student professional development

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It has been said that experience is the best teacher, and for this reason, many instructors and educational programs are adding experiential components to their curriculum. One form of experiential learning is service learning, where students apply what they are studying to improving their local or global community. While these projects usually happen in the areas neighboring a physical campus, online learners can also benefit from service learning. This article will discuss how The Chicago School of Professional Psychology created service learning opportunities for online students.

An example of online service learning

Students in the educational psychology and technology program complete their coursework online all over the globe and therefore have limited options for working together in person to serve others. Thus, for the course Cognition across the Lifespan and Technology’s Impact, we developed a signature assignment that has students implement a project that educates people in the global community on important topics related to technology and human development. For example, students create YouTube videos that educate women on important health practices during pregnancy, parents on important growth milestones in the infancy and toddler years, children on safe internet guidelines, adolescents on bullying and social media, individuals in the midlife phase on important decisions regarding retirement, children caring their elderly parents, and individuals grieving the loss of a loved one.

While the online environment might at first seem to limit service learning opportunities, in reality it helps students see the possibilities for using technology to benefit others. Additionally, during COVID-19 global pandemic, when many individuals are unable to leave their homes, online service learning projects allow students to reach a much wider audience than do onsite projects.

Besides gaining experience in the use of technology to address community issues, students can integrate ideas of social justice—which has recently become a major focus of higher education—into their service learning projects. Faculty challenge students to be creative in their approach to service learning and to select a topic they are passionate about educating others on. Due to the nature of the assignment, instructors should also encourage students to be community minded and to focus on the needs of a specific, often underserved population. This mindset encourages students to think beyond themselves and instead look to the challenges and struggles others may be facing and how knowledge and education can affect a community.

Students select a topic early in the course and then work to develop their project throughout it. This step-by-step approach helps student to best prepare for the depth this type of informational video requires. Beyond the content itself, this assignment gives students experience with creating a professional presentation, editing videos, and posting videos online. As an administrator and an instructor in the program, we enjoy seeing the benefits that this service learning project produces with our students each semester.

Implementing service learning projects

When implementing online service learning projects, instructors should first consider the learning outcomes of their course or program and how service learning fits into these desired outcomes. In our case, social justice was a designated outcome of the course. Therefore, it fit well into the course topic of viewing the role of technology throughout the lifespan.

Instructors should also consider the time frame students have to devote to the project as well as students’ technology and design skill level. For example, in a shorter, non-technology-focused class, it might be easier for students to develop the sort of short videos one sees on TikTok or Instagram. In longer classes students might be able to develop more elaborate projects that involve recruiting additional participants via social media to conduct their project. Examples might include raising money or doing community service for community organizations or designing a webpage for a community event.

There are various components to consider when assessing a student’s virtual service learning projects. Possible elements of related assignment rubrics may include creativity and innovation, potential impact on the community, use of technology, professionalism in presentation, and the student’s reflection of the service learning experience, feedback received from the served community, and the student’s ability to apply the course content to a practical setting. To make the experience most meaningful and to allow personal and professional growth through the service learning project, accurate assessment as well as self-reflection encourages students to strive for tangible and lasting results in their work.

The advantages virtual service learning projects have over on-site projects are their flexibility, creativity, and extended reach. Students can tailor their projects to specific communities by picking the technologies those communities use and the video formats that will appeal to those communities’ members. Thus, the projects also help teach students how to communicate with different populations. Although traditionally service learning has been conducted in person, innovative technologies now afford educators the opportunity to implement these vital academic experiences into online assignments.

Aubrey Statti, EdD, is a core faculty member of the educational psychology and technology program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Kelly Torres, PhD, is the department chair of the educational psychology and technology program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.