Logging in and Getting Out: Service Learning in an Online Course. Maria Claver, PhD, MSW. HPPAE Affiliated School:

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1 Logging in and Getting Out: Service Learning in an Online Course Maria Claver, PhD, MSW HPPAE Affiliated School: University of California Los Angeles 1

2 Introduction There is a great need for geriatric social workers, gerontologists and professionals in allied fields with specialized knowledge in aging. At the very least, our nation s workforce should be familiar with the most basic needs of an aging population and aware of stereotypes facing older adults. Research has shown that some already working with older adults have limited knowledge regarding aging (Cowan, Fitzpatrick, Roberts & While, 2004). In addition to a lack of knowledge about gerontology, the field faces the effects of stereotypes and ageist beliefs as a barrier to drawing potential students to this area of study. College-level educators are in a unique position to improve attitudes about aging, increase general knowledge about aging regardless of the students ultimate career choices, and build a force of geriatric social workers and gerontologists by attracting students to the field and providing them with opportunities to form positive images about aging. Research (Gorelik, Damron-Rodriguez, Funderburk & Solomon, 2000) has shown that just one gerontology course can attract undergraduates to the field and improve attitudes about older adults. Why would a twenty-something student enroll in a gerontology course? This is a question we ask our introductory gerontology course undergraduate students at the beginning of each semester. A handful profess a true interest in learning more about the aging process of their grandparents. Fewer still insightfully say they want to learn more about their own aging process. Most admit that the course either: a) fulfills an intensive writing requirement and/or b) fits into their schedule. A few brave souls confess not knowing what the word gerontology means. What, then, to do with this captive audience to really convey the importance of studying older adults? How can we make 2

3 the course material more real and relevant to our students? We have found the answer with service learning. Moreover, we have found that offering online courses allows us to reach even more students that might not otherwise enroll in a course about aging. Much research describes best practices for online instruction and there has likewise been a growing body of literature regarding how best to implement experiential learning such as service learning. There has not, however, been much research specifically regarding best practices for service learning in an online learning environment, in part because it is a relatively new educational approach (Guthrie & McCracken, 2010a, 2010d). As a preliminary step to planning for an online service learning course, the aim of this study was to understand characteristics of online learners to assess the feasibility of incorporating service learning into an online course. Literature Review It has been suggested that since there is not much evidence on which to base the development and implementation of experiential learning within online courses, a good place to begin would be with what is known about each area (online learning and service learning) individually. Service learning Service learning, a specific type of experiential learning, is defined by the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (n.d.) as, a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Although there is great diversity in the types of service learning experiences that are taking place across the country and around the world, there are several common features of 3

4 meaningful service learning (Eyler & Gyles, 1999). Service learning experiences should: be meaningful to participants, encourage cooperative teamwork, address complex problems, provide opportunities for problem-solving with an understanding of the context of the issue, promote real-time and authentic learning, and support social, emotional and cognitive learning. Service learning is reciprocal in that students are not solely providing community service, but they are learning via the provision of that service. Further, service learning is collaborative in that the academic institution, student and community partner all play an equal role in determining learning outcomes and defining tasks based on an agency-led assessment of the needs of those being served by the community. Online learning In the online learning environment, frequent interactions between faculty and students, as well as between students themselves, is a hallmark of best practices (Strait & Sauer, 2004). Online learning, therefore, requires faculty to develop creative methods of communication with students to enhance relationships with them to create a learning community in a virtual environment (Dykman & Davis, 2008). Admittedly, challenges may arise in the online format in the creation of quality learning environments (Darrington, 2008). However, several strengths of online learning environments have been described in the literature. Research shows that the use of various media encourages interaction that may surpass that which can happen in a faceto-face environment (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell & Bannan Haag, 1995). The creation of a learning community often results in a dramatic shift from the teaching paradigm towards the learning paradigm (Magnussen, 2008), which is facilitated through collaborative discovery opportunities (Dykman & Davis, 2008). Creative and effective 4

