Service learning and teacher-scholar education model

Keshav Bhattarai


Writer Bhattarai

Plato argued, “If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life;” Nobel Prize winning economist TW Schultz argued, “Education as investment that explains growth;” and Gary Becker expanded the Human Capital Theory based on Adam Smith’s explanation of wage differentials among employees. Putting these ideas together, one can conclude that education is important and university degree pays off higher wages.  James Heckman justified these claims with empirical evidence backed up by current science. That said – quality education embedded with service-learning objectives becomes instrumental in the development of a country as it delivers quality education that serves a community by qualified individuals.

In the words of Robert Sigmon, service learning “occurs when there is a balance between learning goals and service outcomes” that involves voluntarism, community service, internship and field-based education. As the Chinese Philosopher, Laozi, the author of Taoism, once stated “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”  This analogy suggests that sustainable education is one that entices theory and practice in every level of education. University graduates equipped with service-learning education can deliver better policies and plans that act as catalyst in the implementation of sustainable development of a country.

Involving in higher education in both Nepal and the United States of America (US), I have observed that Nepali education is very strong in theory while the US-based education is strong in both theory and practice.  However, when Nepali students get opportunities in service-learning environment, they excel very quickly because they have strong theoretical bases. I argue that if Nepali students are engaged in service-learning education from the beginning, Nepali university graduates will definitely contribute to the sustainable development of Nepal with pragmatic policies and programs. Nepal Government in FY 2018-2019 budget speech has committed to provide employments to half a million people. Definitely, the government is looking for qualified individuals equipped with needed skills to deliver quality services.

How can Nepal find the right workforce in the right place? Obviously, candidates having abilities to integrate higher education effectively with professional and personal development will be the right choice. How can a person attain these optimal knowledge and skills? Research universities always emphasise on their advancement in community engagement in scholarship. In 1990, Ernest Boyer, erstwhile President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, suggested broadening the view of scholarship with the integration of theory and practice, what he termed the “scholarship of engagement.” In Ernest Boyer’s views, higher education involving a community and benefitting a community by engaging faculty and students is the best education. In summary, Boyer emphasises on the integration of theory and practice in education to serve a community.

How is this relevant to Nepali Universities? Nepali universities offer high quality education. Once opportunities are available, Nepali students during their time of studies in foreign institutions have developed new algorithms, computer models and theories. Given the opportunities, these students can quickly engage in scholarship, discovery, application, and integration of various ideas to resolve problems, and have assisted their affiliated institutions to establish genuine partnerships with several private organisations and companies while engaging in high-level scholarship. They are engaged in project-based learning depending on the subject specificity. They have been successful in enticing theories with practice in the didactic process. Under the advisorship of their mentors, Nepali students have been able to cross the traditional methods, have tested their ideas with smaller content area, and have expanded to wider areas, published papers in high profile journals.

Nepali students have taken challenging topics lending themselves to multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches. How about within Nepal? Can Nepali students contribute for the sustainable development of Nepal? If so, what environment do they need to succeed? How can Nepal overcome several difficulties it faces and use the knowledge and skills of Nepali students and educators for the development? There is no doubt that university graduates in Nepal become instrumental in accelerating country’s development.

There are daunting issues in Nepal that have been barriers for developments. There is a lack of real time information on the reconstruction of earthquake-devastated structures, forest timber growth and non-timber forest products such as medicinal plants, sources of various pollutants based on location-specific industries, conditions of roads, hazardous areas, flood prone areas, issues related to various ecosystem services, accidental information, traffic congested areas, and areas with possible social unrests due to poor services. These are just few issues, there are many others. It becomes too expensive to gather detailed information in every area at large-scale (smaller areas with detailed information) for the government within a short period.

It is unfair to blame the government for not making such detailed information available to general public because of Nepal’s poorly institutionalised data banking system. However, Nepali educational institutions can become instrumental to assist the government to enrich with detailed information at large scale at minimal costs. Thousands of students graduate from Nepali educational institutions each year. If these students are involved in service-learning education, Nepal can easily achieve its development goals with qualified individuals and make large-scale information available to researchers for their critical judgments. Research findings with critical analyses will help in course corrections, if needed.


