Global Service Learning: Concerns from a Community of Practice

January 12, 2015

Benjamin Lough, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Cynthia Toms, Westmont College

If you are reading this post, then you may be one of the growing numbers of higher educational professionals, researchers or practitioners that collectively feel an exciting stir and building momentum within the field of global service-learning (GSL). From discussions of benefits and ethical impacts to best practices built on newly emerging research methods to building a deeper awareness and understanding of the power of partnerships and student engagement, there is no question that global service-learning is on the rise and bursting with potential.

Yet with any movement, crossroads emerge. It is at these critical junctures that key defining questions are posed and decided: What is our core identity? What do we most value? What should be our collective focus to improve and progress? For the field of global service-learning, this critical development and evolution point has now come of age.

Comprised of multiple stakeholders from various disciplinary backgrounds and professional locations, the individuals and institutions most invested in the field of GSL represent a host of diverse perspectives and voices. Although separate constituents are an inherent strength, the imminent task of determining common research, development, and assessment priorities presents a complex challenge. In order to better understand and determine priorities within this field of GSL practitioners, a systematic process to determine priorities, key issues, questions, and dilemmas along with pathways for addressing major challenges must be employed.

To address this need, a group of 216 educational professionals, volunteer placement organizations, and community representatives gathered at Northwestern University during fall of 2013 to share experiences and insights, produce concrete recommendations, and work toward action steps for the field. The primary goal of the summit was to stimulate a pragmatic discussion of global service learning issues and to employ a systematic process to determine priorities across institutions of higher learning.

Participants at the summit represented 42 different universities, five colleges, three community colleges, three private foundations, three government agencies, and 14 service providers. Three separate focus group sessions explored the following areas:

  • strengthening partnerships with co-educators in host-communities;
  • developing an integrated service-learning model encompassing pre-service through post-service components,
  • measurement, evaluation, and evidence of impact.

In total, 121 summary statements developed from these focus groups. Each statement that emerged from the focus groups summarized what participants believed were the most important areas for educators to strengthen the practice of global service learning. From these sessions, the authors of this post systematically coded the 121 summary statements using qualitative analysis software.*

The following findings highlight key critical issues within the community that must be addressed as well as recommendations for future action steps. Participants in the summit identified six main areas that need to be addressed in order to strengthen the practice of global service learning within their institutions:

(1) The most common need expressed by participants was a request for a central coordinating body to build consensus and commitment in the emerging field of GSL (n = 80).

More than 80 participants expressed interest in building a central coordinating body to share and promote best practices, evaluation tools, and other knowledge. A central space could develop and help share best practices by taking inventory of how different institutions manage the content and structure of GSL, as well as begin to better understand how variations in activities are associated with outcomes. As one group concluded, “How can we share standards and evaluate best practices if we don’t have an inventory of the variety of practices?”

Beyond the need to share practices, participants stated a need for collaborative platforms to build a “community of knowledge” or “creative commons”. By sharing practice wisdom across institutions, group members hoped to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.

Participants suggested the need to develop a coordinated “GSL research agenda” to understand and promote evidence-based programing. In connection with this need, participants emphasized that we can greatly amplify our shared learning by taking advantage of listservs, collective digital space, Wikis, manuals, and other means of knowledge dissemination.

Finally, scholars asserted that the “field” of global service learning is finally starting to “come of age” (see also Mlyn & McBride, 2013). Benchmarks used to justify this claim include an increasing knowledge base to drive practice, an uptake in specialized training for educators and facilitators of GSL, and the beginning of organized gatherings to share knowledge.

Although there are many indications of growth in the field, additional work needs to be completed at higher levels of organization to “claim more territory” and to promote a stronger esprit de corps among cooperating institutions. For example, it is unclear where the body of our “knowledge community” resides—including publication outlets that scholars and budding professionals might use to disseminate knowledge of GSL.

2) Greater reciprocity in global service learning placements was the second most commonly recognized need (n = 48).

Participants expressed concern about how local community agencies and other stakeholders can be better prepared and involved throughout the various stages of decision-making processes. They expressed concern that reciprocity and inclusivity often tend to be lacking as an overall goal or practice in their institutions.

Many participants took issue with the perception that faculty are often viewed as the experts—and suggested that we need to better articulate the community partners’ roles as co-educators; to draw from local knowledge, and to reinforce the expertise of community partners.

