The Council of the European Union recognizes the increasing importance of the social dimension of education when it identifies “the promotion of equity, social cohesion and active citizenship as one of its four strategic objectives” in this sector. Universities need to consider their social relevance in contemporary complex societies.
Since the end of the twentieth century, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are more and more requested to abandon their former ivory tower status and to establish relevant interactions with society. By stimulating and guiding the utilization of knowledge for the practical concerns of everyday life, they should take a visible role in facing some of the main challenges of our time: for example social inequality, environmental issues, immigration and global citizenship. In the context of globalisation, particularly, universities must be engaged with their region and contribute to the well-being of the local society as part of their so-called third mission.
Internationalisation of the classroom: towards a European identity
Cultural diversity in societies has become a reality that still calls for appropriate translation into education systems and curricula. The principle of internationalisation is a fundamental challenge for schools and universities. Community engagement and student volunteering during a student exchange, contribute to the international orientation of educational institutions, for example, by bringing international students into primary and secondary classrooms.
Bringing non-formal learning approaches to HEIs
Since globalization and a knowledge-based economy have become key factors shaping our contemporary world, individuals are required to manage complexity and diversity in their everyday professional, social, and private lives. Education plays a crucial role in this type of society.
For the education field, this means amongst others that “students need to learn how to learn and how to manage their own learning” (OECD, 2000, p.37).
A learning method that seems particularly apt to meet those new challenges, is experiential learning. This is a form of non-formal learning that puts the learner and his or her very own experiences at the core of any learning process. The Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), as it was described by Alice and David Kolb, defines learning as “a holistic process of adaptation” that involves the individual as a whole and “results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment”.
By undergoing a concrete experience (step 1), students will be able to reflect on what they have observed during their encounters (step 2), conceptualise the learning outcome to an overall conclusion (step 3) and experiment and implement their learning experience in future activities in intercultural settings (step 4).
Together, they form the so-called experiential learning cycle, a kind of ideal learning curve, that is meant to involve a creative tension between all four learning modes:
“Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences.” (Kolb & Kolb, 2009, p.5)
Bell and Scarfino link the concept of experiential learning to the Learning pyramid. Although criticized on the percentages allocated to learning techniques, it gives a clear illustration that learning retention is higher when ‘Practice by Doing’ and actually teaching others score significantly higher.
By engaging in local communities, working on a topic in a real-life setting, the service-learning experience offers students opportunities learned in the classroom. Turning theory into practice and teaching others expects a higher level of understanding of the student to tackle the topic at hand, requiring the student to prepare sufficiently in order not to fail expectations. These learning techniques respond to the nowadays increasing demand of non-cognitive skills and know-how.