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Editor’s Note: Many universities require public service as one of the criteria for retention, promotion, and tenure. (Other criteria are based on teaching and research). It is not surprising, therefore, that students are also encouraged to participate service programs. One way to increase awareness with first-hand information is through guest speakers. Where face-to-face meeting is not possible, web technologies can be substituted with success as described in this paper.

Promoting Student Service Learning through
Web Guest Speakers in Distance Education

Chunyan Song

virtual guest speaker, web guest speaker, service learning, distance education, online education, teaching technology


Both service learning and guest speakers are important techniques that increase student engagement and learning. Many professors and colleges are attempting to use service learning and web guest speakers as effective learning tools for their students. How to effectively integrate such learning into distance learning presents unique challenges. This paper addresses the benefits and challenges of using student service learning and web guest speakers in distance education. A case example is presented to illustrate the application of these two techniques as they are combined to produce an effective online course that greatly improved students’ engagement in both learning and service.


The number of online students in the United States continued to expand at a rate far in excess of the growth of overall higher education enrollments. For example, Fall 2008 showed an increase of 17 percent over Fall 2007 to a total of 4.6 million online students (Allen and Seaman, 2009).  But the rapid growth of online education raised several critical issues about the quality of student learning and student course engagement. In particular, there is concern that distance students usually have little or no face-to-face contact with their classmates and instructors.  Such contact is important because studies have shown that student engagement for retention and success in distance learning settings is dependent on such contact.

Incorporating student service learning and bringing in guest speakers have been found to increase student engagement in traditional classrooms. However, distance learning settings present unique challenges when incorporating either student learning or bringing in web guest speakers.  The geographical dispersion and time constrains of distance students require instructors to be creative in designing appropriate service learning projects. Bringing in web guest speakers not only relies on the willingness of potential guest speakers but on to the available technology knowledge and support on both ends.

Service learning is also an important way to improve student engagement whether students are in a face-to-face situation, or on-line.  Service learning is "a process of integrating volunteer community service combined with active guided reflection into the curriculum to enhance and enrich student learning of course material" (Johnson, 1995. p. 1). Appropriate student service learning exercises typically assist the students in making the transition from theoretical understanding to practical application of course concepts. Service learning presents students the opportunity to first learn by doing, and then develop a critical understanding of course content through classroom discussions.

A well-designed service learning component of a course can benefit the students, and participating agencies (Jackowski & Gullion, 1998). Students benefit through the opportunity to practice newly learned knowledge and skills in a real world environment (Johnson, 1995). Through service learning, students could also improve social interaction skills, enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills, increase awareness of career choices, enhance awareness of the real world, and are exposed to opportunities for growth through interaction with people from diverse cultures (Johnson, 1995; Mattson & Shea, 1997; Sutton, 1989). Designing student learning projects for an online education setting requires thoughtful and careful preparation and planning by the course instructor. Instructors need to take into consideration the geographical dispersion of the students as well as time constrains of most online students due to work and family obligations. However, it is possible to come up with creative student learning projects that could greatly enhance students’ participation and learning experiences.

Bringing in guest speakers is another effective tool to improve student engagement and learning in distance education. Guest speakers can add interest, bring in new perspectives, experiences and communication styles, and provide expertise in specific content areas. Studies have found that student involvement and critical thinking skills in the classroom can be greatly enhanced by bringing in guest speakers (Rowe, 2004; Kumari, 2001). In a study by Kumari (2001), student participation peaked during the guest speakers visits. The virtual guests’ presence and presentations encouraged a wide range of critical thinking responses from the students, as well as extensive communication among the students.  However, guest speakers could be hard to arrange due to the restraint of either budget and/or distance. Nowadays, the use of the right technology in the classroom could enable us to go beyond the boundary of time and space to bring in guest speakers from anywhere in the world at very little cost. Virtual guest speakers can be as effective as traditional face-to-face classroom speakers with the use of the right technology and supporting activities.

Case Example

In spring 2009, I taught two sessions of Sociology 354 Interethnic Contacts which include 24 on-campus students and 48 online students in California State University, Chico. Lectures were delivered to the two sessions of students simultaneously. The class used Vista black board and a web-casting software called Wimba. All lectures were broadcast live through Wimba. Distance students attended either the live lectures or watched the archived lectures within 24 hours. I successfully used two web guest lecturers to spark students’ interest and enthusiasm before assigning a service learning project.

