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The notion "community" is interpreted as the extent at which student teachers would go in contributing their services to the community. Service learning is an integration of academic study with community. It means students can apply what they have learned during service learning to their academic life. Group Endeavours in Service Learning (GESL) was made compulsory to all freshmen in an effort to promote service learning in National Institute of Education (NIE). Student teachers are randomly grouped together to form a team and are led by an assigned tutor. They then meet up regularly to plan an event for a non-profit organization of their choice. Point to note that Service learning/GESL defers from community service. Community service involves voluntary work for the community. GESL on the other hand, is a compulsory group effort to provide service through learning, reflecting and teaching the community. Thus, GESL can be very beneficial for student teachers as they are able to contribute back to the community.
Unfortunately, I find that time is a factor when planning an event. It further adds on to the workload a student teacher already has. Therefore, does doing a good cause seems like a burden to student teachers now? If NIE makes GESL non-compulsory, would student teachers still take up this service learning on their own or as a group? Student teachers have to take a stance for themselves as to whether GESL is beneficial or just a waste of time. As supported by (Butin, 2005), a student cannot remain neutral when engaging in service learning as that would position oneself in a resistant identity. In this situation, we tend to question the effectiveness of service learning in impacting a student's academic life. Since GESL completion is inevitably required within a year, a student teachers' contribution may seem involuntary. Furthermore, GESL has no credit unit awarded after its completion.
In this paper, I sought to determine whether the main objective of service learning is lost through the process. In addition, I will also find out factors that hinder a student's participation in GESL. Hence, if there is no emphasis on GESL, would student teachers volunteer for service learning throughout their academic life in NIE? This question will be examined further in this paper.
Methods and Methodology
A questionnaire was designed to find out the impact of service learning (GESL) on first year undergraduates at National Institute of Education (NIE). The target sample comprises 10 Bachelor of Arts students majoring in different academic subjects. GESL was introduced to all freshmen in NIE and therefore first year students were chosen for this survey. The survey was conducted through a face-to-face meet up session and participants were required to complete a questionnaire form on the spot. Students were surveyed on their willingness, understanding and expectation of GESL. Five questions were included in the questionnaire.
The first question asked students whether they knew the difference between service learning and community service. A "yes" and "no" options were given to them. The responses from this question will reflect students' understanding of these two services. A misinterpretation could be a contributing factor to GESL being involuntarily completed.
In the second question, students were required to choose one out of four options given. The question asked them on what they expect to gain from GESL. The four options were "Experience/Satisfaction", "Academic Credits", "Certificate" and "Good reputation (Example, for resume)". Additionally, a fifth open-ended option was made available for them to specify any relevant answer. This question was intended to find out the purpose or benefit that a student expects from GESL. Collated results for this question were compared with the main objective of service learning to reflect a consistency throughout the process.
The third question asked students whether they would want GESL to be made non-compulsory. A "yes" and "no" options were given to them. This question was chosen to support the forth question that asked student teachers on how long they are willing to commit to GESL. The forth question had four options and they were "one day", "one week", "one month" and "one year". Students' keenness in contributing their services will be determined by both question three and four.
Lastly, the fifth and the sixth question were open-ended questions. Student teachers were asked "what they enjoyed most about GESL" and "what they enjoyed least about GESL" in question 5 and 6 respectively. Both questions aimed at finding out what student teachers gained from GESL and what are the possible factors that hinders them during the process.
Findings and Discussion
The percentage of students' responses to question 1 is shown in Table 1. It can be seen that 70% answered "yes" and 30% answered "no" to this question. The high percentage of "yes" is possibly due to the constant briefings and talks on GESL by NIE, which has enabled students to better understand the differences between these two services. Nonetheless, the small percentage of 30% indicates that there are students who still misinterpreted service learning to be similar to community service.
Even though there are a high percentage of students who knew the differences, so to what extend do they know about GESL? The fact that GESL has to be completed within a year, students might want to just get it over and done with. This is supported by (Clark & Young, 2005) who states that service learning without deep authentic engagement would just be a normal field trip for students.
(Clark & Young, 2005) also highlighted the limited view or understanding of service learning:
"When viewed as simply helping those "less fortunate," students may fail to see the role that their own privilege plays in the dynamics of power" (p. 72)
The way students view service-learning will as such determine what they do with it and how they do it. Students with adequate knowledge on service learning would be able to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for GESL as compared to students with minimal view of it. Therefore a student's purpose and objective were not entirely lost during the process but it was not even established at the start.
