How the Heck Do You Do Service-Learning Online?

Service-learning has been used extensively in health professions education. However, there has been limited use of service-learning in the online learning environment due in part to the difficulty of managing the community aspects of this pedagogy. Kettering College has implemented service-learning in an online program for health professionals that provides the benefits of this learning method with the flexibility of the online classroom.

Titlebaum, Williamson, Daprano, Baer, and Brahler (2004) did a comprehensive, annotated history of service-learning in America shaping how service-learning is practiced today. The words “community service” is a modern phrase that did not enter the language in America until sometime in the 1940s. Three key people, Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Dorothy Day, whose approaches to community service were different but similar in ways, were pioneers of service as it is practiced today (Morton & Saltman, 1997).

Boyer challenged higher education to change the way teaching, scholarship, and service are viewed. By 1994, Boyer added to his priorities, calling for “a new model of excellence [and] a historic commitment to service . . . a commitment that was never more needed than it is today” (Boyer, 1994, p. 48). He reminded the academic world that faculty and administrators must tailor service within each higher education institution to reflect its particular mission, which he believed would infuse greater variety and improve responsiveness to community needs.

Service-learning as pedagogy has been used extensively in health professions education. Research and literature related to service-learning is the most extensive in health professions education, including not only articles but also whole books on the topic (Bailey, Carpenter, & Harrington, 2002; Cauley et al, 2001; Euster & Weinbach 1994; Ewyn, Seifer, & Conners, 2000; Gelmon, Holland, et al, 1998; Greenberg, 1999; Keefe, Leuner, & Laken, 2000; Poirrier, 2001).

Although there is an extensive literature on service-learning, there does not appear to be much information on how to implement service-learning in online courses. Despite this lack of literature about service-learning in the online environment, it is possible.

Our online program for health professionals completing their bachelor’s degrees uses service learning to demonstrate end-of-program learning outcomes related to service and civic engagement as well as an institutional outcome that requires the student to “responsibly engage in service using knowledge and skills from both general and specialized curricula in wider community-based settings” (Kettering College institutional outcomes). Below are ways that the faculty use service learning to evaluate these learning outcomes.

Leadership and management course

Students in the Health Science program are required to take a core course in leadership and management. In this course, a service-learning project is part of the evaluation methods used to measure student learning outcomes. The student must find a leadership role in the community and serve in that capacity for a minimum of 10 hours and a maximum of 29 hours. The project must be approved by faculty before the student embarks on the leadership service role, and the student must provide documentation from the organization of his or her service.

The course features a discussion board for students to post their ideas for their projects and for faculty approval. The only stipulations for the projects are that the student may not be compensated by the organization for this work and that the student must serve as a leader in the volunteer project.

The following are examples of projects that students have completed:

  • Presented on a topic at a Girl Scout or Boy Scout meeting to assist with badge completion
  • Started and led a team for a fund-raising activity such as the American Heart Association, Relay for Life, March of Dimes
  • Served as a community leader by volunteering on a local government board
  • Mentored an undergraduate student in a health care field

Students complete a task orientation and people orientation leadership questionnaire (see before entering into the service-learning experience and write a four- to six-page reflection paper answering questions that describe the experience and compare and contrast leadership roles in health care with the service experience leadership role. Students must discuss the results.

Community health perspectives course

Understanding community health care needs is an important skill for health care providers to develop, especially if most of their experiences have been in acute care settings. Service-learning pedagogy provides a wonderful way for students to learn how to meet the needs of the community while providing useful service. The service-learning project in the course is focused on community health needs after the students assess the underserved needs of their own communities. Students learn about a local agency of their choosing that serves an underserved population and must review local, state, and federal statistics for the population that agency serves. The students must assist with providing a needed service for the agency, such as serving meals to the hungry or providing an education program. The faculty member provides the students with potential agencies to work with, and long-distance students work closely with the faculty to find agencies in each student’s local community.

Students must meet with agency representatives, assess the needs, and create an appropriate community health project. Each student develops the goals, objectives, and outline of the project, which must be approved by the instructor. Students may work in groups or separately on their projects. They are required to document the project in process with video or photographs and include those in a PowerPoint presentation that is posted in the course room for other students and the instructor to view. All students are required to keep a journal of the experience in which they answer faculty-directed reflection questions. Again, documentation of work with the agency is required on letterhead (if possible) from the organization.

Interdisciplinary team practice in community-based care course

Teamwork is an extremely important skill for health care providers to develop and implement. This course not only discusses the theory and practice of teamwork, but it also requires students in an online environment to participate in teams. The pedagogy used for this evaluation is a service-learning project with a local agency with underserved clients. The project involves writing a grant that includes a budget for implementing the project. If the class is large, there will be more than one project and grant.

Students who are not local usually volunteer to write the grant and assist with the final reflection requirements for the project, even though they may not actually participate in the service project itself. The process works well because it is very true to the actual process of funding, implementing, and evaluating a health care community project.

Service-learning is pedagogy that has been used in higher education quite a while and continues to be used by faculty as a way of measuring student learning outcomes. Service-learning as a pedagogy has to be viewed with a new perspective when used in online courses because what works in the classroom or community may not work in the online environment. Faculty who value civic engagement should not be discouraged from doing service-learning; it just requires creative ideas in the online environment.


Baily, P.A., Carpenter, D.R., & Harrington, P. (2002). Theoretical foundations of service-learning in nursing education. Journal of Nursing Education, 41, 433-436.

Boyer, E.L. (1994, March 9). Creating the new American college. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 40, p. A48

Cauley, K., Canfield, A., Casen, C., Dobbins, J., Hemphill, S., Jaballas, E., et al. (2001). Service learning: integrating student learning and community service. Education for Health, 14, 173-181.

Euster, G.L., & Weinbach, R. W. (1994). Faculty rewards for community service activities: An update. Journal of Social Work Education, 30, 317-324.

Ewyn, R., Seifer, S. D., & Conners, K. (2000). Service-learning in health professions education: A syllabi guide. San Francisco: Community-Campus Partnerships for Health.

Gelmon, S., Holland, B. A., & Shinnamon, A. F. (1998). Health professions schools in service to the nation. Portland, OR: Portland State University.

Greenberg, J. S. (1999). Service-learning in health education. Reston, VA: American Association for Health Education.

Keefe, M. R., Leuner, J. D., & Laken, M. A. (2000). The caring for the community initiative: Integrating research, practice, and education, Nursing and Health Care Perspectives, 12, 287-292.

Morton, K., & Saltman, J. (1997) Addams, Day and Dewey: the emergency of community service of American culture. Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 4, 137-149.

Poirrier, G. P. (Ed). (2001). Service learning: Curricular applications in nursing. Sudbury, MA: James and Barlett.

Titlebaum, Pl, Williamson, G., Daprano, C., Baer, J., & Brahler, J. (2004). Annotated history of service-learning; 1862-2002. Dayton, Oh, University of Dayton.

Paula Reams is the chair of health sciences at Kettering College.

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