One of the learning objectives of the course was to illustrate the theoretical understanding of race, ethnicity, and nationalism with examples from around the world. Students learned about basic theories at the beginning of the semester and then moved on to read three memoirs as supplemental readings. One of the memoirs is Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia by Savo Heleta. Not My Turn to Die is a very powerful memoir about the experience of the Heleta family during the Yugoslavia war in the 1990s. In the memoir the author articulately shares his family’s traumatic experiences and their subsequent struggle to forgive those who hurt them. Savo Helata, the author, is today a 29-year-old studying towards his Ph.D degree in Conflict Transformation and Management at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Students strongly relate to the book and the author.  After my students finished reading the memoir, I invited two guest speakers to the talk to the class about the war in Yugoslavia

The first guest speaker was Dr. Kate Transchel who is a professor of History Department at Chico State who has published about the former Yugoslavia. Although Dr. Transchel is local, there was a time conflict because she taught the same time as I did. To solve this problem we used web-casting technology, so that Dr. Transchel’s could simultaneously speak to both classes. Dr. Transchel’s students were able to ask questions and interact with students in my class through a web camera and a microphone.  Dr. Transchel told my class to put the responsibility for change on themselves because they are some of the most blessed people in the world, as well as educated and with so many resources at their disposal. Students’ response to Dr. Transchel’s lecture was overwhelming. Although I had 72 students, there were close to 200 spontaneous discussion messages on the class discussion board following the event. My students were deeply inspired by Dr. Transchel. Many students indicated that they watched the archived lecture more than once. Many of them were motivated to become involved in Dr. Transchel’s “STOP” student organization to help stop human trafficking and to make a difference to the world.

More complicated was participation of the second speaker, the author of Not My Turn to Die, Savo Heleta.  Mr. Heleta was living in Saint Elizabeth, South Africa at that time. On a sunny morning in March 2009, Mr. Heleta appeared to my class through Wimba classroom from a different continent where it was already late at night. During the one hour and fifteen minute talk, both my on-campus students and distance students saw, talked, and interacted with Mr. Heleta just like in a normal classroom. Students asked questions about his book and his life. The students also suggested that the author have his book turned into a movie!  Without the technology, it would have been impossible to have the book author talk to the students and answer their questions directly without a big budget for airplane fares and hotels. It was truly an amazing experience for everyone who took part through the wonder of technology that day.

The talk by the textbook author, Mr. Savo Heleta, has brought the story in the book and the conflicts in Yugoslavia much closer and made them all alive for the class. In fact, many of the students told me that Mr. Heleta’s talk through Wimba was one of the most unforgettable moments of their whole college education. As one of the students said in her email, “this gave me a great respect for Savo Heleta. He literally gave us an experience that most will never forget. And he did it out of the goodness of his heart, charging us nothing to give us perspective on what a firsthand account of genocide was like. After the author’s web appearance, my students were greatly touched and inspired by the author’s personal transformation and devotion to world peace. Many of them went on to read all the other articles by the author on his website. Many cited the author’s articles and talk in their final papers. The book and the author’s amazing transformation invoked students to consider what the United States could do to help resolve ethnic conflicts around the world and, more importantly, what the students can do as individuals to help to make a difference.

Following the two guest lectures, I assigned students to write a short taking-action proposal on the Blackboard discussion board to address the ethnic struggles we learned about in class and propose something they can do to help solve the problem. In the assignment, I asked the students to take their teachings with them and be the change they wanted to see in the world. I did not require students carry out what they proposed because most students in the class were distance students who worked full time or had young children at home. To my great surprise and delight, most students in the class not only wrote heartwarming taking action proposals but also choose to take actions on their own.

At the beginning, several of them updated their actions on the discussion board with the rest of the class. It started a snow ball effect. One distance student wanted to donate a tent to Tents of Hope for refugees in Sudan. She was going to purchase a tent for $500 at a military supply store. After the owner learned about the purpose of the tent, he gave her three for free. She asked students at her children’s school to decorate the tents. Administrators and teachers not only said “yes” but also agreed to pay the shipping fees. Another student organized a campaign in her church to donate children’s clothes. She gathered 100 pounds of clothes and the following week connected with a man who was leaving for Africa and an orphanage his mother runs. The man purchased children’s books and paid to have them shipped. The results motivated her church peers to send clothing throughout the coming year (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Clothes and books for an orphanage in Africa.

Another student, who is a mother of three teens and works as a trauma nurse in Sacramento, chose to build a presentation board for her workplace. She wanted to involve her children and other nurses in sharing information that she was learning in class. The presentation board was to promote social tolerance with the theme “Acceptance and Respect for All.” A fourth student started “Changing the World” blog:
In her blog, she stated, “I found it to be a very complex assignment in that it would be a very easy thing to simply write a check for a charity and call it a day. The author does not in any way see that as a bad option, for some that is all they can do and it is better than not doing anything at all. For me it didn't feel like enough. So my goal is to call myself to action every month. I have three children and I really want to set a good example for them as citizens of the world. So we as a family every month are going to make a donation to a charity.”

