Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about service-learning. A variety of things from all different directions have merged in my brain to force me in this direction, and that’s handy, because I’m presenting about this in about a month at WILU. The presentation there is called “Making Coursework Matter”, and had more to do with two or three specific projects and had no particular theoretical underpinning that I was aware of. I had an idea about rescuing student work from the shedder and putting out into the world, and I wanted librarianship to a leadership role in implementing that kind of project. What I was planning to present was, in essence, a call to action. I still want that, but I’ve realized lately that what I intending to propose has far deeper implications and wider-reaching possibilities, and was already rooted in some established ideas.

The basic gist of my presentation (I’m totally scooping myself here) is this: at my institution, and at most others, students have a wealth of resources available to them, and then time and requirement to process them into something new. In other parts of the world (not to mention other parts of the country), this is not the case, and rather than encourage and support assignments that work out to busywork for students, why don’t we create spaces for students to contribute their work, so that students in other places can benefit from it? When you’re creating a document to help someone else form an idea or use a theory, that citation being properly constructed matters a lot more. I have two personal experiences this year with watching student engagement rise to unbelievable levels as soon as their work matters to someone other than their instructors; I have a few ideas for how to form these kinds of assignments, and that’s what I wanted to talk about. I know others will surely have ideas of their own to share, and I’d really like to talk about the role of librarianship is archiving this kind of information and making it globally available. That’s our expertise, right?

So I already had that idea in my head (and I feel it pressing against me with a certain amount of urgency). At the same time, I’ve been doing my research on the ins and outs of Second Life. As I’ve said, I’m spending time with Second Life to get a sense of what it offers (a lot) and how we can best take advantage of it to foster more engaged learning experiences. I’ve got some ideas at the moment, but I’m still new to the space, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions just yet. There’s been way too much jumping to conclusions in Second Life by educators and librarians of all varieties, seeing the fast, immediate use of the thing before really digging in the dirt a bit to see how far it can go. Heck, we’re still in the stage where everyone thinks this kind of space is Brand! New!, which is simply not even close to the case. We’re great at getting excited about things, but there’s far more work to be done. I want to be a little bit slower about this, get to know the natives and see what it is they’re trying to accomplish, see what actually works and what doesn’t, get into the scripting, read up on the theories and the experiences of others, and try to propose something thoughtful; if you look around in there, you’ll find a lot of flashy educational spaces, but I’m not convinced they’re nearly as rich as they could be. And I’m still a newbie. Do we build a space where we provide service to students, or do we provide space for students to provide service themselves, in whatever way makes the most sense within their curriculum?

I’ve heard very (very) often that students are really only interested in grades, so they only truly relevant coursework is anything that provides grades. For librarians, if the work you’re doing with a class results in students getting grades for paying attention, then you’ve succeeded. This argument has never sat well with me, but as a deeply political person, with grand ideas about the human condition and the responsibility of each of us to each other, surely I’m biased. However: students at my school put on a production of The Vagina Monologues on their own, without urging or organization from the administration or the departments, and donated the entirety of their proceeds to a local women’s shelter. There were about 20 students involved, only one of them from the drama program. 20 students dedicated their time and effort to this production, and for no grades at all, because they wanted to draw attention to the relationship between the treatment and perceptions of women’s bodies and the process of war. How can I possibly sit there in the audience, watching these amazing, talented, committed women on the stage, and keep thinking that they only thing that motivates them is grades?

Last week I attended a workshop where fourth year students in an “Information Preparedness” course presented their proposed curriculum for fostering the kind of learning they felt they needed but didn’t recieve. They did a great job, and lots of interesting discussion ensued. The pieces that really stuck with me, and kept coming back at me afterward, were the parts where the talked about how they came to learn the skills we talk about when we talk about Information Literacy; not in class, not in a library instruction session, not in the process of trying to write a paper. They learned things when they were out on co-ops or internships, and where the learning of these skills mattered to someone. If our goal is to equip students with the skills they need for just these situations, should we pay attention to these kinds of results? If the purpose provides some of the engagement required to learn, should we be looking for and providing that kind of purpose?

And then this weekend, while perusing the blog of my (prolific) friend Jeremy Hunsinger, I followed his link to a post about how schools and museums aren’t about learning, they’re about making (and playing). What on earth does learning mean when someone can say something like that? Today I recieved an email from a local teacher Jason Nolan and I have been working with to do some socially-relevant coursework with high school students; he told us that his students are having such a great time with it that he has a hard time pulling them away from the project to work on other things. Everyone presumes the cool part is the technology (that’s certainly part of it). But what about the social action part? What causes and creates engagement? And how can we use that knowledge to encourage real learning?

From servicelearning.org:

service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.

I’ve seen service-learning in action before, but it’s only now that I see how it could blend nicely with library instruction, and with my particular role as a collaborator with faculty. Service-learning generally implies a large project, but what I’m thinking now is that it could also be scaled down; why shouldn’t we propose micro serivce-learning projects that have an impact, not necessarily or only on the local community, but on the global community? Creating information sources for others, with the right citations, in order to improve the lives of people who don’t have the same level of access as we do, is a form of service-learning too. Even traditional coursework can become part of a service-learning project. The moment things became digital, we entered a world where our community can span the entire globe; maybe one way we engage students and show them the relevance of information literacy skills is by getting them on side to start making that global community a better place.

3 thoughts on “Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)”

  1. “I’ve heard very (very) often that students are really only interested in grades, so they only truly relevant coursework is anything that provides grades.”

    Of course they ‘learned’ that somewhere. Back to Eisner and Jackson… this is the hidden curriculum of learning instutions. But then again, what you’re talking about goes back beyond papert and constructionism to illich.

    I’m not sure about ‘service learning’ because it sounds like the peace corps, but it does resonate with my notion of helping students make public utterances as part of their professionalization. Your notion of radical trust, in that students are good and want to learn, largely. And the de-linking of learning from schooling, and the accreditation thereof.

    I’d say “praxis or piss off”. If the theory doesn’t intersect with practice, then why bother, except as some higher-ed form of manual self-stimulation.

  2. I think the concept of service-learning has too long been associated with things like collecting garbage from riverbeds and building houses. Those are all valid activities, but they limit people’s thinking when we talk about “community problems”. That immediately evokes a particular kind of work, and I think that’s limiting. There are “community problems” from a digital perspective as well, be they in Second Life or around access to information in Namibia. Your idea about public utterances are, I think, inching in this direction; if the outer goals are more defined (say, editing wikipedia, or making audio learning objects for 4 year olds), that’s 100% service-learning, even if the powers-that-be disagree. There are all kinds of communities in the world, and I don’t think digital labour is any less valid than manual in that context.

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