5 learning environments are those that increase student engagement towards higher levels of thinking, enhance active student involvement, and accommodate individual student differences and learning styles (Zsohar & Smith, 2008). Critical thinking skills that are fostered by meaningful interactions are valuable learning outcomes for students (Hutchings, Hadfield, Howarth, & Lewarne, 2007). Dunlap, Sobel and Sands (2007) suggest that online courses offer a variety of activities and assignments that include both lower- and higher-level cognition. Lastly, these methods of instruction have resulted in increased student satisfaction levels (Appana, 2008). Best practices for online learning have much in common with best practices for service learning in that they foster the opportunity for students to learn from each other (Gilbert & Discoll, 2002). Additionally, online and service learning share a goal of making learning meaningful to the individual student in several ways. For example, online activities and assignments must holistically connect experiences with student learning outcomes (Zsohar & Smith, 2008) and online learning should be authentic, and apply to real-world situations in order to foster problem-centered learning (Dunlap et al., 2007). Service learning also aims to help students forge a connection with experiences and learning outcomes, provide authentic, real-world situations and foster problemcentered learning. Service learning in the online environment While service learning in an online environment should take into consideration all of the factors described above for online learning and service learning, there may be additional considerations unique to an online service learning course. Strait and Sauer (2004) developed the concept of e-learning to address the intersection between online 5

6 instruction and service learning. They posit that collaboration becomes central to the implementation of experiential learning in an online environment in that the faculty, students, community partners, and even the technology by which the course is delivered, work together in meeting the course objectives. Prior to the coining of e-learning, Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) introduced the Community of Inquiry framework, which identifies a three-step approach (cognitive presence, social presence and learning outcomes) to achieving an effective learning experience in an online learning environment. Cognitive presence, or the construction of meaning, is supported by social presence, which includes sustaining the relationships necessary to engage. Tu and McIsaac (2002) further defined social presence as having three dimensions: social context, online communication, and interactivity. These dimensions emerged as critical segments in establishing a sense of community among online students. Online students tend to initially have lower levels of relational communication. As the course progresses, these learners are driven to develop additional social interactions as a result of the shared experience of the course (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997). The introduction of servicelearning experiences should facilitate this communication activity. The result of cognitive and social presence, according to the Community of Inquiry Framework, is learning outcomes, which are supported by teaching presence and include the design of the instructional tools for the course. Finally, Guthrie and McCracken (2010c, p. 79) note that, instruction in the virtual classroom, when coupled with on-site service experiences, creates opportunities for a unique combination of learning activities constructed to be individually and collectively relevant and focused on real-world problems, which again supports the 6

7 common best practices of online learning and experiential learning discussed earlier. The online platform of a service learning course allows the inclusion of a more diverse geographic population of students that will have an opportunity to learn from and impact their local communities (Guthrie & McCracken, 2010b). This review of the literature provided a framework of how best practices from the online learning and service learning research can intersect, but there remains a lack of clarity as to whether or not these goals could realistically be implemented from a logistics standpoint. Therefore, to better understand the feasibility of offering a quality online service learning course, the goal of this study was to characterize potential students in such a course, allowing discussion about how best practices might be implemented despite challenges of this course format. Methods Gerontology 400I: Perspectives on Gerontology is an upper division, undergraduate course that fulfills several GE requirements at the authors university. It is also a requirement for various majors across campus, accepted as an elective for several others and is a pre-requisite for the Masters in Gerontology Program. Each semester during the regular academic year, one section of this course is offered as a blended learning course (i.e., partly in-person and partly online) and three to four additional sections that are completely online are also offered. In addition, an online version of the course is taught during the Winter and Summer sessions. The hybrid format includes a required 21-hour service learning component, whereby students choose from four available agencies and attend service learning for three hours a week for seven weeks. The sites include two senior centers, an assisted 7

8 living facility that specializes in care for older adults with cognitive impairment, and Meals on Wheels. All of the sites are within 15 miles of the university. The Gerontology Program has been interested in expanding the service learning requirement to students in the online sections (the average enrollment in each section is 25 students), but has been unable to find a model that addresses the potential challenges of a required service learning component for online learners. A better understanding of where students in these courses live (in terms of proximity to the university), student interest in taking an online course that includes a service learning component, how far students would be willing to travel to the site, mode of transportation to travel to the site and reasons students take a course online would help the Gerontology Program to better understand if and how service learning could be incorporated into the online class. An online survey was designed through the university s learning management system (LMS) asking students about the issues described above. Although the responses cannot be connected to a particular student, extra credit was offered to students who completed the survey (the honor system was used whereby students who completed the survey sent the authors an indicating their participation). Out of 97 students enrolled in an online section of GERN 400I, 83 responded to the survey (86% response rate). Results Of the 83 respondents, 32 live within 10 miles of campus, 28 live within 15 miles, 11 live within 20 miles and 12 live more than 20 miles away from campus. When asked if they would be interested in taking an online course that included a service learning component, 53 (63.86%) replied that they would and 30 (36.14%) replied that 8

