this one enough! Before you implement service-learning, take a step back and ask yourself what students will gain from engaging in a volunteer activity and how it will enhance their learning experience. Service-learning may be a perfect match for, say, a human growth and development course but a bit more difficult to pull off for an algebra course.

Establish clear expectations. What are the goals of incorporating service-learning in your online course? Make sure you can answer this question clearly because the students will ask why this activity is a part of the course. Also, be sure to answer the who, what, when, why, and how questions for students as they will want to understand the requirements so they can plan.

Respond to " turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours that most school policies dictate for online instructors, you'll be in good shape. With community partners, follow the same guidelines, and don't be afraid to call and speak with the volunteer coordinator over the phone - don't rely solely on email.

Online Tip: The goal over time is to be able to establish a working relationship with community partners. You can accomplish this by being responsive to inquiries and questions and by providing students with the information they need to contact these organizations. Since many online students are scattered throughout the country (and even the world), we have the unique challenge of building relationships with those who we may never meet in person. So help by providing students with the information they need in order to approach the community partners in a confident manner (objectives of the course, the purpose of service-learning, information about the school, students' resumes, etc.). The more successful our students are, the more successful the service-learning endeavor will be for everyone involved! Approaching a community partner is a lot like contacting potential employers, so many of the same principles apply: practice, present yourself, and prepare to follow up.

Magna Online SeminarVolunteering should align with the course objectives. Whether the volunteer activity is something that students will have the opportunity to select or whether you'll be designating an approved activity to maintain consistency, be sure the activity aligns with the objectives for the course. Continue to ask yourself just how this activity will allow the students to meet one or more of the course objectives, and ask students to articulate this as well. If they are not able to draw the connection between the volunteer activity that has been selected and the course objectives, this is a good indication that the activity may not be an appropriate one for the course.

Identify possible challenges up front: In all reality, this is almost impossible to do, but the more challenges you can anticipate and address ahead of time, the more streamlined the planning and execution stages will be. However, it may take a few terms after incorporating service-learning into your class to iron out all the kinks and that's OK - just keep striving for improvement each quarter. There definitely is an aspect of trial and error involved.

Communicate, communicate, communicate! Again, this bears repeating - keep in touch with your students as well as with community partners, because there will be questions, concerns, challenges, and feedback that you'll need to provide to both. So get into the habit of communicating often and early to help streamline the service-learning experience.

Online Tip: There are many opportunities to communicate with our students and community partners, so don't be limited to just email. While email will be a primary form of communication, we also have the opportunity to interact via telephone, discussion boards, webinars, conference.

Encourage reflection throughout the course. One of the most important aspects of creating a positive and meaningful experience with service-learning for your students is to encourage and build reflective activities into class. Ask students (through discussions or assignments) to reflect upon their thoughts and feelings before, during, and after their volunteering and how their experiences relate to a better understanding of the course content. It really is impressive to see the change in thoughts and attitudes from the beginning of the course to the end for many students, so be sure to allow this to unfold for them by the way in which the assignments are designed in class.

Online Classroom newsletterListen to student concerns and work through them together. Not all online students will be happy to learn that a service-learning activity is required in class. Some of the most common objections I hear revolve around the fact that their schedules are already full and they don't have time for volunteering, transportation may be limited or non-existent, the reason they enrolled in online courses is so they could avoid in-person interaction, and they are scared. Each of these objectives can be worked through and certainly isn't a deal breaker, but it's important that you work with these students to come up with a plan that not only addresses their concerns but also accomplishes the goal of having them complete the service- learning requirement.

Enlist feedback from your students and their community partners. The only way to know how the service-learning project is proceeding in class is to ask those who are participating. By asking for feedback from students, we're able to determine what is working well and what might need improvement or clarification - this is especially important during the first few terms as service learning is getting off the ground. Students will not be shy about letting you know their thoughts and feelings about their experiences and will appreciate being asked. It's also important to engage the community partners in this dialogue as well so you can continue to monitor whether the relationship is a positive one for everyone involved and the community partner's volunteer needs are being met.

