The Service-Learning Corner: Special Edition on Virtual Service-Learning
May 17, 2021
Spotlight on Virtual Success Stories
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and a historic winter storm, the Spring 2021 semester proved one of ACC’s most challenging. In these troubled times, it is important to shed light on Faculty who have persevered through it all and come out standing tall. One such Faculty is Michelle Landrum, Department Chair and Professor of the Applied Community Dentistry course here at ACC.
A required component of the ACC Dental Hygiene program is a Community Dental Hygiene Service-Learning project, and in the 2020-21 academic year, Professor Landrum and her students endeavored to fulfill that requirement virtually for the first time ever. I sat down with Professor Landrum as she reflected on the experience and I present it here to celebrate her story and share some key takeaways for any faculty who may be interested in undertaking virtual service-learning in the future.
An Interview with Department Chair Michelle Landrum, RDH, MEd
Thank you so much for your time today! Before we dive into questions, would you like to introduce the project for context?
Sure. Part of the requirements for the Dental Hygiene program is that the students are required to complete a community project, where the students work in the community and have to demonstrate the community planning process, including assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation…
We’ve done this for about five years now, and it’s over two semesters. In the fall semester, they have their community dentistry course where they learn about the whole process, complete their needs assessment with the organization, and then plan for their interactions in the spring semester. Then they take the Applied Community Dentistry course in the Spring Semester, where they do all of their fieldwork.
They have three visits with the organization where they provide interactive education with the organization, and then there’s also an evaluation piece. There, they have to evaluate their teaching methods, measuring if the participants have learned a particular skill or have acquired knowledge or that kind of thing, depending on what they want to assess.
My first question, then, is what were some of the initial challenges, or challenges generally, of the virtual project implementation?
The initial challenge was really finding community partners to work with. In the summer of 2020, community-based organizations were really struggling to figure out how to provide services for their clients. A lot of the organizations we’ve worked with in the past were schools, or work with young children or persons with disabilities, so that was a huge challenge.
Even if we were able to work with those organizations, we had to figure out how we would deliver our content virtually so that we could both have a captive audience and figure out how to evaluate them. All of the ways we usually evaluate children are skills labs, like having them demonstrate toothbrushing, so there just wasn’t a great way to do that virtually. So that was really the initial challenge. What we ended up deciding was to really pivot and work more with the staff of organizations this year, versus the clients they serve, because we had more of a captive audience and the type of participants who could participate online.
Another big challenge was the evaluation piece. Typically our students will interactively present information on different oral health topics, and then throughout that visit, they will evaluate whether it’s through a quiz or some kind of skills lab or role play. That was extremely challenging because it is very difficult to do any kind of skills lab online or in breakout rooms. We did a little bit of that, but the students mainly relied on doing a sort of posttest or post-quiz using Kahoot or Google Forms.
I’ve always been proud of past projects for how hands-on they’ve been because when you’re talking about oral health or oral health behavior, so much of it is developing skills and proper oral hygiene techniques for use at home. When students work with children, for example, they come up with all sorts of fun, creative games where they’re moving and playing, and that has always been a really great aspect of how hands-on the projects have been. Another challenge then, was now that we were virtual, we couldn’t do those kinds of tactile, hands-on activities with the participants, so students had to come up with new assessment strategies.
The last challenge was that, of course, we were shut down for about two and a half weeks, and two of our groups were scheduled to meet during that week of the winter storm. Because we were working with staff, most of the organizations had put us into their monthly staff meetings, and so it was very difficult to reschedule those. That pushed us a little bit further back, and two student groups were really struggling at the last minute to put together their final projects. There were a lot of challenges this semester!
It’s interesting because in these projects your students are taking on the role of instructor, so while all of ACC instructors and faculty are trying to figure out how to implement online learning, so too were your students.
I actually think – I hope – that my students became a little more empathetic to faculty struggles with online teaching. In one of the groups, they were working with teachers of all people, but it was very difficult to get them to participate. They would ask open-ended questions and there would be no response, and that would make it awkward. So I would remind them that their faculty feel this way as well when students don’t respond.
With respect to the highlights of virtual implementation, were there any strengths to virtual implementation that you found?
I was very pleased that we worked all with staff this year, whether it was teachers or health staff, or service staff. That’s always a really good thing in my opinion because I feel like if you can get staff involved, it has more of a long-term effect. If they can become oral health advocates within their organization, it’s going to have a much more lasting impact. If they can incorporate those principles into their organization, they can then pass that on to many more people, versus our students just working with the actual clients for that organization in one semester…
For example, we worked with Head Start teachers this year, and instead of being in just one classroom and working with the kids, obviously, that’s good, but if we can teach the teacher and provide resources like oral health lesson plans and resources they can give parents, that’s going to have an impact on all of their future classes.