9 they would not. Regardless of the response to this question, all of the respondents were asked how far they would be willing to travel and the mode of transportation they would use to get to their site. Twenty-one percent (n=18) of the students were willing to travel 5 miles or less, 33% (n=27) were willing to travel 5-10 miles, and 13% (n=11) were willing to travel more than ten miles. Most of the respondents (n=55, 66%) would use their own car to travel to their site. Three people would get a ride with someone and two would use public transportation. When asked to briefly explain why they were taking Gerontology 400I as an online course, the responses indicated that there were several primary reasons for doing so: convenience, flexibility, meeting academic requirements, desire to try something new, previous positive experience with online courses and an interest in the topic of the class. Many students remarked that taking an online course is more convenient than taking an in-person course. They explained that they had busy schedules consisting of coursework, employment and caregiving responsibilities and that not having to drive to school or spend the time to find parking was a positive aspect of taking a course online. One student commented that the online course, works with my very busy schedule. I work almost 20 hours a week, intern and am taking four other in person classes. Several of the students mentioned that not having to come to campus as often helped with the cost of gas and parking and one student said that he/she was unable to afford a babysitter, so online classes make this less of a burden. Respondents appreciated the flexibility of an online class because they can work on assignments when it is convenient or when they feel most motivated. One student said, I like taking online courses because it allows me the freedom to somewhat 9

10 complete assignments on my schedule. Two of the students that appreciated the flexibility of an online course also mentioned that they happened to be self-disciplined students that felt comfortable working independently. Many students mentioned that they took this particular online course because it met one or more academic requirements such as a Capstone, an upper division course, a requirement for their major or the Gerontology certificate, or a prerequisite for graduate school. Respondents that mentioned this reason for taking GERN 400I often also mentioned the convenience of taking it online. Two students discussed taking the course online because it would be a new experience and one that might benefit them in the future. One student shared, I decided to take online to get the exposure and get used to the self-discipline. I find that it will be useful for when I get into the work force as well as when I get back into [graduate school]. A few students mentioned having taken online courses in the past and having positive experiences, specifically interaction with other students that they did not experience in the in-person class environment. One said, I am more involved in my learning (active learning). Another remarked, Discussion boards provide more interaction between students than most in class courses on campus. Lastly, students responded that they took this course because of an interest in the topic, either professionally or personally. Several students mentioned that the class would help them better understand the older adult population, which would prepare them for their future career. One student discussed his/her personal interest in the topic by writing, I have a mother that I will most likely be taking care of in the next few years 10

11 because of her declining health, so I d like to get more information on what to expect and what I can to do help her have a good quality of life while she is with me. These students also discussed issues of convenience in regards to why they chose an online section of the course. Discussion The information gathered from this study provided a better understanding of characteristics of students enrolled in online sections of Gerontology 400I: Perspectives on Gerontology in one particular semester. It provides a better understanding of online student opinions about the inclusion of service learning as a requirement for the course. Further analysis can be done to find out if those not interested in service learning are the students that live farther away from campus, or are those that commented about having overwhelming schedules with full time academic careers, employment and caregiving responsibilities. In general, however, the majority (64%) would be interested in a service learning component for an online section of this course. Planning for implementation of service learning in the online sections of Gerontology 400I must be sensitive to the students who are balancing professional and personal responsibilities (Strait & Sauer, 2004), so a next step might be to offer service learning as an optional track rather than as a requirement, providing an alternative assignment for those that cannot participate in service learning, for whatever reason. The inclusion of service learning may necessitate an adjustment in existing assignments to take into consideration the additional time it will take to travel to and complete service learning hours. Another consideration is arranging service learning sites that are within miles of the university and/or the students residences and designing a system 11

