4.1. Service Learning and Its Contribution to Sustainability Entrepreneurship Competencies
We begin to scrutinize the claim that service learning contributes to the development of sustainability entrepreneurship competencies (Section 2.2
). While we found evidence in the literature in support of this claim, we sought additional evidence as the effectiveness of service learning needs to be established before it is relevant to address the question on how to implement it.
The respondents agreed that service learning is a format that is explicitly suitable to advance the key competences for sustainability entrepreneurship (see Section 2.1
). However, the respondents point out that the effectiveness of service learning depends on the specific competence and on the didactical format. One interviewee summarized: ‘Well, I support service learning, because I am convinced that it really contributes to competence development in a broad way. But service learning seminars are not the same, you know, they can be so different. It is up to the lecturer to set the gals and the focus. […] So it is up to the lecturer’s decision which competencies are explicitly addressed’ (IP1). Another interviewee highlights the ‘[…] collaborative character and social learning, which, while addressing a real-world problem, takes place simultaneously in a safe space’ (IP14 in particular).
Some competencies, however, are underlined as being influenced by service learning more often and/or regardless of the formats’ focus or the practical partner: (2) embracing diversity and interdisciplinary competence as well as (6) interpersonal competence. The acquisition of (2) embracing diversity and interdisciplinary competence seems to be the very nature of the service learning approach since it involves a variety of different people and connects different disciplines. As one interviewee states: ‘The students have to be prepared for dealing with external partners and various stakeholders. They might even have to deal with inconvenient questions from unpopular clients’ (IP3).
While working in heterogeneous teams, the students are also said to gain (6) interpersonal competencies. ‘In doing so, they [the students] broaden their networks and improve their communication skills and interpersonal competencies, because they are forced to act outside of the academic cosmos.’ (IP3) Motivation and communication skills as important parts of interpersonal competence are emphasized, as the following quotes show: ‘The students should independently discuss the task and agree on goals with their partner. We stay in the back, but remain moderators’ (IP9), or ‘Within the groups, they constantly have to update each other, they stay on the same page, you know. […] And they also have to present their progress to the partners on a regular basis. That trains the ability to interact, to communicate.’ (IP2) Even beyond the development of communicative competencies, the collaborative nature of service learning has proven fruitful. ‘Intensive cooperation with partners and working in interdisciplinary teams offers great opportunities. These group dynamic elements alone teach students a lot about themselves, so they know their own competencies better’ (IP14).
In addition, (1) strategic management and action competence is also mentioned to be influenced by service learning quite often. Especially the action competence is underlined, because students are motivated to create their own ideas and optimally bring them into action to a certain degree. ‘While volunteering, the students are directly involved in responsible activities that contribute to society. They produce solutions for the real world’ (IP18). The action competence, however, seems to be more generally addressed while the strategic management competence is dependent on the specific service learning format and can be more or less emphasized. However, if the focus lies on strategic management competence in particular, service learning offers students the unique opportunity to make mistakes under real conditions and to learn from them: ‘What is interesting here is the area of failure, in particular with regard to learning experiences in a safe space and their potential for strategic competence development. Making mistakes can be a special learning experience’ (IP14).
(4) Normative competence is also stated as being addressed by service learning. On several occasions it is emphasized that dealing with normative questions is a core aspect of many service learning courses. ‘Service learning develops courage and an ability to ask critical questions, helps to build a sense of social responsibility and leads to a deeper understanding of what is meaningful’ (IP14). Yet, if and how intensively normative thinking can be affected by service learning may vary due to the arrangement of a specific format and priorities set by the lecturer. It is stated as crucial that the reflexive parts enable the students to be aware of and rethink existing own and other values. Regarding the normative competence development, one interviewee even said: ‘You don’t give them time to reflect, you fail’ (IP17).
(5) Foresighted thinking was also mentioned by some of the interviewees with regard to the solutions that the students develop for and in cooperation with the partner organizations. They mainly referred to the projects that students develop with a focus on real future impact generation. ‘We cannot even avoid thinking of the future consequences. That’s part of the game. You have to think about future developments and future consequences of your action, and of course of other people’s decisions. It all has consequences for the students’ work’ (IP2).