One other positive of being virtual was because it was online, it was more convenient for staff. Especially for an organization where they may all be at different locations, this made it so they don’t have to travel. It’s easier to schedule something at lunch, for example. If a teacher has a classroom, they can’t run out, but they can get online for half an hour. So the convenience for the organizations was definitely a strength.
Can you think of any experiences, positive or negative, that provide a good example of you or your students adapting to virtual implementation?
Several of the groups figured out a way to provide more of a facilitated discussion with the participants as a way to evaluate them. Instead of just giving them a quiz on knowledge, we could measure and record what came out of the facilitated discussion. It was almost like my students became more like facilitators and let the participants drive the conversation.
For example, when we were working with Samaritan Health Ministries, one of the topics we worked on with the health staff was inter-professional collaboration with the dental staff. We actually provided them with an inter-professional collaboration framework, assessed where they were, and then facilitated a discussion like, “Okay, here’s the framework, we see you’re here at level three – or whatever particular objective we were talking about – what would you need to do to get to level four? What are some strategies, or maybe even challenges, that are impeding you from getting to the next level?” That worked really, really well… I think that it’s really important, moving forward, regardless of whether it’s virtual or in-person, that the participants are much more engaged. Those discussions were a really great way to get participants involved and really critically thinking about an issue.
So it sounds like although students were limited in their assessment strategies by the impediments of virtual learning, it forced you all to become creative and explore new options for assessment, which is pretty cool, and maybe wouldn’t have come up had students been able to rely on traditional methods of assessment this semester.
And I think it’s a learning process for the students, too. I think in education, really, when we talk about teaching methodologies and what’s most effective, it’s really not just about giving everybody the information. It’s more about becoming a facilitator. When the participants have to do a little bit of homework and learn that base knowledge, after that, it’s really more about facilitating their learning and deepening their ideas.
Finally, is there any advice you might have for practitioners who are considering virtual implementation of service-learning in the future?
I think it is important to have very detailed rubrics that are almost road maps for the students that organize each component and really break it down. I’ve also found that it’s very helpful if I post examples of previous student group work. So for example, I give them an example of a needs assessment that was completed in the past that was really good, or I give them an example of the plan that they have to turn in in the fall semester…
I also met with the student groups regularly and provided guidance on whatever particular step of the project that they were on. I invited them to send me their evaluation rubrics and assessments that they’d be using in each visit, I’d try to give them feedback on those things. So I think just having it organized and having examples for students as far as what to expect is very helpful.
The other thing that I’ve found that was very important is when we were recruiting organizations to work with, I would always call them, have multiple conversations with the point of contact, and explain in detail what was expected of our students and what was expected of the organization. I think it’s really important with what’s expected with the organization upfront and explain that to them.
I don’t want to overburden the organization, but I do frequently check in with the point of contact to make sure everything is going okay, see if they need anything, that kind of thing. Having those relationships to make sure everything goes well is really important because I always hope that the organization will want to work with us again in the future. Our project has such specific requirements because of our accreditation… so I always like to make sure we deliver what they want and that they get as much out of it as our students get out of it.
Lastly, I would say that it is incredibly important to include a reflection piece for the students. When I first started doing this, my guided reflection questions were pretty broad. That is important because you do want to get out some of what the students feel, but one of the things that was really reinforced in the institute you put on and that I appreciated was that it’s also important to have guided questions that reflect back onto the course objectives… I think that as far as the students learning, it’s really important that you have a reflection piece in there so that they can incorporate their learning. Not just what the whole project has meant to them, but what they’ve learned and come away from it with.
Thank you for sharing all of this! Do you have any final comments before we sign off?
I think it’s just fantastic, experiential learning. It’s one of the most important ways that students can engage in active learning. The students have to put in a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time, and the students have to learn how to work in groups as teams. But there’s really no substitute for students actively participating in their project and what they learn and get out of it. They learn things I can never teach in a classroom, and they learn things about particular organizations and populations that they knew nothing about. And hopefully, in the future, the whole point of this is that they may want to work with these populations.
A perfect example of this is that, when we work with persons with disabilities, students are really initially intimidated by that, but then they get so much out of it, and in their reflections they write that now, they want to work with those populations. And I couldn’t teach that in a classroom. You can read about it, but unless you actively go out and work with particular populations – you just have to have that kind of exposure.
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