Social engagement while studying? Detlev Buchholz on service learning
Service learning strengthens students’ social skills, while helping to improve the way subjects are communicated. So says Detlev Buchholz of ‘Hochschulnetzwerk Bildung durch Verantwortung’. In this interview, he explains how it works – and what advantages service learning can offer society.
Computer scientist, Dr Detlev Buchholz, was president of the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences from 2008 to 2014. Today he is the spokesperson for the ‘Hochschulnetzwerk Bildung durch Verantwortung’ (‘University network education through responsibility’), which has so far brought together 30 universities interested in service learning.
Dr Buchholz, what does it mean, service learning at universities?
Detlev Buchholz: In the education context, service learning means communicating subject matter and skills to students, not just theoretically, but using inputs from actual practice.
One high-profile example is the provision of outpatient medical care to homeless people and others without health insurance at the University of Witten-Herdecke. This gives students the chance to carry out dental treatment under professional supervision, before they’ve completed their studies. For the homeless people the service is free, while the students get an insight into their later occupation. That’s just one aspect of service learning.
And the other?
Detlev Buchholz: The other aspect looks at the question of how students use their social engagement to deal more intensively with matters of social cohesion. In this respect, service learning is intended to impart civic responsibility – irrespective of which subject they are studying.
Service learning: benefiting all sides
That sounds utopian. How can it succeed – across all subjects?
Detlev Buchholz: As a kind of voluntary service! And yes, we do manage to find something suitable for all our degree subjects.
In the social sciences or health care-related subjects it makes sense, but...
Detlev Buchholz: ... but it’s also possible in technical disciplines, or for budding architects and structural engineers – for instance, they can provide free advice to local authorities on planning urban neighbourhoods. The same goes for business and economics students: there are usually lots of societies and small enterprises that can’t afford to use professional consultants when they develop their business plans.
And the ‘Connect’ project of the University of Duisburg-Essen runs workshops in which school pupils interact with students from a wide range of subjects to address a specific social issue.
Do you think service learning at universities is a good idea?
Social engagement is not a matter of culture
Why is service learning still largely unknown in Germany, compared to the USA?
Detlev Buchholz: As I see it, that’s mainly a question of culture. In North America, self-reliant learning plays a much more important role. There, it’s just good manners to do something on a voluntary basis. Many universities even require proof of such activities as a prerequisite for admittance, or at least for receiving a grant.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways of using the curriculum to get students involved in voluntary activities. In this respect, there’s still a lot to be done in Germany.
Related to that, what do you think about the idea of awarding credits for social engagement in universities?
Detlev Buchholz: That’s a controversial topic. Our network takes the view that credit points should not be awarded for the voluntary work in itself, but only for the learning event as a whole.
Community discussion on service learning
The idea of service learning and credits has also prompted a discussion among the Germany-Alumni. Daniel Aderhold in Peru, for instance, believes that social engagement in universities should indeed be rewarded with credit points. ‘I work in a university in Lima,’ he says. ‘There, the students are obliged to secure three credits outside the curriculum, over the course of their studies. The university offers plenty of appropriate opportunities – including social activities.’
Meanwhile, Nikolai Press in England has a very different opinion. He agrees that students should get involved in activities outside the university, but he doesn’t think students should earn credit points for doing so. ‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘you have to do be willing to do something for nothing – because of idealism and a sense of responsibility.’