Date: 2011-09-28
Interview on Service Learning

Interviewer: Dr Paris Lau
Interviewee: Prof James Xing

Paris Lau from GEC interviewed Prof. James Xing, co-editor of the book Service Learning in Asia: Curricular Models and Practices, on September 29, 2011. Questions asked include the themes and the purposes of the book, the definitions, pedagogies and assessments of service learning, its relevance to Asia in general and HK and polyu in particular. Prof. Xing also shared his service learning experiences in the US and China and outlined the challenges and expectations for prospective practitioners of service learning at polyu.

Q1: Dear Prof. Xing, could you say something about your book Service learning in Asia: Curricular Models and Practices? In what context was the book published? What are the themes and purposes of the book?
Prof. Xing: The book grew out of a project I did when I was working for the United Board for Christian Higher Education (UB) in Asia. The purpose of the book is two-fold. First, it is meant to take inventory of the status of service learning in Asia. In 2007 when I was working for the UB, I was invited as a key-note speaker to the Asia-Pacific regional conference on service learning. At that conference, I met and interviewed a lot of scholars from across different universities in Asia. It was an inspiring experience. Even before that during 2006 and 2007, I travelled to over a dozen university campuses, in the Philippines, India, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and Korea, where I heard so many touching stories about how service learning was changing students’ lives and transforming higher education. I thought it would be great to have a book that summarizes the service learning experience in Asia and also outlines our future directions. I thought we had to know where we had been and where we were going at that time.

The book is organized around 3 major themes. First, service learning should focus more on social justice education. There is a long-time misperception that service learning is some sort of charity work. To move students away from that myth, we need to ask students to engage more on meaningful service and be a strong advocate for social change. The 2nd theme relates to the promotion of indigenous ideas and traditions about service learning in Asia. Service learning as a movement started in the US, but its development in Asia grows out of its specific local and regional contexts. The book is an effort to explore and document those regional and local contexts. Finally, the third theme is meant to promote international service learning. Most of the programs we have in Asia right now focus more on domestic service learning, which often is the first step. However, to promote cross-cultural competency and global citizenship, we need more international service learning activities.

Q2: What do you mean by service learning? How is it different from internship?
Prof. Xing: Different service learning scholars and practitioners may have their own emphasis in defining service learning. For me, three things stand out. First, service learning is a form of experiential learning that unites academic education, i.e., credit bearing course work, with meaningful community service. Second, the learning really enlivens service, and the service informs learning. There is a very close relationship between the two. Third, service learning has to be reciprocal. Reciprocity means that both the students and the community benefit from the experience. For internship, the focus is on benefits for students, who get academic credits and practical training. There is little or no emphasis about what the community could get out of it. But for service learning, both students and the community get benefits. Reciprocal relationship or reciprocity is the key word for service learning.

Q3: How is service learning different from more traditional way of learning and teaching in a classroom setting?
Prof. Xing: Classroom teaching pretty much uses the traditional form of learning. We are probably familiar with John Dewey’s famous saying that there is always a gap between the gown and the town. The “gown” means the academy, while the “town” is the community. In the traditional way, we teach students in our classroom, where they learn by reading, writing and interacting with instructors and students. There is little contextual interaction between the classroom experience and community-based learning. In contrast, service learning is a nice combination of the two, by taking students out of the classroom into the community and engage in experiential learning, hands-on experience and practical training. Service learning does not emphasize only one side, either the gown or the town, but a nice combination of the two, or at least trying to narrow down the gap between the gown and the town.

Q4. As said in the Foreword of your book by Prof. Edward Chan, there is no one single formula for implementing service-learning, which is to a large extent culture, location and institution specific. We know service learning is an American model of experiential learning bridging the gown and the town. How is it relevant to Asia and particularly to China and HK?
Prof. Xing Service learning on the surface seems to be culturally neutral, but it is not. It seems nowadays a lot of people talk about service learning. On the surface we are all using the same two words. But in reality, they may mean very different things. In other words, service learning emerges out of different social conditions, carrying different cultural meanings. In the US, for example, the majority of scholars and practitioners of service learning give credit to John Dewey for the beginning or the origin of the service learning movement. But in other countries, service learning emerged and grew out of very different historical circumstances. Take India for example. The beginning of service learning has a lot to do with the doctrine of decolonization and nation building after independence. When people think about service learning in India, they often emphasize the role service learning played in the nation-building movement. Similarly, in the Philippines, I learned during my field trip there that service learning was practiced mostly at Christian institutions. Christian colleges and universities often practice service learning because of their faiths and religious convictions.

In China and in Hong Kong, a lot of scholars believe that service learning serves as a way to counter the growing materialism and self-interests in Chinese society. Over the last 2 or 3 decades, particularly in the Chinese mainland, economies were booming and living standards were rising with a lot of money flowing around in society. Unfortunately, material wealth doesn’t mean that spiritually people are getting happier. Service learning can be a powerful pedagogy to counter that materialistic trend by emphasizing citizenship, community service and public interests. Specifically in terms of higher education, we need to ask ourselves how we are going to produce college graduates not only with technical expertise but also with a strong sense of citizenship and social responsibility. When students get out of university, they need to know how to give back to the community, care about public or social justice issues like the environment, poverty, disparities among different classes, welfare of the underprivileged and a whole range of other social issues and needs. Service learning is a powerful tool for university to produce more “citizen scholars.”