The questions of positionality, privilege, and power — and open dialogue about who ultimately makes decisions about GSL placements was seen as an area that needs to be explicitly dissected and mapped by higher education institutions in collaboration with partner organizations and communities.

Interestingly, nearly half of the summary statements advocating for greater community involvement also included a clause for added student participation. Participants suggested engaging students to incorporate peer sharing after students have returned home. Members from these groups believed that students may be best suited to design innovative ways to share their learning and experiences with each other for mutual benefit.

Finally, participants expressed interest in promoting greater reciprocity in evaluation and research. They asked, “How do we nurture an evaluation process that includes community voice, credit for, and participation in our research, assessment, and publications?” A related concern expressed reciprocity as a value judgment: Who decides what to assess? Who decides what is beneficial? Who determines learning priorities and defines them in preparing students to engage and reflect?

As some participants asserted, if reciprocity is ever going to be more than a mere aspiration, educators must be willing to acknowledge the reality of multiple knowledges, alternative ways of knowing, and stark epistemological divides that exist between cultures (see Dei, 2000).

(3) An integrated model of GSL that could be developed and shared across institutions was the third most frequently cited need (n = 25).

In practice, an integrated model includes pre-service orientation and preparation, the development and use of evidence-supported curriculum and co-curriculum during placements, and the expansion of post-service opportunities for students returning home.

Participants requested more information about how to best prepare students, host communities, higher education institutions, faculty, and volunteer sending organizations for effective GSL placements.

A robust and evidence-informed curriculum was viewed as an artifact that some institutions have already developed, and that could be shared with other institutions—particularly smaller colleges and those new to GSL practice.

In order to implement an “integrated model”, preparation and curricular support during the placement also needs continuity with post-service to complete the progression. Participants requested practical insights about how to leverage the post-experience by connecting reintegration activities to students’ career pathways – helping to launch a trajectory in their chosen profession, both domestically and abroad.

(4) Stronger administrative commitment to GSL within higher education institutions was also a commonly expressed theme (n = 20).

A key sub-theme that emerged during discussions of administrative commitment was how to balance the tensions between the cost and quality of GSL placements with access to inclusive opportunities for participation by diverse students.

In addition to securing more equitable access for students, the effective management of costs and fees could diversify the types of institutions and communities that faculty and students are able to engage.

(5) Two additional themes related to evaluation emerged during the workshops. The first theme was concerned with how stakeholders can design clear, credible, and assessable evaluations of GSL (n = 16).

Many GSL administrators are practitioners with comparatively little expertise in evaluation. Because of this, a chief concern among participants was how to design assessments and evaluations to be less daunting and more impactful. On a practical level, how can institutions obtain clear, credible, useable data that is easily obtained, reduces fatigue, and can be effectively used?

While many agreed that evaluations should be theory driven, participants questioned how individual institutions can move beyond case studies when completing evaluations of their students and programs.

Participants also asked for greater clarification of the purposes and uses of data—particularly when evaluating community impact. Additionally, participants suggested that evaluations are necessary to increase transparency at the institutional level.

Without having standardized, operationalized evaluation tools to gauge standards of good practice, discrete institutions have no clear benchmark to assess the comparative effectiveness of resident practices.

(6) A final category that warrants attention is the need to develop and manage strong and collaborative partnerships with Volunteer Sending Organizations (VSOs) (n = 15).

This theme is closely related to the idea of reciprocity in GSL placements but is focused on partnering with volunteer sending organizations, rather than on host communities.

Participants acknowledged that tensions, competition, and mistrust that occasionally exist between academia and VSOs. They asked for shared knowledge about how to best gain institutional and faculty support for VSOs and other third party programs with demonstrated effectiveness as co-educators.

Strengthening a central coordinating body for GSL

The finding above are helpful in contributing an overall understanding of the common priorities and current dilemmas within the field of GSL. Emergent themes highlight the need for further development of theoretical models that include multiple stakeholders as well as exploration of new methods for research and assessment.

The findings are especially relevant for higher educational professionals, faculty, and field practitioners who are working to advance the field and knowledge within the community of practice and desire an understanding of the current trends.

