Service-learning is a term that can be found more and more frequently in academic education worldwide. Since the 1970s this educational methodology has been analyzed, studied, defined and is focused content of several papers as well as books. The most important issues refer to “How can service-learning be defined? How to distinguish it from other similar concepts? How does the method affect students?”. There is agreement on positive effects which support the popularity of service-learning in academic education and the reason why INEX incorporates this methodology in its lecture “Sustainability Challenge”.
In 1979 Robert Sigmon defined service-learning as a phenomenon that occurs when there is a balance between learning goals and service outcomes. The Corporation for National Service describes the method as more active participation in organized service experiences and that places curricular concepts in the context of real-life situations. These two definitions are commonly used when trying to explain and distinguish service-learning from the following, superficially similar educational concepts:
Volunteerism is the engagement of students in activities where the primary emphasis is on the service being provided and the primary intended beneficiary is clearly the service recipient. Community service is the engagement of students in activities that primarily focus on the service being provided as well as the benefits the service activities have on the recipients (e.g., providing food to the home‐ less during the holidays).
Internships programs engage students in service activities primarily for the purpose of providing students with hands‐on experiences that enhance their learning or understanding of issues relevant to a particular area of study.
Field Education programs provide students with co‐curricular service opportunities that are related, but not fully integrated, with their formal academic studies. Students perform the service as part of a program that is designed primarily to enhance students’ understanding of a field of study, while also providing substantial emphasis on the service being provided.
As shown in the graphic, service‐learning programs are distinguished from other approaches to experiential education by their intention to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring.
For Thomas Ehrlich, board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service, there are two concrete reasons for service-learning: 1) service as a form of practical experience enhances learning in all areas of a university´s curriculum; and 2) the experience of community service reinforces moral and civic values inherent in serving others.
Referring to academic education, service-learning links the classroom with the local community and therefore establishes a relation to various present topics. It requires students to spend time in volunteer service and relate their experiences to the educational theories they learn in the classroom. Reflection and reciprocity are key concepts of service-learning. In terms of key aspects the service project is integrated into students´ coursework as an essential learning tool and will help students further understand what they learn in class. It will help address a need in the community and will help to think about what they are learning on a different level. The benefits of service-learning for the students are concepts that are applied from the classroom to their service. Platforms are created that provide analyzing and discussing civic values, increasing their sense of self-efficacy, analytical skills, and social development as well as developing meaningful involvement with the local community. Benefits for the faculty are that it creates a collaborative, experiential classroom experience for students, making faculty impact more lasting, offers opportunities to test theories on real problems, provides access to interview, survey, and other data and creates a collaborative partnership that can help in securing funding. Benefits for the community are that it enhances positive relationships with the college, provides awareness-building of community issues, agencies, and constituents, contributes to positive exposure in the community, creates ways to expand current services by providing both technical and research support, actual onsite work and may help to secure outside funding. Benefits for the institution are that it facilitates teaching, research and program development, it increases institution’s awareness of societal issues as they relate to academic areas of interest, engages faculty and students in local and state community issues and provides opportunities to extend College’s knowledge and resources.
The public’s investment in higher education has a direct added value by transferring the gained theoretical know-how to industry, politics and society.