Q5. More specifically, could you comment on the significance of service learning to Hong Kong and especially to HK Polytechnic University?
Prof. Xing Among Asian institutions, as far as I know, Hong Kong is a few steps ahead in promoting service learning, but the development is uneven. For example, CUHK started service learning rather early because of Christian influence and liberal arts tradition, while other institutions like PolyU service learning is a recent development. Also, at PolyU, non-credit bearing extra-curricular service learning activities have been organized by student affairs office for several years, but credit-bearing service learning subjects were just offered early this year. The pending transition to the 4-year program in Hong Kong offers great opportunities for HK universities to engage in service learning. With one extra full year added to the curriculum, we have more opportunities to teach students about civic engagement and social responsibility. At PolyU, we now have the 3-credit core requirement of service learning in the General University Requirement (GUR). This is a huge step forward in the institutionalization of service learning, but of course, challenges remain, especially in terms of faculty training, curricular development, student advising, and resources and logistic support. Service learning is a very meticulous and time-consuming process. It demands a lot of co-ordination and logistic preparation. It will add a lot to staff teaching load and also students’ workload.
Q6. If we want service learning to be a credit-bearing subject in the GUR curriculum, there are practical issues related to grades and evaluation. How can service and learning link with each other to form a credit-bearing academic subject in the University curriculum? Students’ reflection in the end will be an important part of the learning outcome. How can the teachers evaluate such an experience and give students grades and credits?
Prof. Xing Over the years, scholars and practitioners of service learning have struggled with assessment issues because of the general perception that community-based service learning by nature is not as rigorous as classroom learning. This is not true. In fact, a service learning class is more rigorous and more demanding both in terms of efforts and time commitment. Recently, there is a growing body of literature on the assessment of service learning. Some suggestions and recommendations are available about how to do learning outcome assessment in service learning. For example, scholars emphasize that assessment has to be a joined effort involving 3 parties in the project, including students, instructors and community partners. First, there must be feedback from the students themselves as well as the instructors. But an equally important element in assessment is community involvement and participation. In other words, good assessment is based on full partnership, and we need to have feedbacks from all the 3 parties involved, the students, the instructors and also community members. That’s one recommendation.

The second is we need a portfolio rather than a single tool of assessment, including keeping a log, where students record their daily activities and a journal, with journal entries for students to reflect upon their experiences about what they have learned, where things gone right and where things gone wrong and how they plan to address the problems. In addition, surveys and questionnaires are used to solicit feedback from alumni, community partners
and even employers.

Q7. As the director of the General Education Center at the Faculty of Humanities, do you think service learning could form an integral part of general education? In what way GEC could make contribution to the whole university population in the field of service learning?
Prof. Xing Let me backtrack a little bit. In the past, PolyU had no service learning requirement in general education. With the newly approved 3-credit core requirement of service learning in place, I hope GEC colleagues could take a major role in offering service learning as GUR subjects. There are really 2 different kinds of service learning subjects available for students. One is discipline-based subjects, offered by departments and faculties that cater mostly to their own students. Student capacity, which means their professional knowledge and skills, is a prerequisite. But for GEC, because of our mission to teach general education subjects as GUR, we should develop and deliver service learning subjects that are open for all students at PolyU regardless of their specializations and majors. We should design service learning and civic engagement activities that all students are capable of performing. As a new core requirement in GUR, more service learning subjects are needed, and GEC, as a multidisciplinary team with historians, artists, philosophers, literature experts and science education specialists, should be in a good position to make contributions. Also, there are so many community needs out there both locally and overseas. By teaching service learning, we are helping teach students to be citizen scholars who would leave campus not only with their professionally defined technical expertise but with a strong sense of local history and global citizenship. I am currently developing a service learning subject to serve Hong Kong’s various ethnic minority communities, including the South Asian, the Thai, the Filipono/a and the Indonesian.

Q8. We know that you have been practicing service learning in the US and the Chinese mainland for many years. Could you briefly tell us how you feel about the education experiences? What are the similarities and differences between the learning and teaching experiences in the two places? What are the merits and challenges?
Prof. Xing I started teaching service learning courses about 12 years ago when I was a professor in Colorado. My experience teaching service learning in the US was both good and bad. The good part was that service learning had really transformed students’ lives. Some students became cross-culturally competent, and learned a lot of social skills and opened up their minds. The negative part was some of the ethical problems I encountered. For example, I learned in Thailand about the problem of “academic tourism,” where American students rarely spent the time to interact with local people. They tended to congregate among themselves. They didn’t take the learning very seriously and they were more interested in taking photos and making postcards to show that they had been there. That was a very frustrating experience. To me it is a serious ethical issue because it could be a form of exploitation of the local community. Students were there in other people’s territories and supposed to offer meaningful and sustainable service, but a number of ethnic, safety and liability issues arose. I have learned that service learning carries tremendous responsibilities for the instructors because they are responsible for the ethical conduct of the students.

I had been promoting service learning in China for several years now. I gave a number of lectures on university campuses and organized faculty training and development seminars on service learning. The good part of the experience in China was that Chinese students were much easier to manage. I didn’t encounter many disciplinary prblems. Most of my students there were very serious learners. In the meantime, there were other kinds of challenges. For example, I often find it very hard to deal with the bureaucracy. Teaching service learning carries some major risks related to bureaucratic issues, political issues, sensitivity issues and also cost issues. I find that it needs a lot of knowledge and patience to navigate the process there.

Q9. After knowing about the give-and-take situation of service learning, now polyu is going to implement service learning as a mandatory credit–bearing component of GUR, do you have any professional advice and suggestions for the prospective teachers and students?
Prof. Xing Service learning has a lot to offer our University and students. To bring out its full potential, there need to be strong institutional support for its design, delivery and administration. For example, I hope to see more professional development opportunities available on campus, including workshops, seminars and symposiums for sharing experiences among service learning scholars and practitioners both locally based and from overseas.
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