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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Education Toolbox

Teaching from the trenches

By David Burns

I found myself yelling “Amen, Brother!” and “You said it!” while reading Timothy McCarty’s “Education Toolbox” column on valuing student media (Quill, May/June 2013). I, too, receive dozens of requests from organizations offering “a great learning experience” by having students produce (usually free) videos for them. These “service-learning” projects are among the fastest growing pedagogical tools in higher education since they 1) enable theory to meet practice; 2) provide students with career-related experience; and 3) connect students to the off-campus community.

I sometimes integrate these service-learning projects into my classes and offer a few suggestions to promote a successful universal learning experience for the students, the educator and the requesting organization.

1. PLAN EARLY

I like to plan at least a semester ahead of time. This allows time to work the project logistics into the syllabus.

2. EDUCATOR MEETS CLIENT

The educator should meet the organization’s liaison before the students do to discuss the scope and vision of the project and establish the project’s measureable outcomes (i.e., increase website traffic, call an 800 number, etc.). This is the educator’s “value added” as she or he utilizes industry experience in regard to the execution and may be more comfortable speaking truth to power about expectations than students.

3. ESTABLISH OBJECTIVES, DEADLINES AND DELIVERABLES

This is an educator’s most important job. I detail project and learning objectives and outcomes (they will be different) and evaluation criteria, and convey deadlines and deliverables. Professor Terry Rentner and her co-authors, in a forthcoming book chapter on service learning in the public relations field, emphasize that student assessment methods should evaluate learning, not service.

4. MONETIZE “FREE”

Create a budget that includes equipment, personnel, materials and duplication costs. Even if there’s no money, it shows students and the client that someone is picking up the tab for this “free” project.

5. STRESS LEARNING

The client is a partner in the educational process, so stressing the learning experience for the student is vital. Point out that when working with students, the quality may not achieve industry standards, and the overall project may take longer than usual. Flexibility is crucial.

6. STRESS PROCESS

Document and circulate discussions, client decisions and actions to students and the client. This provides both a decision-making road map and a blueprint for progress. Sticking to deadlines also keeps the project on track. This is where textbook material and industry practice often meet.

7. SHOWCASE

Present the final product to the public (if appropriate). Invite corporate executives, university officials, parents and student peers. Discuss the experience.

8. PROVIDE MUTUAL RECOGNITION

For portfolios, in written letters, students should thank the client, and the organization should thank the students and the university.

9. EVALUATE

Determine whether the measurable outcomes were achieved. With the client, evaluate the overall experience; gauge the performance of the organization, the professor, the syllabus/master plan, the students, the finished product, etc.

David Burns is an associate professor at Salisbury University and president of the SPJ Maryland Pro chapter. Email him at dpburns@salisbury.edu.

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