(3) Systems thinking competence, however, was barely mentioned. When it was, the lecturers either stated that every practical experience, especially in connection with a sustainability issue, contributes to a better understanding of the whole system, or they referred to the alignment of the service learning format as well as the students interests and previous educational backgrounds: ‘Yes, today, even the origin of a tea bag can very easily stimulate systemic thinking. The real world is often complicated and confusing and students need to deal with information deficits’ (IP14). As one of the interviewed lecturers framed it, ‘Depending on the aim of the course and the students’ academic origins, you might need to add a lecture where you can talk about how the practical work fits into the whole picture. […] It is not possible to understand the overall view when focusing on one side of the coin’ (IP13).
In sum, the results strengthen the impression that service learning is an approach with specific potential for being applied to sustainability entrepreneurship education. Depending on the design of the service learning, all relevant competencies can be addressed, built up, and deepened.
4.2. Service Learning and Its Organizational and Personal Factors
With regard to the factors being critical for the successful creation and implementation of service learning formats, the results lead to three key dimensions that we explain below. First, a learning environment that consists of beneficial teaching conditions is needed. Second, the (potential) lecturers themselves have to be able and motivated to offer service learning approaches. And third, the chosen format itself has to have an appropriate quality to contribute to the development of sustainability entrepreneurial competencies.
4.2.1. The Learning Environment
Concerning the learning environment, several factors can be crucial. The interviewed lecturers stated that universities should encourage their staff to engage in lecturing in general and to act innovatively in generating new approaches. That requires continuous lecturer training as well as room for exchange and for testing new ideas. Being provided with the adequate knowledge and (further) developing approaches together with others is said to strengthen the self-esteem and motivation. As one interviewee stated: ‘I found it interesting to try something new and I really want my students to learn, you know, I mean I really care if I can contribute something. But I just did not really know. The workshop helped a lot. And I was able to share my thoughts and discuss them with my colleagues’ (IP10).
Working together with other lecturers does not only play a significant role when it comes to the idea formation, but also for the implementation. It was also stressed that the interdisciplinary service learning, especially combining sustainability and entrepreneurship, often requires various teacher competencies and thus affords team-teaching, which should also be recognized and supported by the higher education institutions. This was even criticized by the interviewed lecturers, especially those not offering service learning: ‘It is additional work anyway. And then I do not feel I have the complete qualification. I am teaching in business and entrepreneurship, but do not feel secure with the teaching of sustainability […] See, and then I have to fight for the dean’s permission that I can share the teaching with a colleague, or teach together? That’s exhausting’ (IP15).
Besides the personal resources like time (e.g., for additional preparation and organization) and knowledge that have to be invested, some lecturers also mentioned that being able to provide a proper service learning format also needs financial resources. ‘I was able to pay for my travels from my account. Well, because I got enough external funds; I wonder how others deal with it. Especially the younger colleagues do not have the chance to cover these costs’ (IP18). And later on: ‘But the students had to pay for themselves. I felt bad that they had to cover their costs. […] Anyway, even though I had the money, they said I was not allowed to spend it on this certain group of students since there is a German law saying that it has to be equally distributed amongst all students. […] So I had to use quite some tricks. Others might have thrown the towel already’ (IP18).
Besides that, the interviewees said that they do not feel recognized and that they strive for some kind of appreciation. They mentioned this from three perspectives. First, they stress the general importance of a teaching-oriented environment and criticize the direct and indirect periodization of research activities in academic realities. One lecturer expressed: ‘On the one hand, they want us to be different and innovative. Our university always underlines that. But on the other hand, I do not see that they really appreciate involvement in teaching. I have the impression that they only want to embellish their curricula. Or they don’t know what it really means. It takes time and resources. And in the end, it’s those who publish that get the rewards. And the positions’ (IP2). Additionally, honoring specific investments into innovative and practically oriented teaching is said to positively contribute to both the general awareness of new lecturing approaches and their impact on students and the specific motivation of certain lecturers. Giving a positive example, some mentioned, for instance, that their universities announce best practice cases or award teaching prizes. Last but not least, the specific additional investment in the development and realization of service learning courses should be recognized, as stated by one lecturer: ‘As I said, it’s way more fun. But you pay for it with more work. I wish my colleagues would also see that’ (IP4).
