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This issue of CDTL Brief discusses various issues and aspects of Independent Learning, incorporating views from NUS faculty and a student.
January 2008, Vol. 11 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Service Learning: Where the World is Your Classroom*
Mr Ng Kiat Han
4th-year undergraduate
Department of English Language & Literature

In Semester 2 of Academic Year 2005/2006, I enrolled in a new class at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. This module was GEK 1052 "Community Service and Social Action", and it was an education experience that was refreshingly different from the other modules undergraduates were used to. At the first seminar class, the professors informed us that the module was a novel technique in local education: service learning. This essay argues that it is a worthy mode of pedagogy that should be embraced by institutions of higher learning.

The module entails the study of community service, specifically activism. The professors, Dr Kenneth Paul Tan and Dr Daniel Goh, had arranged for an entire series of dialogue sessions with important personages who are key figures in their areas of community activism. These communities include the arts community, the homosexual community and a whole variety of other peoples often discretely obscured from the public eye.

To begin with, the course pack for the module was a large collection of academic essays. Every week, all students had to read a chosen essay and answer a question posted by the professors on the IVLE. These answers are, in effect, short student essays that pertain to the subject matter and critical slant of the relevant topic that week.

Braye (2005) explains that "writing promotes critical thinking in ways that no other intellectual activity can match" (p. 169). Indeed, writing is central to the class. 40% of the course grade was based on the IVLE forum posts and two other essays constituted 30% each. Ostensibly, this module has an inherent bias to those who are themselves able writers. But this is fallacious, for writing in this module is not the employment of fancy histrionics or literary architecture. The forum posts involve examination of facts from the given essays and a goal-directed reflection of this information. Linguistic legerdemain alone cannot answer these questions. For instance, an IVLE forum post had to answer questions such as: "How do the concepts of assimilation, pluralism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism differ from one another?". Not only must a student know the definitions of these words, an appreciation of these words as social concepts must also follow. Students are directed to relate these concepts to real life, in particular the relevant community in the dialogue session that week, or the student's Cross-Cultural Understanding Discussion Group (CUDG) project. Braye (2005) says "the activity of writing (active, dialogic and recursive) requires many of the thinking processes (assimilation, evaluation, analysis) that we associate with higher levels of thinking, levels of thinking [that] can be difficult to access in other ways" (p. 169). This is absolutely correct, since it is not merely qualitative writing that the professors look for; it is, more significantly, quantitative analysis. As there may be students with less-than-stellar linguistic abilities, it would be less than prudent for their grades to suffer merely because of the occasional flaw in grammar. These students should therefore face no immediate disadvantage enrolling in such classes. Lubling (2005) says that his students submit "a weekly reflection paper, allowing [him] a continuous insight into the students' thoughts and practice" (p. 192). Language, especially academic language, is a powerful vehicle for thought, and this quality should not go unnoticed or disregarded.

The speakers for the dialogue sessions included women's activist and past president of the Association for Women for Action and Research Dana Lam, Substation's artistic co-director Lee Weng Choy and conservation advocate Dr Shawn Lum. These speakers, particularly the ones commonly thrust in the media spotlight like gay activist Alex Au and playwright Alfian Sa'at, have a strong appeal to the youth. Such dialogue sessions primarily bridge the gap between the communities in the course-communities which may be very far removed from our lives-and us students. This experience is something no amount of textbook reading can bring. All students had to sign up with a group that would facilitate every dialogue session; each group had to transcribe the speaker's interactions with the students, as well as submit a reflection paper dealing with the main aspects of the session. Having us students engage critically with the speakers demystifies their work and further connects us with the communities discussed.

All this was augmented with a Cross-Cultural Understanding Discussion Group (CUDG) project. This project was entirely self-directed, and students were at liberty to select a community for which the group project would aid. This is another highlight of service learning, for it crystallises all the abstract theories expounded in class and makes them utterly relevant to real life. This project, as with the dialogue sessions, helps us students understand hitherto-unknown communities by allowing us to meet real people and hear them relating real experiences. Lubling (2005) points out that "understanding is an existential event that challenges the whole person's intellectual and motor habit" (p. 185), and this goes beyond what mere knowledge can do for a person. Clearly, all aspects of the module-including the CUDG project, the readings and the dialogues-feed off and influence each other. Students are encouraged to interact with other people, and this is a critical hallmark of service learning.

My group created a digital map of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science with maps and photographs of the Faculty's compound that would allow students to familiarise themselves with the architecture of the school. This was primarily to facilitate the movement of the community of physicallydisabled students about the complex passages in the Faculty. To accomplish this CUDG project, we had to locate such students to learn of their difficulties in navigating the school. After interviews and investigations, we gained an awareness of how such students lead their educational lives in campus. Several things can be discerned, chiefly that communities of people that need aid are far closer to us than we imagine. In addition, and more importantly, every student has every capability to effect change and improvement for these communities.

The module was a most refreshing experience, and I enjoyed it immensely. This is significant, especially since it was a class that was neither in the scope of my major discipline nor areas of expertise; this shows that the smooth transition of any person out of his or her comfort zone to an alien educational landscape can be facilitated with independent service learning. I learnt a great deal about the people around me and the class made me think critically on issues that impact on social domains. It only goes to show that this pedagogy can be transposed to any field in education. The class was an exegesis of the world, and I was given the opportunity to investigate its vastly different social mechanisms, as well as engage with these aspects of the social spectrum equipped with a critical imagination. This is most valuable, for similarities between social groups quickly became apparent and I gained a profound appreciation of culture across these communities.

There is a massive potential, especially since all its nontraditional work-such as the dialogue sessions or CUDG projects-is ultimately symbiotic with the class and can be manipulated to give many educational benefits. Furthermore, the learning experience in universities like NUS stands to be heavily enriched. After all, acclaimed pedagogue Martin Buber says that "the purpose of education [is] to develop the character of the pupil, to show him how to live humanly in society" (Hodes 1972, p. 136). Evidently, service learning does precisely that.


Braye, S. (2005). Teaching Writing Intensive Courses. In S.L. Tice; N. Jackson; L.M. Lambert & P. Englot (Eds.), University Teaching: A Reference Guide for Graduate Students and Faculty (pp. 162-173). New York: Syracuse University Press.

Hodes, A. (1972). Encounter with Martin Buber. London: Penguin.

Lubling, Y. (2005). Service Learning. In S.L. Tice; N. Jackson; L.M. Lambert & P. Englot (Eds.), University Teaching: A Reference Guide for Graduate Students and Faculty (pp. 184-193). New York: Syracuse University Press.

* This article was written when the author was a third-year undergraduate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
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Inside this issue
The Art of Not Learning: Two Versions
The Bookends of USP Learning: From WCT to ISM
Using Wiki to Write Lectures Notes Independently and Collaboratively
A Self-directed Learning Experience
Flashcards and the Leitner Cardfile System: A Useful Tool for Learning Human Anatomy Independently
Self-learning is Self-reliance
Service Learning: Where the World is Your Classroom