Service Learning: Friend or Foe?

One of my courses this semester (Community Informatics) required a sizable amount of “service learning” (for those who don’t know, service learning is basically community service/volunteering activities that are incorporated into a course). When I mentioned the extensive, unpaid time commitment that the service learning represented to a friend of mine, he balked: “So they’re basically making you volunteer? That’s crazy. Plus it can’t really be considered volunteering if they make you do it…” This got me thinking about the various pro’s and con’s of service learning, a course component that seems to be more and more prevalent these days. For those who have a service learning component in an upcoming course or who are interested in designing their own service learning experience, here are some pros and cons (as I see it) of service learning:

  • Con: Service learning is time-consuming. This semester I had to commit to 4 hours a week of volunteering at a library or computer lab. While this doesn’t seem like much, I also work 20 hours a week, take classes full time, am an officer for a student group, and contribute to this blog (love you guys!). Not to mention I live in the same town as my family, and am thus often committed outside of school/work. Therefore, I do not often initially relish seeing a service learning requirement on a syllabus. A service learning component can also require an initial time commitment to scout out a site, go through an orientation, and set up training (depending on what you’re doing). There’s also the transportation time, field notes time (as you often can’t jot down info until after your shift), and reflection time (as service learning usually involves reflection writing assignments).
  • Con/Pro: Service learning is hard work. Whether it’s explaining to a senior citizen how to log in to a computer, open a browser, and log in to their email for the 100th time (ok, so it hasn’t happened 100 times, but sometimes it feels like it) or building custom-made wooden computer stations in your professor’s workshop (see below), service learning will challenge you in a variety of ways.

    Ah the Saturdays spent in safety goggles. So fun!

  • Con/Pro: Service learning will take you out of your comfort zone. My first service learning experience was during my undergraduate career when, for a women & gender studies course, I ended up volunteering at a local after-school reading program at a nearby elementary school. While many of my current peers connect with children easily and cannot wait to be children’s librarians I am not one of them. I don’t choose to work with children because it is not one of my strongest skill sets. But the service learning stretched me to find ways to get children interested and involved in reading and sure enough I did (and ended up befriending a number of wonderful children).
  • Pro: Service learning will surprise you with how relevant it is to your classroom learning. During my undergraduate elementary school reading program experience, I was initially perplexed and frustrated by my placement – how was I supposed to write multiple reflection papers that related our course readings to my observations and experiences? As it turns out, elementary school is a hotbed of women and gender studies issues and topics and I had no problem coming up with subjects to write about. I’ve had similar experiences with my library service learning coursework.
  • Pro: Service learning will make you feel much more connected to your community. Duh, right? But seriously, I am originally from the town where I now go to library school and I can honestly say that my service learning at a local public library has definitely added to my pre-existing sense of community, place, and belonging. Service learning will get you out in the organizations and institutions that keep your community alive. It’s a pretty good time and a great way to get out of an academic institutional bubble.
  • Pro: Service learning can open up doors. Sure, it isn’t paid work. But service learning can be the fast track to volunteering in an institution where you would eventually like to work. It can also help you forge connections with pillar community members who can help you network when graduation is looming.

So much service learning! I have to admit: every time I’ve seen a service learning requirement on a syllabus, I’ve initially cringed – mostly due to the time commitment! Service learning projects require a large amount of time, effort, and flexibility. BUT, I also ended up appreciating each experience immensely and do not regret my decision to stay in each class.

For more info on service learning, check out this great Hack Library School post –“Should more LIS programs have a service learning component?” (Hint: yes, they should!) – or a fantastic book published by ALA titled Service Learning: Linking Library Education and Practice, edited by Loriene Roy, Kelly Jensen, and Alex Hershey Meyers.

How about you? Service learning tales to share? Are you a fan or do you steer clear? Tips for students interested in their own service learning experience? Share in the comments!

2 replies

  1. Wait, no one’s commented on this? Nicole, these are really great points. I like how you accurately note that most of these can be viewed as both positives and negatives 🙂
    I haven’t had any service learning in my library classes so far (and thank goodness, since I have a hard enough time adapting my schedule to fit classes). But in general, I think that on the job experience within the construct of classes is absolutely a positive. I did clinical work when in law school and it was much more meaningful to my future (now past) professional life than my classes were.


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