There are many other heartwarming taking action proposals from the students. The class of 72 students posted all total 440 discussion messages on the class discussion board in response to the taking action proposal, which far exceeded the required three messages per student for this assignment. Besides the individual taking action service learning project, the class also voluntarily did one joint project together. After students learned that the author had to borrow a laptop for our class appearance, they decided to gather donations among themselves for a laptop with a built-in Web camera. Before the end of the semester, students wired the donations to South Africa so that the author could buy a laptop that was compatible with the voltage and other local standards.

In spring 2010, Mr. Savo Heleta did another guest lecture to my class. Once again, students were greatly touched and motivated after talking to the author through the web. One student responded to the author’s request to collect books towards the first public library in Southern Sudan. She did the research and immediately started an internship with the Sudan-American Foundation for Education, Inc, (SAFE) to help collect donated books. Another student who is an artist decided to auction off a painting for a different cause once a season. In his proposal, he wrote, “My hope is that when people own a piece of art it will resonate as a conversation piece to talk about why they donated money in the first place. I hope that people who want the painting will also feel a responsibility to be informed about who and what their money is doing. I will supplement this by mailing something with my artwork that informs them of whom they supported with their money and how it has helped.”  Within a week, the same student updated the class with his first auction which generated $160 for Haiti earthquake relief efforts. These are just a few of the actions taken by my students that not only inspired me, but each other and their families and communities as well.


The two web guest speakers have greatly enhanced student engagement and students’ enthusiasm in service learning. Many students told me that taking this course has been a life changing experience because it expanded their world view. As one student put on the class discussion board, “The world in my eyes has grown in dimension more in this semester than it has in my whole life. I want to learn more, see more and do more…” I still receive emails from students in that course giving me update on their taking action proposal.

To summarize, successful incorporation of student service learning projects into online teaching requires designing appropriate service learning projects that take into account students’ intellectual readiness, willingness, and time constraints. To prepare students for the upcoming taking action service learning project, I used two guest speakers through the web to engage and inspire students to a new level. The success of the taking action service learning project would not have been possible without the two web guest lectures. Finally, bringing guest speakers through the web requires abundant technology preparation and assistance. Sometimes a plan B is essential to prepare for technology failure. The success of bringing in the two guest lecturers would not have been made possible without the assistance from the technology support staff members here at Chico State. And most importantly it would not have been possible without the willingness of the two guest lecturers to share their expertise and experiences with the students. Before Mr. Heleta’s web appearance in spring 2009, our technology support staff and I tested the computer system with Mr. Heleta three times to make sure everything ran smoothly.  In spring 2010, we tested the system again before the talk. However, nothing prepared us for the severe storm that hit Port Elizabeth, South Africa as soon as the talk started. The internet connection became so bad that we had to postpone the date.


Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2009). Learning on Demand: Online education in the United States, 2009. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Kumari, D. S. (2001). Computer conferencing with access to a ‘guest expert’ in the professional development of special educational needs coordinators. British Journal of Educational Technology ,35, 11, 81–93.

Jackowski, M., & Gullion, L. (1998). Teaching sport management through service-learning: An undergraduate case study. Quest, 50, 251-265.

Johnson, D. (1995). Faculty Guide to Service-learning. Partners in Action & Learning. Miami Dade Community College, Miami, Florida.

Mattson, K., & Shea, M. (1997). The Selling of service-Learning to the Modern University: How much will it cost? CPN Topics, Youth and Education. Retrieved on July 10, 2010 from

Rowe, S. (2004, July). A case for virtual guest lecturers: the experience of using practitioners in asynchronous discussion forums with an undergraduate auditing class. Paper presented at the AusWeb 2004: The Tenth Australian World Wide Web Conference, Seaworld Nara Resort, Gold Coast, Australia. Retrieved on October 11, 2009 from

Sutton, W. (1989). The role of internships in sports management curricula: A model for development. Journal of Physical Education Recreation and Dance, 60(7), 20-24.

St. Pierre, P. (1998). Distance learning in physical education teacher education. Quest, 50 (4), 344-356.

About the Author


Chunyan Song, PhD., is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at California State University, Chico. She has been teaching online courses since 2006. Her teaching and research areas include family sociology, interethnic contacts, and research methodology, and distance education. She could be reached by

Contact information: Address: Sociology Department, Butte 615, California State University, Chico, CA 95929-0445.
Tel: 530-898-6384 (O), Fax: 530-898-4571



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