Monday, March 31, 2014

Service Learning - Who Benefits?

Service Learning

To me, the concept of service learning is as intriguing as it is ambiguous. My view of education – and research – is that all learning ought to be of service not only to my immediate colleagues or even those who are interested in the areas of my research. There needs to be something that everyone can take away from the work that I produce as a scholar.

Service learning, according to the UW’s own Office of Service Learning and Community Based Research is “a class of courses using a pedagogical model that integrates classroom learning with community engagement.” The full description is:

Service Learning (SL) is a class of courses using a pedagogical model that integrates classroom learning with community engagement. The classroom/community partnership provides structured opportunities to apply academic theories, principles, and constructs to solve real world problems, and enhances students’ analytical, creative, and problem solving skills.

There is something missing there: The promise of benefit to the community. The question then might be, who is being served? The language of the UW’s site makes it seem as though the primary beneficiary of service learning projects – and theory – is and should be the students themselves.

Another way to think about service learning is institutionally supported volunteerism, as the Los Angeles County Office of Education seems to suggest. As the paper argues, an appreciation of volunteerism is central to the notion of a democratic society. So it would follow that service learning would be essential to the mission of a globally minded institution of higher education like the UW. 

The J School's own Service Learning effort, Savor South Madison, has done an admirable job of working with typically underserved or neglect members of the Madison community. It has also done something arguably more important: expose the generally homogenous student population to previously unknown communities. The result has been a richer understanding of what Madison is and what media and communications outreach can do to educate both groups. As their website states, their mission is to "promote ethnic food establishments and food-related events through the use of new communication technologies." 

Despite some questionable decisions, (such as naming their restaurant-hopping activity as a "taste race," and focusing exclusively on ethnic food rather than issues like health, education or governmental access), the Savor South Madison project seems like a good start for interested students to, in their own words, "create stronger ties within South Madison and bridge South Madison to other parts of the city, specifically UW-Madison."