Santos-Rego, M.A, Lorenzo, M., & Mella, I. (2020). El aprendizaje-servicio y la educación universitaria. Hacer personas competentes [Service-learning and university education. Making competent people] (Alexandre Sotelino Losada)

Santos-Rego, M.A, Lorenzo, M., & Mella, I. (2020).
El aprendizaje-servicio y la educación universitaria. Hacer personas competentes [Service-learning and university education. Making competent people].
Octaedro. 193 pp.

Research and literature about service learning have increased in recent years, experiencing exponential growth in this decade. The vast majority of publications emphasise the potential that this expe­riential methodology has for the partici­pants to learn, as well as the social impact deriving from the related projects. But we must not forget that this is a didac­tic methodology with a clear pedagogical objective. We stress this point because many of the practices labelled as SL seem to resemble volunteering projects or field practices instead. Therefore, those of us in the pedagogy field must ensure that certain epistemological criteria are met so as to guarantee the quality of the initia­tives; otherwise, there is a risk of trivial­ising this method, as is the case when any group project is prone to be called cooper­ative learning.

SL seems to have taken hold particu­larly at university level. Thus, in recent years, numerous research projects, scien­tific events, publications… and of course experiences have come to light involving a range of fields of knowledge. There are even specific networks for teachers and re­searchers in the field of higher education. The danger in all this is when SL shifts from being a useful methodology within the framework of competencies to being implemented as a sort of fad playing to interests that are unrelated to the teach­ing-learning process. Therefore, we must continue emphasising a gradual consolida­tion while also ensuring sufficient guaran­tees of pedagogical efficiency and efficacy.

In this regard, professors Miguel Án­gel Santos Rego, Mar Lorenzo Moledo and Igor Mella Núñez have presented a work that progresses in the knowledge of service learning while maintaining a perspective that is, at once, critical and proactive. This can be seen in the title of the book itself.

A browse through the chapters of this book takes us from general to more specific aspects, starting with a conceptualisation of learning in higher education in the 21st century and ending with a proposal for the institutionalisation of service learning. For its readers, the journey on this ocean of knowledge that is SL begins on an island shared by many areas. Thus, it touches down, first of all, on the epistemo­logical foundations on which today’s Eu­ropean Higher Education model is built, based on the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Obvious­ly, given the contextualisation of the book, it also discusses the Spanish university sys­tem, which has faced this challenge in the midst of social change. Subsequently, the authors address the concept of educational innovation, which, in today’s scenario, re­volves around competency-based learning. In this latter aspect, the authors’ work around understanding this new approach is particularly striking, as is their way of explaining to the uninitiated a world that is sometimes hard to comprehend from the perspective of pedagogical atheism.

At the second port on this academic voyage, the authors outline the method­ology that is the focus of the book: service learning. Thus, they emphatically set out the conceptual frameworks of this type of programme, in turn distinguishing it from other educational proposals. In addition, given that SL is by no means a new con­cept, the work discusses the origin, evo­lution and adaptation of this methodolo­gy with a narration that starts with the pragmatism of the Chicago School, led by John Dewey.

The journey continues, its third stop taking the reader to a specific space in which service learning is applied. The uni­versity setting is one of the areas in which this methodology is being implemented most widely, as shown by numerous pub­lications, meetings, training events, and more, on the topic. Therefore, the authors have devoted a specific chapter to this as­pect. This work offers us an in-depth un­derstanding of the criteria to be used in designing, implementing and evaluating service-learning projects in higher educa­tion, affording the certainty that we are doing so with the required pedagogical rigour. To achieve this goal, reflection is proposed as a basic feature of this kind of initiative, thus tying the service per­formed to the academic content of the dif­ferent subjects. This section ends by link­ing the aforementioned competency-based learning approach to service learning, highlighting the potential that this expe­riential methodology has in fostering the achievement of competencies through a more dynamic, contextualised process. Another relevant matter is the endorse­ment of SL as a proposal that aids in the insertion of university students in social and work life, given that it connects them to their surroundings and to networks of contacts that place them directly in the job market.

The final stop on this journey, in the fourth chapter of the book, is devoted to the process of institutionalising service learning in Higher Education, identifying the stakeholders, models of action and levels of achievement. In this regard, the process implemented at the University of Santiago de Compostela is taken as a starting point and reference; two research projects were conducted there within the framework of the Esculca Group, thus fostering the effective consolidation of the method at this institution. The au­thors therefore advocate the evaluation of SL projects as a basic requirement for displaying their quality patterns and en­abling these patterns to be presented as best practices in higher education. At this point in their voyage, readers will also learn about 19 different projects that can illustrate how to create new proposals in other lands and destinations.

We would also like to point out the at­tached survey contained in the book (“CU­COCSA – Cuestionario sobre competencias cívico-sociales y autoeficacia del alumnado universitario”, the survey on civic and so­cial competencies and self-efficacy of uni­versity students), which is placed at the disposal of the scientific community in an exercise of academic solidarity and knowl­edge transfer. This instrument contains four scales that refer to matters related to university education, social participation, civic and social competencies and self-ef­ficacy. Therefore, it is a validated bench­mark for evaluating projects of this nature.

In sum, with this work, the authors combine experience and sound research in order to create an irrefutable line of rea­soning with regard to the academic and social potential of service learning. Thus, they have presented a book that must be consulted by anyone in the academic com­munity wishing to learn more about SL, moving beyond a simplified discourse in which the weight of the argument falls merely on rhetoric without being ground­ed in the pedagogical knowledge that has brought service learning to where it is today. It should also be noted that this book is useful in teaching university stu­dents, offering them options to help them optimise their academic journey based on experiences of this nature, which af­ford pragmatic nuances to cold curricula. Therefore, this work may be of interest to a wide-ranging audience, from students and/or novice researchers to teachers and others with academic management respon­sibilities, or even professionals working at tertiary sector organisations. In this way, the book represents a step forward in the service-learning methodology, and could even become a benchmark in this field, although one thing clearly distinguishes it from other discourses: this work is rooted in the pedagogical rigour of the arguments expounded by its authors.

Alexandre Sotelino Losada