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The importance of academic service learning in universities May 1, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Associate Professor Diana Whitton

Here, Diana Whitton points to the development of academic service learning programs in universities which strengthen student skills and sense of commitment to the community, while providing valuable knowledge and service to community organisations and those who rely upon them.

On the front page of the careers section of the Sydney Morning Herald on 2.4.11, the feature article of that week was – Start the climb – how volunteering can kick start your career. The development of volunteering, work integrated learning and cooperative learning is being reformed within universities by an international focus on academic service learning. Developing systematic reciprocal approaches which benefit host organizations and students, service learning is leading to new forms of community development.

The skills and knowledge attained within university classrooms are being utilised through service learning placements in a range of agencies throughout the community. There is a desperate need in community organisations to have reliable people who can assist in their outreach programs, and this fact has seen the growth of university academic service learning in which students provide organisations with assistance. The advantage of service learning is that students bring high level skills to their placement, whilst they also generate good will, understanding, and empathy, along with important relevant knowledge of their communities.

However, the challenge remains that while universities espouse to being part of the community, when it comes to service learning courses which engage with the community, these courses are often under-rated or maligned, and are not strongly supported. Faculties have often not adopted the concept of service learning but perceive it as an internship, volunteering, work integrated learning, or professional experience: programs which are undertaken for a quite different reason to service learning. For service learning to survive – which it must do – the ‘ivory tower’ needs to be with the community totally, developing, supporting and generating the links between the students, academics and the community, rather than counting the cost of the process in terms of dollars and cents and not goodwill. We need to support a new currency that relates to the cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity and cultural knowledge that is generated for students, academics and community agencies and their members.

Thus opportunities need to be created that permit students to undertake all forms of service learning – direct (working with and in a community); indirect (working for a community group); advocacy (developing strategies to promote the community); and, research (undertaking investigations to develop the knowledge base of the community), within their study so they develop fully as professionals ready to work within the community.

The process involved in creating effective service learning experiences has the students undertake four stages of engaging with communities: devising, developing, delivering, and  documenting their project plus critically reflecting on what they are undertaking. It is only the reflection on the learning which leads to the gaining of academic credit for students. The process is not a replication of traditional internships or professional experience, but rather the opportunity for students to undertake real life projects at the request of a community, and solve them.

The following are examples of just two academic service learning projects that are continually making a difference. Over the last year a few groups of students has taken on the project of working with the South East Neighbourhood Centre in Daceyville. Their project has entailed creating a product that is sustainable and will bring in funds to the community on a regular basis. At the Centre’s request, a cookbook has been created. The students had a fund raising dinner to make money to buy the food to have enable the preparation of the recipes that had been provided by the staff and community at the centre. Assistance from a range of people was obtained (all pro bono) to cook, style, photograph and test each recipe to create a first class cook book – Neighbourhood Table – which will now be promoted by another group of students and launched in the community.

A second group of students have been working with a large Australian NGO, Mission Australia. The agency requires support on many levels to maintain their recycling of mattresses. For years mattresses have just gone to landfill but MA has set up a recycling plant to strip down the mattresses and recycle all components. The project has seen two-fold involvement for the participating university students: to find a constant source of mattresses so the recycling may continue uninterrupted; and, to develop a resource to use in the community to educate people about how they can be part of the recycling process. To date the students have contacted numerous hotels to secure a supply of mattresses and are now developing a DVD of the work undertaken by MA that can be used in the community and schools. The MA project has created jobs for 10 people who have previously experienced long term unemployment, and so the work of the university students is making a difference to the lives of many other people.

Diana Whitton is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Her areas of expertise are in gifted education, pedagogy, and academic service learning.

The content of this post relates to a previous post written by Loshini Naidoo, titled Pre-service teachers and refugee high school students – new ways of becoming a 21st century teacher


1. Mary Nosworthy - May 10, 2011

Interesting stuff. I am sure we can learn a great deal from service learning and in the process develop better humans.

2. Don D'Anella - May 10, 2011

Yes, I think there still is a misconception of what service learning is all about in contrast to community service and other forms of community engagement.
Changing attitudes at University level -scholars and educators- and having them become better informed may be a good starting point. Churning out university graduates is one thing, but are they really prepared for engagement in the community or workforce?
Great to see that there are educators out there who think outside of the ‘square’.
Pitty we don’t have more of them.

3. T.S Mhlanga - August 23, 2011

as a student i think that service learning as part of the curriculum helps us a lot bcoz it gives us an opportunity to apply practically what we have learnt from classroom. furthermore, it presents us with the real life workplace as to how should we identify and tackle community unmet needs and existing personal and social problems. by Mhlanga T.S

4. thokozani kunene from unizulu - August 27, 2011

i also strongly agree to what mhlanga has mentioned,service learning empower us as students to be the leaders of tommorw,because when we have seen that we are capable of helping the community to solve any problem that may arise,we then feel proud and want to further our career.most of all it gives us skills for our professional jobs.

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