Online Tip: Following up with everyone involved in the service-learning project can no doubt be time consuming, but the efforts are definitely worthwhile. You may set up an evaluation through a free service such as SurveyMonkey in which you can send to students and community partners via email to acquire feedback. As you're setting up your service-learning requirements be sure to ask for the community partners' contact information for check-ins and follow-ups. Once you receive the information you can evaluate what is working well and anything that might need revision to ensure a more positive experience for students and/or their community partners.
Allow the students to share their experiences. This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the learning process for students is being able to reflect upon their experiences and process what they've been through. Not all service-learning experiences are going to be positive (although this is the goal that we're shooting for, of course), but we all know that we can learn just as much, if not more, from experiences that we find challenging or difficult. Additionally, students like learning more about what everyone else did for their projects and also being able to hear (from someone other than their instructor!) just how much their efforts have made a difference in the community.
Online Tip: One technique that has worked well is to set up a service-learning blog where students are able to share their experiences. More importantly, by creating an avenue in which students can share their experiences as well as learn more about what everyone accomplished individually as well together as a class there is a greater sense of satisfaction as the results become more tangible and real. And, as one last bonus, you will also have an external archive in which you can share with future students, community partners, and others associated with the institution.
Requirements of the service-learning activity need to be realistic. There is often a reason that students are taking courses online, so don't make the service-learning component something that is unattainable. Students taking online classes are most often working adults who are trying to juggle many different responsibilities, so take this into account as you're planning. Don't ask students to complete 50 hours of volunteering if five will do; it's not the quantity of the volunteering but the quality of the experience that will have the greatest impact.
Never underestimate the power that hands-on experience has on student learning. We sometimes forget that we can create hands-on activities in the online environment, and when we do, no doubt student satisfaction increases. Don't let the fact that we're teaching online stop us from stretching the boundaries of learning in the online environment, as we're limited only by our own beliefs. Most online students are searching for connection with others and to not feel so isolated during the learning process so let's use this to our benefit!
Incorporate various resources into class to help guide students. Students may have an idea of their volunteering interests but have no idea of where to begin. Include more information about service-learning in general as well as specific websites or contacts students can use to search for volunteer opportunities. I've found www.servicelearning.org, www.volunteermatch.org, www.unitedway.org, www.doinggoodtogether.org,www.charityguide.org, and www.serve.gov to be very helpful and easy to use- great resources for students!
Not all community partners are created the same. Just because an organization is searching for volunteers doesn't necessarily mean that they are actively recruiting. If a community partner is slow to respond (or doesn't respond at all, which does happen!), requires an unrealistic commitment from volunteers, or fails to provide any guidance for students it is OK to search for an alternate partner. It's always a good idea for students to have a backup plan in case "Plan A" doesn't work out. Keep a list of those organizations that aren't responsive or accommodating so you can pass this information on to your students and fellow instructors. On the flip side, also keep a list of those partners that have been a pleasure to work with to have this as a reference as well.
Online Tip: For the service-learning experience to be a beneficial we need to evaluate the community partners. Do they respond to student inquiries? What is their volunteer process/training like? Do they have realistic expectations for their volunteers? Are they supportive of the students and their service-learning efforts? These are just some of the questions to ask to help determine if a mutually beneficial relationship can be established and maintained.
Get excited! After all, the students will only be as excited about the opportunity to engage in service-learning as their instructors are! I have seen firsthand how an instructor's approach to service-learning can either make or break the experience for students. If you approach this component of the course with excitement, encouragement, and support, your students will be much more likely to "buy in" to the activity and have a more positive perception of it, and that's what we're ultimately after!
Julie Phillips is an online instructor at Globe Education Network.
This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom (link to http://www.magnapubs.com/catalog/online-classroom-newsletter/) (March 2011): 3,7,8. The Online Classroom (link to http://www.magnapubs.com/catalog/online-classroom-newsletter/) newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher e

