The rapid rise of service learning

In the 1991-92 school year, three Penn faculty members taught 100 students in four Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses, classes that involve hands-on, real-world problem solving.

By 2000-01, there were 38 courses taught by 34 faculty to 925 students.

Data from the 2009-10 school year shows 1,575 students enrolled in 61 ABCS courses taught by 48 Penn faculty members.

University seal

The numbers tell a potent story: Service learning at Penn has grown in leaps and bounds.

Two Penn faculty members say in a recent paper, “Pursuing Franklin’s Dream: Philosophical and Historical Roots of Service-Learning,” that the rise of service learning into the curricula of colleges and universities has been incredibly rapid. But service learning is not foreign territory for these institutions—many of them have this dedication to service learning built into their core missions.

The civic ideal that universities should prepare students to make a difference in the world is actually an old concept, and is integrated with the founding of Penn. “[The University] was the first higher education institution dedicated to service in a secular-focused way,” says co-author Ira Harkavy, founding director and associate vice president of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. “This work is at the very center of not just Penn’s historical founding, but the founding of colonial colleges, land-grant institutions and urban research universities.”

“Colleges and universities have very deep civic roots and none more so than Penn,” adds Matthew Hartley, an associate professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and study co-author. “[Benjamin] Franklin’s original conception of Penn not just as a place that would serve children of the wealthy, but all students of ability, and to prepare them to make a difference in society, exemplifies that ideal that has [been carried] out.”

Generally, the shift towards service learning in the academy occurred at the end of the Cold War, when governmental and academic leaders shifted their attention away from the Soviet Union and towards societal problems. There were, Hartley and Harkavy say, concerns that the civic purpose of higher education institutions was in danger of being lost, particularly in light of trends showing widespread voter disaffection, especially among young people.

Colleges and universities have very deep civic roots and none more so than Penn.”

During the early years of service learning in academia, proponents believed that this work could connect the core missions of these colleges and universities with a higher purpose—what the authors call “transformative learning, education for democracy and research to better understand and improve the world.”

Harkavy says this is what universities were designed to do: “The democratic learning was central to the idea of service learning, that you learn democratically and you learn for the purpose of improving the world. It’s an active pedagogy that has connected to it the idea of educating students as democratic citizens and contributing that way.”

As evidenced by the rise of these ABCS courses at Penn, service learning has taken hold in academia quickly. This is no small feat for institutions that usually “move with all the speed of a runaway glacier,” as Harkavy says. This is evidenced by membership in Campus Compact, a national coalition of college and university presidents, that has grown from three institutions in 1985, to more than 1,100 in 2009.

“You would be hard-pressed to point to any other educational reform effort in higher education that has made that kind of movement in that amount of time,” says Hartley. “It has been this tremendous explosion of activity.”

Support from university administrators, as well as timely government funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has contributed to the rise of service learning in higher education. These agencies provided what amounted to seed money so institutions could establish programs.

In their paper, published in the American Journal of Community Psychology, the authors cite the Moelis Access Science project as an example of a democratic partnership between Penn and the community. Both Penn students and Philadelphia teachers participating in this math and science education project were surveyed, and both groups cited multiple benefits from the partnership. Penn students indicated that their communication and understanding of learning science and math had increased, and had even influenced their career-planning. Teachers said the project had a notable impact on the classroom, providing students with additional science and math role models and exposing students to topics in which teachers may not have expertise.

This example not only underscores the promise of ACBS courses, Hartley and Harkavy write, but it also serves as an example of how service learning can help further an institution’s core mission.

“It’s not just engagement,” says Harkavy. “It’s the idea of improving society, helping America realize its democratic promise.”

Originally published on May 5, 2011