The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Service Learning: New Ethical Goals and Challenges for Universities

Universities are expanding their service missions—and their ethical obligations.

Blogger's Note:  Service learning has become increasingly popular, and I want to initiate a discussion of service learning and the ethical issues involved.  To do so I've asked some noted experts in the field to write this entry:  Ana Ruiz and Judith Warchal are professors of psychology at Alvernia University, Andrea Chapdelaine is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Albright College and Carole Wells is Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies at Kutztown University.  They have written extensively about service learning, including a code of ethics (Chapdelaine, Ruiz, Warchal, & Wells, 2005).

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Students in an advanced psychology research methods course partnered with a childcare center located at a homeless shelter to assess the children's academic readiness for Kindergarten. Through this project, students were able to learn and practice field research methodology and psychoeducational assessment tools, and the center was able to use the findings to develop programming to improve children's academic preparation for early education.

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In a practicum course, students were assigned to a community agency. While there they provided a variety of services, including client intake interviews, telephone interviews, observations, record keeping, research, and summary reports. In the Practicum Seminar (co-requisite) students submitted weekly reflection papers detailing their experience on site and their reactions to the experiences.

These are examples of service learning (SL) activities.  Higher education has embraced service learning as part of its mission of civic engagement, a commitment which has led to many approaches that create partnerships with communities.  Bringle and Hatcher (2009) define service learning as:

"A course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which the students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility" (p. 38).

Ana Ruiz
Ana Ruiz of Alvernia University
Ethics is an essential component of quality service learning.  We developed our ethics code to guide administrators, faculty, and students as they embark on this experience. In our book, the  code is illustrated with hypothetical dilemmas (see below for an example) and the application of a decision-making model.  We also include a framework for ethical assessment and risk management.

Competence is a major ethical issue in service learning, just as it is in the classroom:  For the experience to promote positive benefits, all members of SL partnerships have important role obligations.  The university or college needs to promote and support SL, especially if community engagement or citizenship is part of their mission.  For example, universities should (a) provide opportunities for the community to interact with faculty, (b) train and prepare faculty, administrators, and students, and (c) offer resources to support faculty efforts, such as a dedicated office and staff, a database of community agencies and their needs, logistical support, policy and procedural guidance, transportation, and assessment tools.

A primary role of the faculty is to identify needs in the community and match those needs with academic outcomes by creating projects that benefit all partners: community agencies, students, and the university.  Professors need to learn new skills, such as meeting with community representatives, framing projects by identifying goals, and developing strategies necessary to accomplish those goals.  Such goals must include both a clear connection to the desired learning outcomes of the course and benefits to the community partner.  Professors need to prepare the students for the project and monitor progress, collect feedback from the community, maintain positive relationships all around, and conduct a final assessment of the project by all partners.

Students also have responsibilities.  They play a huge role as representatives of the university. Thus, it is important that students understand and comply with the roles and responsibilities assigned to them. Most importantly, they must fulfill their commitment to reflect on the goals of the project and the larger mission of civic engagement.  

Community partners should be able to voice their needs and be active in determining the scope and focus of projects. As a member of partnerships, the community agencies are responsible for helping establish the goals and outcomes of the service experience, train the students in their policies and procedures, and provide feedback to all partners regarding the progress or any need for adjustments of the project.  Most community agencies in the United States have their own policies and procedures to safeguard their clients as well as the staff and potential volunteers. If the project involves an international community partner, additional safeguards may be necessary (Ruiz, Warchal, Chapdelaine, & Wells, 2011). 

Other ethical issues revolve around the necessity to balance the many goals of SL projects. Although the benefits to the community partner are an important component, the primary goal of this pedagogical method is to enhance student learning.  Research has shown that SL is especially effective in fostering value exploration and personal development since students participating in these experiences are often faced with issues that challenge their values. 

As in all professional activities, good collaboration and clear communication help avoid ethical problems.  All parties should be clear about the roles and responsibilities of each partner and about plans for contingencies.   We have found that when faculty lead discussions of potential ethical dilemmas that students may encounter, students are better prepared for the service learning experience and are more likely to achieve these desired learning outcomes.  We end with one such dilemma for you to think about:

At Anywhere University, a professor in the nursing department develops a course based in a small agricultural village in a foreign country.  The focus of the course is on the impact of poverty on children.  Students spend much of their time in the village sharing health and nutrition information and helping families care for their children.   As the students work with the villagers, they learn that it is common practice for parents to provide a government-supplied medicine to infants for various illnesses.  However, this medicine has only been tested on adults.  The students are concerned that this medicine could be potentially very harmful to infants, especially with regard to long-term development, although there are no documented effects.  They do know that there is no affordable, readily available alternative medicine available.  The students consider sharing their concerns, but with whom should they start?  Their professor?  The agency that is sponsoring them?  The families they are working with?

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For more information about service learning, check out these sources:

  • National Service-Learning Clearinghouse: http://www.servicelearning.org/
  • Campus Compact: http://www.compact.org/
  • Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J. A. (2009). Innovative practices in service learning and curricular engagement. In L. Sandman, A. Jaeger, & C. Thornton (Eds.), New directions in community engagement (pp. 37-46). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Chapdelaine, A., Ruiz, A., Warchal, J., & Wells, C. (2005). Service learning code of ethics. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co.
  • Ruiz, A. Warchal, J. Chapdelaine, A., & Wells, C. (2011). International Service-Learning: Who Benefits? In: P. L. Lin (Ed.), Service-Learning in Higher Education: National and International Connections. University of Indianapolis Press.

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Copyright © 2011.  All rights reserved.

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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