Online learningService Learning in a digital age

5 ways to integrate service-learning through an online learning approach

By August 18, 2020 No Comments

Globally we are seeing a shift in how learning and teaching is being conducted, with  people turning to online learning or e-learning. This shift is going to impact education, now and in the future, which is why we need to look at different tools and teaching methods to help students learn in this new way. 

One of the ways in which we can develop agency is to incorporate service-learning into an online curriculum.  Service-learning is a pedagogy that has proven to be effective in engaging students in their course work as it creates opportunities for critical thinking, problem-solving, and develops communication and leadership skills in students. This makes service-learning the perfect tool to use to create student engagement through online learning. In order for it to be effective, service-learning activities need to be adapted and integrated to an online teaching approach. 

Let us take a look at five ways you can do this in your online classroom:

Find a learning platform that allows for engagement and collaboration


Service-learning relies on collaboration and student engagement which is usually facilitated by experiential learning in the physical world, but this will look different in an online environment. By using a learning platform that allows for conversations, group discussions and collaborative thinking, you will be able to create an experiential learning experience for your students. Many schools have turned to apps and platforms like Google Classrooms, Zoom, Houseparty and more to facilitate service-learning online[1].  


Use Online Reciprocal Teaching Techniques


Online Reciprocal Teaching is often used to generate creativity and develop communication skills as it encourages collaboration, critical thinking, and comprehension skills. This teaching technique uses inquiry and problem-based tasks, which partners perfectly with service-learning. Through service-learning, students are challenged to investigate and research problems within their community and formulate an action plan or solution to help solve the problem. This can be structured using the phased approach below:

Phase 1: this phase centres around getting students comfortable with working on their computers, building their web search, navigation and word processing skills. For example, students may  look for a cause that they would like to support or identify a need in their community through researching blogs, news articles etc. online. The length and breadth of this phase will vary by need and the previous experience students have with computers [2].

Phase 2: is a collaborative phase during which both teachers and students conduct think-aloud demonstrations and mini-lessons. Students will discuss what they have found online and who they might need to further discuss the needs of the community for the direction of the project. Students take responsibility for their learning, teaching, leading or facilitating their peers with a variety of online reading comprehension strategies[3].

Phase 3: in this phase, students work, both individually and in small groups, using strategies and skills from the previous phases to develop lines of inquiry around curricular topics[4]. In the case of service-learning, students will be encouraged to come up with a plan or solution to solve the problems or issues discussed in Phase 2.

online learning

Use collaborative learning methods


Utilizing an online collaborative teaching approach provides different techniques and tools that allow for students to learn by working together and discussing course work[5]. These tools include[6]:

Collaborative Group Activities – can range from informal discussions to highly structured and collaborative group activities. These activities provide a way for learners to establish communication channels and allows them to play an active role in their learning.

Group Discussions – in collaborative group discussions, learners listen attentively to each other and value the efforts of shared knowledge and input. Online discussion technology also helps learners respond to questions, participate, and offer peer feedback to support the sharing of new information.

Feedback and Assessment Activities – online peer assessments have been proven to support a student-centred approach as they allow for collaborative peer-to-peer communication, active participation, and interactivities.


Connect with your community partner


When looking at facilitating service-learning activities, it is essential to continuously connect with verified community partners. This can be done by using  online learning platforms like Zoom or Skype. It is important for your students to feel connected to the cause/issue/problem that they are working towards, which is why having online “connect sessions” is essential. During these sessions, the community partner can talk about what their needs are and how they are doing. This provides insight into what service-learning projects could be created and what issues or problems need to be addressed in the community. Students can then use the collaborative learning methods mentioned above to research a problem or need, and plan and develop a solution to this need.


Challenging students to think outside of the box and get creative in your approach


With online learning, some may think that you cannot be as creative as in the physical world or classroom, but this is not the case.  Thinking creatively and outside of the box enhances online study, especially where service-learning is concerned. Here are some fun examples of activities that can be facilitated online:

  •  Host an online auction of artwork – get students to create pieces of art relating to a cause, problem or issue that has been identified in their community. Students will create an online gallery by using a free blog creation website or social media platform.  Students will then invite parents, teachers, community members and partners to go onto the platform to view the artwork in preparation for the virtual auction of the artwork. A live auction event can be set up using a communication platform like Zoom, where parents, teachers, community members etc. will be able to join the auction and bid on the artwork.  All the money raised from the auction will go towards helping the community and the cause identified.
  • Solve a real-world mystery – everyone loves riddles, brain teasers, and a little mystery! Create an e-learning video, case study or interactive online presentation but, leave out the ending. From a service-learning perspective, this mystery could focus on a community problem or issue that the students need to address and solve[7].

Create a virtual storytime – partner with an organisation or community library that is focused on improving literacy and reading in underprivileged communities, an example of this type of organisation is Read for Hope. Encourage students to create a video of themselves reading a story, which will then be posted onto the organisation’s platforms and used by the community to promote reading and literacy.



The global shift towards online learning is challenging us all to look at different methods, tools and techniques to help facilitate student engagement. By integrating service-learning into your e-learning curriculum, you can create an online learning environment that is interactive, engaging and able to enhance online learning through experiences. Collaborative and reciprocal learning techniques assist in providing students with ways to interact, problem solve and improve communication and leadership skills. When integrating service-learning into an online learning environment, it is essential to continuously connect with your community partner and to bring students into these discussions. Teachers also need to think creatively about service-learning activities and challenge students to think outside of the box. In order to develop student leadership opportunities to learn these important life skills, they need to be planned for. The Serve Learn Challenge ( provides guidance for students to self pace in order to have agency and develop leadership skills. This online challenge takes students through the 5 stages to help meet the needs of community partners. Students need choice and voice in their learning, agency and leadership is key to all service-learning experiences.

Online learning is not limiting, especially when combined with creative service-learning activities that motivate, challenge, and encourage students to be agents of change.

For more on classroom management strategies that could help you read our blog, classroom management strategies that facilitate Service-Learning in a digital age.

[1] Dove, J, Revilla, A. 2020. The best apps for teachers and educators. Digital trends. Accessed: 27 July 2020. Available at:

[2] J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed  July 2020.


[3] J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on 27 July 2020.

[4] J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on 27 July 2020.

[5] A.W. Bates. 2019. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Viewed on 27 of July 2020.

[6] M,Higley.2018. Reasons Why Collaborative Online Learning Activities Are Effective. eLearning Industry. Viewed on 27 July 2020.

[7] Pappas, C. 2016. 5 Online Group Collaboration Ideas For Your Next eLearning Course. Viewed on: 27 July 2020.

Tara Barton

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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