A number of recent initiatives and solutions are emerging to address the needs identified during the summit. For example, since these data were collected in November 2013, has gained a significant online presence with multiple and diverse stakeholders and regular followers, including a recent post by Eric Hartman that went viral, earning 20,000+ hits in just a few days (perhaps continued evidence of the rapid evolution of global service-learning).

The site also offers a host of resources and guideposts for practitioners and the community of scholars. This resource and its growing number of followings (including you the reader) are a start to addressing the most common need expressed by participants in this study: a central coordinating body to build consensus and commitment in the emerging field of GSL.

Advancing research on GSL

Additional progress in GSL research is worth reporting. In an attempt to address residual questions about research and assessments, a multi-institutional study aimed at measuring global learning has been piloted and is now calling for more institutional participation.

In addition, a host of fresh scholars are cutting their teeth examining the impacts of global service-learning on students and communities – many of whom have experience as students in such programs or as field practitioners, which offers balance and perspective to the seasoned higher educational professionals with years of experience in service-learning programming.

Further strengthening the GSL community of practice

In March 2015, The 3rd International Service Learning Summit will once again gather the community of practice to check progress and take stock of next steps. This year, the focus will be community partnership. Practitioners and researchers involved in global, community-based, experiential or service learning will once again examine critical issues facing the field and create an agenda for developing and measuring our success as international educators.

This summit is an opportune moment for the emerging community of practice to pick up the baton and run with the themes that emerged in this analysis. Participants can take the opportunity to continue strengthening this community and to share and promote best practices, evaluation tools, and other knowledge.

Stakeholders can work together to develop greater reciprocity and integrated GSL models that will gain administrative commitment on our campuses and develop stronger, more ethical partnerships between colleges, volunteer sending organizations and communities.



*The 40 individual focus groups sessions generated 121 summary statements, averaging 14 words per statement. Coding of statements was performed using ATLAS.ti® qualitative analysis software.

A coding plan of eight anticipated codes was initially developed based on subjective recall of key themes from the summit. In addition, data were also “coded up” using new themes that emerged during analysis.

Two researchers coded each statement separately. All statements received equal weight; receiving a value of one when coded. However, in cases when a statements included more than one idea, it received more than on code.

To enhance the rigor of qualitative analysis, individual coders triangulated their analysis by comparing concepts, discussing differences to resolve conceptual discrepancies, and revising the coding plan accordingly. The final categorical schema reflects the frequency of codes assigned to each category.

This research project was approved and endorsed by multiple conference organizers and research facilitators from the 2013 summit host institution.


Dei, G. J. S. (2000). Rethinking the role of Indigenous knowledges in the academy. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4(2), 111–132.

Mlyn, E., & McBride, A. M. (2013). From the Desk of the Guest Editors. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 17(2), 1–4.

Photo Credit Above: Water for Waslala / Villanova University

Benjamin Lough and Cynthia Toms both serve on the editorial, research, and visioning committee for

Benjamin Lough is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois School of Social Work. He earned his BS and MSW in 2003 from Brigham Young University, and his PhD in 2010 from Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Lough has extensive international research experience, having recently served as a resident consultant to United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program in Germany, an independent consultant to the Department of Human and Social Services of American Samoa, and a program evaluator for the Foundation for International and Community Assistance in Armenia and the Republic of Georgia. His research interests include: community development, international volunteering and service, nonprofit management, and social work education. He recently completed a study with the American Jewish World Service to assess the impacts of international service-learning programs on participants’ civic engagement, philanthropic giving, and Judaism’s imperatives to pursue justice and enhance human rights. He has also worked with the Center for Social Development, the International Forum for Volunteering in Development, and UNV on various longitudinal studies assessing the impacts of international volunteerism on communities, host organizations, and volunteers.

Cynthia Toms is Director of Global Education and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Westmont College. She previously served as Assistant Director of the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, where she oversaw academic immersion courses for over 1,000 graduate and undergraduate students annually. For three years she served as the Associate Director and a faculty member at the Uganda Studies Program (sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), and has previously taught at Peking University and Huija Private College in China. Her dissertation focused on the impact of global volunteerism on community development in Latin America. Along with a recently edited book, Transformations at the Edge of the World, her published work appears in the Journal of Higher Education, Christian Higher Education, and Higher Education.

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