About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Integrating service learning and blogs into communication courses

In a recent twitter conversation with Mike Morrison at RapidBI, I mentioned that I felt the current unemployment rate for teen in the US was having an impact on the skills students were coming in with. It used to be that students would learn work skills on the job in low level entry level jobs. These skills included basic jobs skills such as understanding what is expected in a job (being on time, dressing correctly, knowing when to take initiative, knowing when to ask questions, understanding chain of command in a given work situation, company culture), communication skills (interacting with irate customers, problem solving, finding and giving information), and self regulation (taking responsibility for actions, changing behaviors to fit corporate culture, interacting with coworkers, taking initiative). All of these skills can be learned (with support from workplace mentors and training structures) on the job. However, what happens when teens no longer have access to these types of jobs?

My background (as many who read my blog know) is in experiential learning. This means that I am always trying to figure out how to give my students real life situations that they can learn within and try out new skills without the fear of failing the class. I use Kolb's model: experience, reflection, generalization, experimentation. For me, the biggest challenge is to find real life situations that my students can use (simulations are nice, but there is not the same level of complexity and lack of predictability for my students to feel the discomfort of "not knowing" what they are doing, yet having others rely on their work). So, for the last 3 years, I have had my students do various types of service learning projects.

This semester, I have also decided to have them blog about the projects. There are two reasons for this: 1) It forces them to reflect on the project beyond the required documents they are required to produce, and 2) They are publicly accountable for the project.

The Projects

This semester, I am teaching two different levels of group communication. The lower level focuses on understanding group processes and developing communication skills (writing and oral) for effective group processes. I have students working in two different groups throughout the semester simultaneously so they understand how different groups, group purposes/tasks, and communication requirements will result in different group processes and challenges. One of the projects is an open service learning project in which students must work 5 hours per person (i.e. 20 hours for a group of 4, 25 hours for a group of 5) with a non-profit organization. They must keep me informed first by writing a project proposal, then creating a group code of conduct, submitting a progress report, writing a description of their project on a service learning blog, and writing a final report which includes evidence of their hours/work (i.e. letter from organization they work with, receipts, schedule). I allow students to choose whichever organization they want to work with, but they must propose the work and organization and get it approved by me before they start the work.

The second class I teach is an upper level class that focuses on group leadership. For this class, students were given 5-6 books to start off with, and then collect 4 more books per person (20 for a group of 5, 24 for a group of 6). Next they need to find an organization to donate the books to that is outside of our region. Once a week, they are given a different task to complete to help them find books, find an organization to donate to, and deliver the books to the organization (outside of our region). This project may include fund-raising for postage or soliciting various groups for books that are related to the organization to which they are donating.

In both cases, students will be asked to document their work and then create a blog which can be used by the university, the students (for future jobs), and the organizations they are working at (for more publicity and perhaps future contributions and help).

What My Students Learn

Over the last 3 years that I have done these service projects, my students initially are resistant in doing the projects. Many complain that it requires too much outside time with their busy schedules. However, by the end of the semester, the majority are very pleased to have participated and many continue to do the volunteer work started through this class. In addition to being a resume builder, students believe that this project gave them a realistic experience in which they learned to communicate. They were able to use the tools they were taught in class and reflect on their impact on communication in a real world experience. Many students have indicated that they have used those same tools in subsequent internships. They also feel more confident in using the communication skills because they have had to use them in a comparatively low risk situation (the service project) yet being held responsible for using them in a real life situation.

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