Online Tip: The goal over time is to be able to establish a working relationship with community partners. You can accomplish this by being responsive to inquiries and questions and by providing students with the information they need to contact these organizations. Since many online students are scattered throughout the country (and even the world), we have the unique challenge of building relationships with those who we may never meet in person. So help by providing students with the information they need in order to approach the community partners in a confident manner (objectives of the course, the purpose of service-learning, information about the school, students' resumes, etc.). The more successful our students are, the more successful the service-learning endeavor will be for everyone involved! Approaching a community partner is a lot like contacting potential employers, so many of the same principles apply: practice, present yourself, and prepare to follow up.

Allow the students to share their experiences. This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the learning process for students is being able to reflect upon their experiences and process what they've been through. Not all service-learning experiences are going to be positive (although this is the goal that we're shooting for, of course), but we all know that we can learn just as much, if not more, from experiences that we find challenging or difficult. Additionally, students like learning more about what everyone else did for their projects and also being able to hear (from someone other than their instructor!) just how much their efforts have made a difference in the community.

Online Tip: One technique that has worked well is to set up a service-learning blog where students are able to share their experiences. More importantly, by creating an avenue in which students can share their experiences as well as learn more about what everyone accomplished individually as well together as a class there is a greater sense of satisfaction as the results become more tangible and real. And, as one last bonus, you will also have an external archive in which you can share with future students, community partners, and others associated with the institution.

Requirements of the service-learning activity need to be realistic. There is often a reason that students are taking courses online, so don't make the service-learning component something that is unattainable. Students taking online classes are most often working adults who are trying to juggle many different responsibilities, so take this into account as you're planning. Don't ask students to complete 50 hours of volunteering if five will do; it's not the quantity of the volunteering but the quality of the experience that will have the greatest impact.

Never underestimate the power that hands-on experience has on student learning. We sometimes forget that we can create hands-on activities in the online environment, and when we do, no doubt student satisfaction increases. Don't let the fact that we're teaching online stop us from stretching the boundaries of learning in the online environment, as we're limited only by our own beliefs. Most online students are searching for connection with others and to not feel so isolated during the learning process so let's use this to our benefit!

Incorporate various resources into class to help guide students. Students may have an idea of their volunteering interests but have no idea of where to begin. Include more information about service-learning in general as well as specific websites or contacts students can use to search for volunteer opportunities. I've found www.servicelearning.org, www.volunteermatch.org, www.unitedway.org, www.doinggoodtogether.org, www.charityguide.org, and www.serve.gov to be very helpful and easy to use - great resources for students!

Not all community partners are created the same. Just because an organization is searching for volunteers doesn't necessarily mean that they are actively recruiting. If a community partner is slow to respond (or doesn't respond at all, which does happen!), requires an unrealistic commitment from volunteers, or fails to provide any guidance for students it is OK to search for an alternate partner. It's always a good idea for students to have a backup plan in case "Plan A" doesn't work out. Keep a list of those organizations that aren't responsive or accommodating so you can pass this information on to your students and fellow instructors. On the flip side, also keep a list of those partners that have been a pleasure to work with to have this as a reference as well.

Online Tip: For the service-learning experience to be a beneficial we need to evaluate the community partners. Do they respond to student inquiries? What is their volunteer process/training like? Do they have realistic expectations for their volunteers? Are they supportive of the students and their service-learning efforts? These are just some of the questions to ask to help determine if a mutually beneficial relationship can be established and maintained.

Get excited! After all, the students will only be as excited about the opportunity to engage in service-learning as their instructors are! I have seen firsthand how an instructor's approach to service-learning can either make or break the experience for students. If you approach this component of the course with excitement, encouragement, and support, your students will be much more likely to "buy in" to the activity and have a more positive perception of it, and that's what we're ultimately after!

Julie Phillips is an online instructor at Globe Education Network.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom (March 2011): 3,7,8. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.