In Table 2, it shows the responses from students on what they expect to gain from GESL. A high percentage chose "experience/satisfaction", followed by "academic credits" and "good reputation". Indeed experience and satisfactions are one of the expected outcomes of GESL. This is supported by (Group Endeavours in Service Learning, 2005) which quote:
"GESL is an experiential learning experience for trainees to acquire and develop skills in project management, self- and team-development, and community service."
Table 2 also shows that 30% of student expects to gain academic credits from GESL. Unfortunately, GESL is compulsory and has no credit units awarded after its completion which make students feel burdened. With reference to question 6, the same 30% of students who expect to gain academic credits from GESL states that what they enjoyed least about GESL is it being very time consuming. Hence, we can see that this 30% wants their time to be rewarded instead of exchanging it for valuable experiences.
Surprisingly, the same 30% of students' responses to question 5 was not consistent with question 2. They expected to gain academic credits but instead what they enjoyed most about GESL was the "ability to meet new friends" and "meaningful experiences". Thus, this shows that to appreciate service learning better, one has to go through the hassle of planning and organizing first. They would then be able to reap the priceless rewards from this project. Ultimately, the students did exchange their time with meaningful experiences.
Next, the students were asked on whether they want GESL to be made non-compulsory. As seen in table 3, 60% of the student answered "yes" and remaining 40% answered "no". The difference between the percentages is rather small, which mean there are students who still want GESL to be made compulsory. Why do students want GESL to be made compulsory? The reason could possibly be them trying to avoid the inconvenience of registering for GESL on their own. They do not mind helping out but it is not something they are passionate about. This is supported by (Jones, Gilbride-Brown, & Gasiorski, 2005):
"Like volunteering for a specific organization when (students in his leadership and service scholars program) in general just like helping out and volunteering, not because they want to strive to correct a social problem, just because they like helping out." (p. 15)
Nonetheless, the high percentage showed that GESL should be non-compulsory, but would student teachers still contribute their service to the community? GESL has a project life of one academic year. With reference to table 4, only 20% are willing to commit to service learning for one year. A figure of 20% is exceptionally low. On the contrary, 40% of the students are more willing to do service learning for one day, which defeats the purpose of GESL.
Furthermore, the objectives of GESL cannot be accomplished in one day or one week. Due to the lack of students' participation for the past few years, NIE had to make GESL compulsory for all freshmen. As for the year 2011, making GESL compulsory will only result in involuntary contribution but higher participation rate compared to previous years. Therefore, making GESL non-compulsory will only lead to similar trend that happened in the past; lower participation rate. Students would rather prioritize on their academic module instead of GESL.
To conclude, I looked into possible factors that are hindering student teachers during GESL and how this minimizes the impact of service learning on them. Through the survey results, I was assured that time was definitely the main factor concerning students. From experience, it was difficult to agree on a common timeslot for a meeting as everyone had different academic timetables. Hence, instead of viewing GESL as a beneficial project, students find GESL to be very time consuming.
A student who engage in GESL with a mindset that planning and organizing is just a waste of time; GESL will indeed be that way. Therefore, it is important to re-iterate the importance of having a constructive view of GESL before being involved. Another contributing factor was the rejection students received from the non-profit organizations themselves. What is surprising here is that students want to provide their services but these organizations were not keen in accepting their proposals due to certain constraints. On a whole, with all these factors hindering them, would students still volunteer for service learning throughout their academic life? From my perspective, they will participate in service learning, provided NIE make changes to GESL so that students view it more positively. As suggested by (Clark & Young, 2005):
"Devoid of any reflective activities that require students to connect their experiences in service sites to their classroom work, service-learning becomes, at best, volunteerism and at worst, merely the logging of hours toward a community service graduation requirement."(pg. 72)
Normally, after the completion of GESL, students had to complete a simple self-reflection form. NIE should provide a deeper reflective activity whereby students can apply their experiences to their academic work. This is supported by (Torres, n.d) that state, "Without reflection, students just report on experiences instead of examining what they do impact themselves and those they serve." (p. 3)
In this way, GESL will not be perceived as just a waste of time but a project that is relevant and impactful to their academic life. GESL could then be promoted as a teaching method that bonds both theoretical knowledge and educational experiences together.
Since some factors are inevitable, it is still important to ensure that student teachers' service learning journey is a smooth and meaningful one. As future teachers, it would be much easier for them to encourage their students to follow suit when they themselves understood and experienced how enlightening service learning can be. Moreover, service learning can be promoted as a pedagogical tool when they venture out to teach in the future.