Service Learning in Blended & Online Courses

Ask a hundred people what is lacking in online courses you usually hear one of two responses. First, they explain that online courses (as least as they have experienced them) do not allow for the spontaneous interaction of a face-to-face class (Those who have studied the wide breadth of online learning models know that this is possible, if desired.). Although here are also plenty of face-to-face courses that are designed in such a way that spontaneous interaction is rare or never present. A second limitation described by many people is the general personal touch of a physical class and learning community: nonverbal communication, a sense of being part of a physical community, etc. I started to address some of that in a recent article about ways to integrated the offline world into your online course, suggesting that online courses don’t  need to be experienced fully online.

A recent case study in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching highlights one such practice.  It profiles a non-traditional blended learning class that is built as a service learning course, students meeting the course objectives in a way that is aided by integrated face-to-face service learning experiences. In “Using Service Learning to Enhance a Hybrid Course Curriculum in the ‘Politics of Food'”, Monique Mironesco gives a rich description of building a service learning hybrid course. The lectures, discussions, and submission of assignments all took place online. However, students also gathered at scheduled times to engage in 20 hours of community service, and they built 5 hours of intentional debriefing and reflection into the course schedule/design.

As explained by Mironesco, this approach has three benefits:

However, a hybrid class presents opportunities for mostly non-traditional students to engage with an online curriculum in a holistic way through 1) experiential learning; 2) building a supportive community to foster increased student learning and civic engagement; and 3) fostering connections between the university and community partners.

Service LearningService learning applied to online learning is nothing new, as Mironesco illustrates in her literature review. One of the sources cited in the literature review goes back to 2004, when Jean Strait and Tim Sauer wrote, “Constructing Experiential Learning for Online Courses: The Birth of eService.” As they explain, service learning includes the integration of community service with the academic work, reflection and learning about the community service, and helping students make meaningful and authentic connections between the service and the core learning objectives in the course. In other words, this is not about having an English class take days off to rake the neighbor’s yard.  Service learning involves an integration of service, academic study, experiential education, and intentional time for reflection about connections between the academic study and service. The academic study enhances the service and the service provides insight into the academic study. It might instead involving having a business writing class interview people in the community who experienced a dis-service, and helping them write letters to a company or the government to address the issue. This might involve spending time with the people, getting to know them, learning about their problem and challenge, learning about the features of effective letters of complain, and then applying what they are learning in the writing class to help people in the community with a real need. Such an approach can be integrated into an online course design in ways similar to what has been done in traditional face-to-face courses.

There are several ways to approach service learning in online courses. There is the model used by Mironesco, teaching much of the course online, but requiring students, who may be geographically dispersed, to gather for shared community service. This could, however, be prohibitive depending upon the ability of students to travel to a common location. In that case, there is the option, as explained by Strait and Sauer, of having each student identify a different local site for community service. This allows for diverse student experiences. While they can’t benefit from a shared at of service, the diversity of service learning experiences by each student gives opportunity for rich discourse about the similarities and differences. Then there is the chance to provide integrated service that takes place online, something like doing web design for important causes, providing virtual tutoring for children, or launching a social media campaign to assist with an important cause. This extends beyond what most people think of as community service, but it can be designed in a way that seems to fit the core elements of service learning. As a result, there are four basic possibilities for service in online courses: online group service, online individual service, offline group service, and offline individual service. Beyond these, it is also possible to create a blend of these four within a single course design.

Service learning in online courses promises several benefits. It gives a rich opportunity for leveraging the affordances of online learning with high-impact face-to-face interactions. It helps students gain deeper insight into the relevance of academic content for real-world needs. It helps nurture a spirit of service and servant leadership. It is a design that encourages the rehearsal of academic content in a way that does not seem repetitive. It also offers another way to increase student engagement. As people continue to expand their sense of what is possible in online learning, avoiding the temptation to do everything within a small set of common design and teaching practices, we are likely to see many more such promising practices.