Human Subjects Protection: A Source for Ethical Service-Learning Practice

By Wendler, Rachael | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Human Subjects Protection: A Source for Ethical Service-Learning Practice


Wendler, Rachael, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Human subjects research ethics were developed to ensure responsible conduct when university researchers learn by interacting with community members. As service-learning students also learn by interacting with community members, a similar set of principles may strengthen the ethical practice of service-learning. This article identifies ethical concerns involved when service-learning students enter communities and draws on the Belmont Report and three research methodologies invested in responsible university interaction with underserved populations-decolonial, feminist, and participatory--to offer a set of guidelines for practicing ethical service-learning.

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Service-learning practitioners enjoy relative freedom in their interactions with the community; partnerships are bound primarily by practical concerns, community desires, and principles of good practice. I became accustomed to this unrestricted interaction through years of nonprofit and service-learning work, so when I decided to collect data and write about the service-learning program I coordinate, I experienced a culture shock when faced with human subjects protection protocols for a community-based research project. The university's Institutional Review Board (IRB) required a 14-page form about my proposed interactions with the students and community members that participate in the high school-college partnership program I planned to study. I had to obtain site approval from school and district officials (who required additional paperwork of me), script my recruitment talk, and produce lengthy consent documents for students and parents. This formalized process took more than four months. The level of review seemed unnatural because the activity proposed, asking participants their opinions of the program, is a routine practice for service-learning administrators and teachers. Yet as the review process caused me to change my research plan to ensure community members did not feel pressured to participate in the study, my perspective shifted. I began to recognize problematic ethical issues present in my previous service-learning teaching, and wondered if the service-learning community might benefit from additional tools to help instructors explore ethical issues in their community engagement work.

Service-learning classes often engage in activities that would be deemed highly problematic when viewed through the lens of human subjects protection. Community members may be told--not asked--by nonprofit organizations to interact with service-learning students, service-learning students may work with children sans parental notification or consent, and information about community members may be shared freely in class written assignments and discussions. An online search for service-learning blogs, for example, brings up several student reflection papers that discuss community members' first names, locations, and diagnoses or personal problems.

Despite the potential harm inherent in some aspects of service-learning, the field has established few formalized principles for protecting community members such as those for protecting human research subjects. The earliest principles of good practice developed by the service-learning community offer the foundations for ethical engagement with community members. Sigmon (1979) championed community voice and empowerment in his three core principles: (a) those being served control the services provided; (b) those being served become better able to serve and be served by their own actions; (c) those who serve also are learners and have significant control over what is expected to be learned. The Wingspread principles (Honnet & Poulson, 1989) offered additional guidelines for responsible interaction with community members, such as allowing people with needs to define their own needs. And service-learning's fundamental principle of reciprocity has promoted mutuality in service relationships, wherein the goals of both the community and university are met and both sides participate in the design of the program (Rhoads, 1997).

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