Service learning as a practice

Service learning as a practice

Service learning as a practice
How the world perceives universities has changed — from being spaces of learning which were distanced from society and its immediate problems to institutions that are expected to offer intervention based on academic expertise. Classrooms are expected to operate as think tanks that are expected to grapple with social, political and economic concerns as they unfold. Accordingly, teaching techniques have to evolve in order to accomplish these expectations. Therefore, pedagogical practices such as experiential, participatory and problem-solving methods are preferred to the traditional lecture mode or the chalk and talk method.

Since the objective is to make academics socially relevant and productive, curriculum and syllabi must also accommodate this two-way process. The curriculum and syllabi must meet needs of society, thus making academics an integral part of development. It should be possible to implement in society what is studied in the classroom. Curriculum can thus be validated in a social context.

To qualify as service learning, four components are essential to a curriculum — planning, implementation, reflection and assessment.

Planning would involve identifying concerns of social relevance, research, discussion with partners and setting up collaboration.

Implementation would focus on the service itself and how it is customised to the given situation or location. Specific needs and concerns must be addressed here and the solutions conceptualised.
n Reflection involves journal maintenance with task analysis and a record of challenges faced and new knowledge gained.

Assessment consists of the faculty assessing the student at every stage, i.e., planning, execution, and reflection. Self-assessment too is evaluated. The process thus is constantly observed and evaluated.

To illustrate, Science students are known to have undertaken environmental samples to measure pollution and submitted project reports to civic bodies with potential solutions. These students are then evaluated based on their sampling methods, report writing skills and possible solutions generated, regardless of their implementation. Similarly, Business Management students have supported small and medium enterprises with various innovative solutions to optimise their efficiency. Also, Hotel Management students have trained domestic helps in preparation of nutritious meals and multi-cuisine dishes to enhance their employability.

When in the realm of English Studies, which comprises literature and language, the contribution is immense in the context of globalisation. Literature keeps alive local cultural traditions, through narration of traditions and rituals. The learning of English language has the potential to enhance employability and levels the playing fields. The challenge is to maintain the sanctity of local cultures through the bilingual teaching methods. This involves the use of context-specific, need-based materials and at all times the vernacular.

English Studies hitherto viewed as an abstract, aesthetic domain, meaning that it does not directly enable employment is now being perceived by faculty and students as a dynamic domain contributing directly to social welfare. Students of English are trained in and expected to be conversant with the processes of English Language Training.

However, these theories are practised in classrooms in areas with underprivileged children to give them a better chance at employability. The debates in literary studies ensure that the language taught is functional and will not in any way negate local narratives and culture. The lesson plans and material, therefore, inculcate these sensibilities as well as language efficiency.

In keeping with these shifts, higher education has adopted new methods of evaluation and assessment practices which encourage students to reflect on and critique their participation in the learning process. Students reflect on the syllabus and objectively analyse with a view of applying content to the social milieu. For instance, student reports, experience journals which record their activity and responses, besides portfolios are now part of the of the evaluation process. As a result, it has the potential to partially replace the conventional examinations which largely emphasise rote learning. The learning process extends right up to the evaluation, and the learner is central to this process.

Service learning bridges the perceived gap between academics and society. It is a means of offering to society emerging ideas and practices within academia as a way to negotiate social issues and challenges. If it is to be a meaningful engagement it must be sustainable, promote accountability and be mutually beneficial. The learning has to shape curriculum unlike in internships where the learning is limited to the intern. In these aspects, service learning goes beyond charity and volunteering.

For students, the benefits of service learning are diverse and range from exposure to economically weaker sections to civic authorities to the corporate sector and legal bodies. All these interactions demand development organisational skills, appropriate communication skills and soft skills, besides innovating and improvising to adapt to unforeseen situations.

The societal presence and role of education is thus clearly established. Higher education becomes contextual and change-driven. The process is mutually beneficial to academia and society, immediately and tangibly.
 
(The author is associate professor, Christ University, Bengaluru)
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