The Challenges and Benefits of Online Service Learning

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

While service learning has been included in many traditional learning environments, community-based applied learning poses new challenges in online environments. Research about service learning and strategies for integrating service learning activities in online courses will be discussed, including survey data regarding student attitudes about online service learning.


Kenneth Mentor coordinates the Criminology Extension Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Dr. Mentor earned a J.D. from the Syracuse University College of Law and a Ph.D. in Social Science from The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, also at Syracuse University. He has taught at the university level for over 25 years and has been teaching online for over 20 years. In addition to teaching and research related to criminal justice and public policy, Dr. Mentor has published and presented in the areas of faculty development, curriculum design, and online learning.

Extended Abstract

This presentation begins with a discussion of the benefits of service learning and a summary of strategies employed in traditional classrooms. We then move to the advantages of including applied learning activities in online classes, including benefits for communities and institutions, the creation of unique learning experiences for students, and opportunities for increased engagement and networking. Specific challenges will be discussed, including an example of the integration of a service learning activity in an online course related to criminal justice leadership. Students in this course completed a student survey including the SErvice LEarning Benefit (SELEB) scale and measures related to moral reasoning, multicultural awareness, and plans for future volunteer work.

Service learning experiences, which have been included in traditional classroom experiences for many years, offer applied learning opportunities in which classroom knowledge is enhanced by experiences in the community. Integration of these experiences in online classes allows online students to experience the benefits of service learning while also learning about teamwork, group communication, and other skills crucial to effective online learning and their current and future careers. Benefits such as increased engagement and reduced isolation stem from the communications required to work with a group of online students charged with the task of collectively identifying a suitable agency for their service activity, working together to complete their activity, and considering the relationship of learning experiences and course outcomes. Other benefits include enhanced networking opportunities for geographically dispersed students, including experiences with local, national, and international agencies aligned with academic and career goals.

Educators seeking to integrate service learning in online courses rely on two skill sets that seldom overlap. For example, many educators are skilled at developing and coordinating service learning activities in traditional courses. Other educators are skilled at developing online learning environments. Both skills are needed in order to develop and administer effective service learning activities in hybrid or online courses. As a result, institutions face challenges associated with increased demands for applied learning, in the classroom and online, including faculty training, course redesign, and policy changes.

In response to challenges associated with university requirements that were difficult for remote students to satisfy, a 400 level “Criminal Justice Leadership” course was redesigned to include a service learning component. The redesign began by defining a service learning assignment according to specific learning objectives, then gaining university approval for inclusion of the course among options for the “exploration beyond the classroom” requirement. The activity was then integrated into the rebuilt online classroom, which included defining the activity to students, providing examples of local, state, national, and international agencies appropriate for the activity, and creating discussion forums and other assignments associated with the activity.

A primary goal during the course development was the anticipation and elimination of future challenges, many of which were rooted in the fact that small groups of students would be asked to work independently to define and execute a service activity following specific guidelines about activity and deliverables. To a great extent, students were learning about group dynamics by experiencing group dynamics. The course included reflective activities in which students discussed connections between the service activity and other course objectives. These activities also provided opportunities to communicate about challenges associated with group work, including concerns about participation from other group members. Students also completed a group presentation and individual activities including a final journal and final reflection paper.

Students in the redesigned course were encouraged to complete a survey including the SELEB scale and other items. The data indicates students enjoyed the course and found the service learning activity to be academically and personally rewarding. Data regarding moral reasoning, multicultural awareness, and reactions to the course are also discussed. The research also assessed future plans, with both traditional and online students indicating they plan to continue involvement with the same or similar agencies. Data was also collected to compare the original and redesigned courses, including grades, classroom activity, course evaluations, and classroom-based student comments. In summary, the changes resulted in greater satisfaction with the course, in spite of the fact that the redesigned course was somewhat more challenging.

In addition to discussion of the benefits and challenges of integrating service learning with online courses, the presenter will encourage participants to discuss experiences with service learning project designs, in online or traditional courses, in an effort to enhance practical learning that may be implemented following the session/conference. Participants are expected to leave the session with a greater understanding of service learning, including specific ideas about integrating applied learning activities in online and hybrid courses.