Service-learning (SL) is an experiential learning pedagogy that integrates community service with academic study and reflection. Research has identified SL as a high-impact practice in higher education that can have a strong positive influence on students’ academic, civic, social, moral and personal development.
When PolyU started planning to adopt SL as an institutional strategy in 2010, a task force carefully studied the implementation of SL at other leading institutions and developed a framework appropriate for ourselves. We aimed to develop an inclusive model that would encourage all faculty members and academic departments to develop SL courses that would reflect their own strengths and skillsets. We strived to develop a broad range of courses to cater for the diverse preferences and strengths of the students, and embed social responsibility in the fabric of the university.
To ensure academic quality, we instituted a parallel structure of quality assurance and course support. A subcommittee of experienced faculty members is responsible for formulating policies on subject development and approval, risk assessment and monitoring the execution of the courses through the assessment results and student feedback. For course support, we also created an Office of Service-Learning (restructured to the Service-Learning and Leadership Office [SLLO] since September 2019). The SLLO provides operational support in implementing SL, such as bridging the gap between the faculty and community organisations through liaisons and match-making, creating innovative projects, exploring challenging service sites, identifying and assessing the risks to students and the community, supervising students in service and conducting relevant research and development on SL.
After the SL requirement was formalised in 2010, we bootstrapped the process by encouraging teachers who had prior experience in leading community-based student projects to develop a set of pilot courses, and provided a stipend to support the participating teachers. The first 10 credit-bearing SL courses were piloted in the 2011/12 academic year, with a roll of 243 students. From this humble beginning, the SL component has grown to 60 approved courses involving 170 teachers from 26 departments, with a roll of 4,000 students each academic year, with service locations in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Rwanda. In 2012, we admitted the first cohort of students required to take Service-Learning courses as a graduation requirement. In 2016, this cohort graduated successfully. We have achieved our first important target: to provide a sufficient number of SL courses and student places for all students.
In the next phase, we will focus more on quality and impact. Based on our own research, we have found that whether our SL courses achieve their purposes depend on a number of factors, including:
- challenging and meaningful tasks,
- interest in the subject/project,
- perceived benefits to people served,
- preparation for service,
- student effort in service, and
- interaction with service recipients.
We will continue to review and refine the courses on offer and to design new courses/projects to strengthen these elements. We will focus more on expanding our SL program overseas, to take our students to new challenges away from Hong Kong, to collaborate with universities and institutions overseas, in Asia and beyond, to broaden our global exposure. We will expand on scholarly studies and research on the pedagogy and practices of service-learning, to ensure that our programs are based on solid academic grounds and to advance the scholarship of service-learning. Finally, we will expand beyond credit-bearing subjects into student-based projects, leadership development for social engagement, and staff participation, to contribute to the embedding of social responsibility in the fabric of the university.