Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17405 Blogs As a Representation of Students' Experience In a Social Work Academic Service Learning Class

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 5:00 PM
McPherson Square (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Paula Gerstenblatt, MSW, Doctoral Student, Assistant Instructor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Dorie Gilbert, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background/Purpose Academic service learning is a tool that challenges traditional social work pedagogy as it attempts to prepare students for the complex and generative aspects of community engagement as well as demonstrating the learning that accompanies community engagement projects. Academic service learning provides an opportunity for authentic community engagement based on the praxis of reciprocity, learning, community engagement and reflection (Harkavy, 2010; Jacoby, 2009; Scott, 2008). A narrative thematic analysis was used to answer the question “How did student blogs represent the experience of students enrolled in an academic service learning class in an impoverished racially divided rural community?” The authors, co-instructors of Global Development – US and Abroad, present data collected from students participating in this social work academic service learning class that used blogs to assist students integrate classroom material with projects conducted in collaboration with community residents.

Methods A narrative approach was selected in consideration of the data source, individual student blogs that include personal reflections and accounting of experiences. To capture the reflexive aspect of service learning, students (n=9) created blogs to chronicle their thoughts, experiences, and responses to assigned readings. Blogs and the act of blogging closely resemble diary entries, anecdotal and descriptive writings about an event or phenomenon, and narrative material (Jones, 2008; Runte, 2008). The narrative turn in qualitative research began with the expressed lived experiences and stories of individuals from their unique perspective through multiple sources of information (Creswell, 2007; Fraser, 2004; Riessman, 2008). This pilot study was intended as a “dry run” for a subsequent in depth study of blogs written by students participating in the same course offering the following semester.

Results The findings of this pilot study indicated the student blogs represented the student's experience as part of an academic service learning class that included project development in a poor, rural racially divided community. A range of themes were identified in the blogs:

• Project sustainability and community engagement • Race included segregation (past and present), disparity, power, and identity • Application of theory to practice • Student's roller coaster of emotions • Poverty and the decaying built environment • Confusion about their roles and being seen as an expert when they felt they lacked expertise in their projects. • Applying past and emergent experiences to their critical thinking and projects

The extent of the student's blogging varied; however, in answering the research question, the blogs illustrated the extent of involvement in the project, the community, and the group. A scant blog was as telling as a prolific one and represented that student's experience from their perspective and in their words.

Implications The data provide promising findings that may offer an important tool to be used in social work education, particularly to assess and understand the experiences of students working in distressed community settings. Authors discuss the findings in terms of the themes addressed in these rich narratives and how they represented student experiences, presenting implications for social work education, practice, and research.