Image credit:

How is this possible? Students and their faculty mentors can fill the information vacuum. First, identify an issue/topical subject; second, collect, organise, process and evaluate the information related to the chosen issue or topic; third, elaborate a set of possible solutions to the issue; fourth, evaluate the solutions and decide on the best choice; fifth, elaborate plans with responsibilities; sixth, explain the process of evaluating the obtained results; and seventh, develop evaluation matrices. Advisors/mentors provide guidance, counselling, interim evaluations, during the project performance, and make the ideas available to the concerned organisations. For example, the Central Department of Geography (CDG) and Institute of Engineering (IoE) of Tribhuvan University (TU) are aspiring to take lead roles in urban planning in Nepal by linking research with teaching and policy recommendations. These institutions definitely can contribute to the development of smart cities with real time data as the current government aspires to develop many smart cities in different geographic regions and provinces.

Is service-learning education possible in Nepali institutions, especially, where executive posts at higher educational institutions are allocated among different political parties? Yes, indeed, it is possible.  With the hiring of qualified persons to respective posts (right person to the right place), irrespective of political indoctrination, service-learning education is possible under the teacher-scholar model.  Educators at higher education have limited choice to either publish or perish. Irrespective of political ideology a person holds, educators can engage students in service-learning education, and publish papers involving students. Such publications are helpful for self-promotion to higher ranks, make students competent for various jobs, introduce the affiliated institutions to wider areas through quality research and publications, and help students focus more on education rather than on trivial issues, such as repeated strikes. For example, educators in economics, business and geography can educate students on the current issues of petroleum price hikes.

While visiting TU last week, I observed several demonstrations against the rises of petroleum products. I stopped at one location and asked one of the demonstrators why this demonstration is for, the answer was against the rise of petroleum prices. In further discussions, I inquired from where petroleum product comes to Nepal, how the global economy influences petroleum prices, who controls prices of petroleum products, and how this troika can draw the attentions of global communities. I was unable to get clear explanations. This is just an example of ambiguity. There are several issues in Nepal that educators can easily help provide clear answers and help students make informed decision not to waste their precious times. When various educational programmes operate smoothly, students do not deviate from their daily schedules and educational institutions can finish their course curricula in a timely manner, and can produce quality manpower needed for country’s development.

TU and other education institutions in Nepal offer various degree programmes. It reminds me the days when National Development Service (NDS) was in operation to help assist the government in local and national development initiatives. However, that programme was terminated for various reasons. Among many reasons; for example, the lack of strong linkage between theories and practices; poor content analysis-combining the qualitative and quantitative approaches to evaluate each of the pre-established criteria; ambiguities such as identifying the problem, superficiality, a lack of correlation between activities and objectives, and a balance between the use of traditional evaluation methods and the alternatives. Nepal has many daunting tasks ahead. Resources allocated to education and research are insufficient. In order to assist the government, Nepali educational institutions will be better off themselves and can act as development catalyststo assist the government if they follow the teacher-scholar models. In a teacher-scholar model, educators combine classroom work and research to serve community while safely walking on the sharp edged road of either publish or perish.

I strongly believe that the teacher-scholar model with service-learning approaches will also help educators who pride themselves on rigorous classroom experience to make the leap to infuse their courses with the concepts and practice through “embedding engagement” for the benefit of the larger society. The teacher-scholar model can be a lifesaver for faculty in their academic pursuit even in the event of lack research fund. A teacher-scholar model will be instrumental to view the entire society that surrounds it as a potential learning ground where students will engage in practices of civic responsibility. Community organizations, with clear mission statements, will serve in educating the next generation en-masse to continue the work, to invite fresh ideas and insight into their work. Experts will serve the community to fulfil their obligations to the public purpose of their mission.

Master’s and doctoral degree programs offered at various Nepali educational institutions will be instrumental in the economic development of Nepal. TU enrols a great number of students in various disciplines. Greater numbers of students are seeking out extracurricular activities that enable them to practical learning experiences that take place outside the four walls of the classroom. Unfortunately, however, current practice is not able to take the last student of the class along with the class. Despite such political turmoil embroiling the educational institutions, a few cream of the cream are able to choose safe route to succeed in their mission while poorly informed large mass has become victims of political confusions. Service-learning and teacher-scholar models could be one of the solutions to fill this gap.

The writer is Professor of Geography at University of Central Missouri; currently, at Central Department of Geography of TU under the US Fulbright Specialist Program. 

Published on 28 June 2018