12 whereby students in a given semester report their zip codes to the instructors so that additional sites in convenient geographic areas can be offered as options. A best practice guiding the inclusion of service learning is providing students with an opportunity to share their experiences with other students so that students can learn from each other. Due to the range of types of agencies used for service learning in this course, one student may work with a very high functioning, healthy older adult, while another student may work with an older adult with advanced dementia. It is important for students to understand that there is a wide range in how well older adults are doing and hearing stories from other students is a powerful way to learn this. In addition, students learn about the variety of options available to older adults (e.g., assisted living, senior centers, Meals on Wheels) from communicating with each other. Therefore, the online course that offers service learning must include ways in which students can have these debriefing discussions, whether in written form through the discussion board or live through an occasional Elluminate session. Conclusion Although there are challenges and additional considerations involved in incorporating service learning into an online course, the challenges are not insurmountable and creative thinking paired with thoughtful planning can provide a rich learning environment for students. Clear communication with students and agencies and a combination of pre-planning with on-the-spot planning will maximize organizational capability, while allowing flexibility to tailor the service learning experience to the particular characteristics of the students in the course from semester to semester. Certainly, the effort necessary to implement a successful online service course that 12

13 provides students with the opportunity to learn about older adults and consider a possible career in geriatric social work, gerontology or an allied field with a specialization in gerontology is well worth it. 13

14 References Appana, S. (2008). A review of benefits and limitations of online learning in the context of the student, the instructor, and the tenured faculty. International Journal on ELearning, 7(1), doi: / Cowan, D. T., Fitzpatrick, J. M., Roberts, J. D., & While, A. E. (2004). Measuring knowledge and attitudes of health care staff toward older people: Sensitivity of measurement instruments. Educational Gerontology, 30, Darrington, A. (2008). Six lessons in e-learning: Strategies and support for teachers new to online environments. Teaching English in the Two Year College, 35(4), Dunlap, J. C., Sobel, D., & Sands, D. I. (2007). Supporting students cognitive processing in online courses: Designing for deep and meaningful student-to-content interactions. TechTrends, 51(4), doi: /s Dykman, C. A., & Davis, C. K. (2008). Online education forum: Part two teaching online versus teaching conventionally. Journal of Information Systems Education, 19(2), Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E. (1999). Where s the Learning in Service Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text- based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), doi: /s (00)

15 Gilbert, N., & Driscoll, M. (2002). Collaborative knowledge building: A case study. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(1), doi: / BF Gorelik, Y., Damron-Rodriguez, J., Funderburk, B., & Solomon, D. H. (2000). Undergraduate interest in aging: Is it affected by contact with older adults? Educational Gerontology, 26, Gunawardena, C. N., & Zittle, F. J. (1997). Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer-mediated conferencing environment. American Journal of Distance Education, 11(3), doi: / Guthrie, K. L., & McCracken, H. (2010a). Making a difference online: Facilitating service-learning through distance education. Internet and Higher Education, 13, doi: /j.iheduc Guthrie, K. L., & McCracken, H. (2010b). Reflective pedagogy: Making meaning in experiential based online courses. Journal of Educators Online, 7(2), Guthrie, K. L., & McCracken, H. (2010c). Teaching and learning social justice through online service-learning courses. International Review of Research in Open Distance learning, 11(3), Guthrie, K. L., & McCracken, H. (2010d). Promoting reflective discourse through connectivity: Conversations around service learning experiences. In: L. Shedletsky & J. E. Aitken (Eds.). Cases on Online Discussion and Interaction: Experiences and Outcomes. Hershey, NY: Information Science Reference. doi: / ch003 15

16 Hutchings, M., Hadfield, M., Howarth, G., & Lewarne, S. (2007). Meeting the challenges of active learning in web-based case studies for sustainable development. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(3), doi: / Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., & Bannan Haag, B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education. doi: / Magnussen, L. (2008). Applying the principles of significant learning in the e-learning environment. Journal of Nursing Education, 47(2), doi: / National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (n.d.). What is service-learning? Retrieved from Strait, J., & Sauer, T. (2004). Constructing experiential learning for online courses: The birth of e-service. Educause Quarterly, 27(1), doi: / Tu, C., & McIsaac, M. (2002). The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. American Journal of Distance Education, 16(3), doi: /s ajde1603_2 Zsohar, H., & Smith, J. A. (2008). Transition from the classroom to the web: Successful strategies for teaching online. Nursing Education Perspectives, 29(1),

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