Technical, practical or critical: What is the state of ISL research?

By Jessica Arends

International service learning (ISL) facilitates two long-standing goals of higher education: to prepare students for citizenship and the ability to understand and appreciate other cultures (Plater, 2010). However, much of service-learning research has been conducted from a technical perspective (Billig & Eyler, 2003), or one which strives to capture objective knowledge from a neutral stance with normed instruments informed by the natural sciences (Phillips & Burbles, 2000). Indeed, the most recent scholarship in ISL charges researchers to transcend the commonly-studied aspects of service-learning, such as frequency and rate, to address issues of inequality, community and reciprocity (Erasmus, 2010; Kahn, 2010; Kiely & Hartman, 2010). Clearly there is the notion that ISL studies are not capturing what some of us really want to know and this may be due to the methodologies employed. I wondered about this disconnect, so I spent last summer collecting published ISL research to see what approaches were actually being used in the field. My guiding inquiries were:

  • How many ISL studies are out there?
  • From which research methodology or perspective are they conducted?
  • What does this reveal about ISL research today?

I searched online academic databases using a number of terms and reviewed abstracts from 2003 to 2011 to find a total of 14 articles. I then read and analyzed each article by placing it into one of three categories: technical, practical or critical (Carr & Kemmis, 1986). Technical strives for replicability and neutrality, to capture objective data to build on pre-existing knowledge; thus, assuming there is a trajectory towards truth and science can move us along that trajectory. Practical is synonymous with qualitative; language, description and deeper understanding of unique contexts is valued over generalizable results. Truth is socially-constructed and therefore subjective. Critical studies are also qualitative but take into account factors of power and difference, believing that no form of research exists outside of the political realm. In other words, cultural, social and historical factors are always at play and affect not only the people and context being studied but also the researchers themselves. Truth is continually negotiated.

Out of these 14 articles, three were technical, nine practical and two critical. Clearly qualitative studies outnumbered technical. However, using Google Scholar as a proxy, I researched the number of citations for each article. The articles most referenced were technical followed by a few in the practical category. In both cases, critical studies were the minority.

Based on this analysis, one can see that while practical studies are common, technical are more commonly cited. Why is this the case? Do scholars and practitioners find technical research to be more valuable? Or perhaps technical authors are more well-known? There are many possibilities, but it remains clear that technical studies maintain a large presence within the ISL field.

Applying a critical lens to this question may help elucidate possible causes. First, there remains inconsistent reasoning for why research is carried out in the first place. While some view research as a capturing new knowledge (Glesne, 2010; Phillips & Burbles, 2000), others see research as a way to reduce ignorance, uncovering bias or false notions (Berliner, 2002). There is also a disconnect between what researchers want to know and the methods employed. For example, we know programmatic aspects such as understanding cross-cultural interactions and cultural differences are understudied in service-learning research; however, the language urging researchers to control for variables, test hypothesis and build upon pre-existing knowledge remains (Billig & Eyler, 2003).

Finally, this analysis must be situated among historical factors which could also influence the preferences of an article’s audience. For example, a technical interest has traditionally been the cornerstone of educational research, a remnant of the 1920s education reform efforts which sought laws and formulas to gain legitimacy and validity among professionals outside of the field (Lagemann, 2002).  The reason why technical approaches were adopted was because they had been employed by the field of psychology which was already established in higher education at that time (Lagemann, 2002).  The field of psychology and its research methods continue to influence education. This is especially evident in assessment education research which is often carried out in response to institutional pressure to prove that service-learning is “more than curricular fluff” rather than discovering effective practices (Kiely, 2005, p.2).

I am now embarking on a critical study that brings together ISL practitioners to reflect on their practices and theories of service-learning. I am asking them to articulate what it is that they do and ask them to think about why they conceptualize their work in this way. With critical readings, videos and discussions we have the opportunity to explicitly acknowledge issues of power and difference and how they play a role in our work (Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Freire, 2003). Several findings revealed the need for a critical approach in research as it will ensure opportunity for self-examination.  For example, some service-learning practitioners struggled with how to teach students about the historical and social context of the communities where the service is taking place.  Because this task was overwhelming it was avoided. When asked, other participants had either not considered or were at a loss as to how to assess the impact the service-learning program had on communities outside of the university.

Once articulated, participants are then able to share resources and ideas to address these concerns. Using a critical approach not only helps the researcher identify areas of improvement in service-learning practice, but also empowers practitioners to respond to those areas. This is especially significant in service-learning where understanding context and community impacts continues to be a common weakness in programming (Crabtree, 2008; Illich, 1990; Prins & Webster, 2010; Grusky, 2000; Erasmus, 2010; Stoecker and Tryon, 2009).

Finally, a critical approach aligns with the objectives of the programs which the participants are developing and implementing, potentially modeling useful techniques for the practitioners themselves. For example, objectives for their service-learning programs identified during initial interviews include: developing intercultural competency, shifting a student’s world view, and recognizing issues of social justice in their field. Therefore, modeling critical approaches during the study may augment the practice of the participants as they aim to facilitate the same pedagogy with their respective students.

In sum, we as researchers must be diligent in identifying the perspectives which inform our choices when conducting research. Why do I chose this particular methodology? Will it capture what it is that I really want to know? Or do I chose this method because it will appear to be more legitimate than others? And how will this make a contribution to the ISL field?Indeed, understanding our own individual approach will help move the field forward and counter the current trend in higher education of accepting and practicing service-learning more than scrutinizing the pedagogy (Butin, 2006).


Jessica Arends is a doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction at Penn State. She is currently conducting a faculty study which brings international service-learning practitioners together for critical reflection on theory and practice. She can be reached at jha10(at) 


Berliner, D. C. (2002). Comment: Educational research: The hardest science of all. Educational researcher, 31(8), 18.

Billig, S., & Eyler, J. (2003). Deconstructing Service-Learning: Research Exploring Context, Participation, and Impacts. Information Age Publishing.

Butin, D. W. (2006). The limits of service-learning in higher education. The Review of Higher Education, 29(4), 473–498.

Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical: Education Knowledge and Action Research. Routledge.

Erasmus, M. (2010). A South African perspective on North American international service learning. In R.G. Bringle, J. A. Hatcher & S. G. Jones (Eds.), International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Sterling, VA:Stylus Publications, Llc.

Glesne, C. (2011). Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction (4th Edition). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Kahn, H. (2010). Overcoming the challenges of international service learning: A visual approach to sharing authority, community, development, and global learning. In R.G. Bringle, J. A. Hatcher & S. G. Jones (Eds.), International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Kiely, R., & Hartman, E. (2010). Qualitative research in service methodology and international service learning: Concepts, characteristics, methods, approaches and best practices. In R.G. Bringle, J. A. Hatcher & S. G. Jones (Eds.), International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Kiely, R. (2005). A transformative learning model for service-learning: A longitudinal case study. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12(1), 5.

Lagemann, E. C. (2002). An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research. University of Chicago Press.

Nussbaum, M. (1999). In Defense of Universal Values. University of Notre Dame.

Phillips, D. C. & Burbules, N. C. (2000). Postpositivism and Educational Research
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Plater, W. (2010). The context for international service learning: An invisible revolution is underway. In R.G. Bringle, J. A. Hatcher & S. G. Jones (Eds.), International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Prins, E., & Webster, N. (2010). Student identities and the tourist gaze in international service-learning: A University Project in Belize. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 14(1), 5-32.

Stoecker, R., & Tryon, E. A. (2009). The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

This entry was posted in Global Service-Learning, Reflections from the Field, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

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