The third dimension takes into account that it does not only take a supportive and appreciative environment, but also the formal and legal structure to provide service learning. This was stressed as missing in several cases and given as a strong explanation why service learning is not considered in the lecturers’ course compilation. Even those who were able to offer service learning courses underlined the necessity of a structural and curricular basis—which is said to be still lacking at a lot of German-speaking universities. More flexible guidelines for offerings and formats in the module descriptions and in the study program outlines are needed in order to attain more options for integrating practice and less bureaucratic barriers. ‘It is practically impossible without a certain structural environment. And that is still scarce in Germany’ (IP7). Practical examples were given by those lecturers who benefitted from study programs at their universities that schedule trans- and interdisciplinary modules in addition to the core topics of study, e.g., the so-called ‘contextual studies’ at the University of St.Gallen or the ‘complementary studies’ at the Leuphana university of Lüneburg. If the formal requirements complicate or impede the provision of service learning, most lecturers shy away from the effort of developing such innovative courses and enforce them against all restrictions. ‘I am not the one to blame. Let me be honest, it is impossible here. Look at the examination rules. They are developed on a very old-fashioned understanding of learning. But they are still in place. And they still set the base’ (IP8). As the only way of offering service learning under these conditions, the interviewed lecturers suggest extracurricular formats and even presented some successful examples. However, it also requires structures that support and allow such educational activities. It was mentioned that, for instance, it is important that implementing an extracurricular course counts towards the lecturers’ workload, because of the contribution to the overall further development and additional education of students.
4.2.2. The Learning Format
The interviewed lecturers strongly underlined the importance of developing a suitable learning format that fits the needs of the formal environment as well as the requirements concerning the sustainability entrepreneurial competence development. One lecturer warned: ‘Be aware that service learning is not a sure-fire success. It has to be carefully designed’ (IP15). While the interviewees mainly agreed on the positive overall impact of service learning on certain competencies, e.g., communication and team-working skills as a form of interpersonal competencies, addressing other competencies is said to be dependent on the design of the format. It is advised to think about the competencies that the teachers intend to achieve and set a focus before creating the format. As one lecturer said, ‘You must be careful that you don’t try covering everything. Better concentrate on certain input and focus on selected competencies. Otherwise you don’t really get the students attention. And you can easily get bogged down in details’ (IP17). Another lecturer reported success by focusing on a certain competence development: ‘It was so good to see how they (the students) improved after the pitch trainings. The presentations they delivered to [name of organization] were nearly professional’ (IP18).
Besides, it was stressed that it is crucial, but challenging to find the right balance between sustainability and entrepreneurship related input. Interestingly, we found two different ways of facing this problem. One option was that the practical partners were sustainability-oriented and the students worked on entrepreneurial activities; the other option was selecting start-ups or established companies with the students working on sustainability issues. For example, they create entrepreneurial solutions for sustainability problems from within existing organizations (sustainability intrapreneurship). Depending on the direction, different approaches and tools could be taught, e.g., applying a (sustainability) business model canvas or a sustainability competencies tool.
In addition, there are different ways of integrating service learning into teaching formats. While, for instance, the volunteering can be supplemented by a full additional seminar, it is also possible to offer regular input and/or feedback and reflection sessions. They also advised considering carefully whether to work with one or several partner-organizations. IP18 reports: ‘I have experience in two different formats. […] When working with several partners it is more work, e.g., organizing the tasks and coordinating the student groups, but it better fits the students’ interests. Well, in the end, the results were different. Some turned out well, others did not. When the students all worked with one NGO, we had a small seminar and they worked in different departments. This was easier to handle, but the risk is higher. If the partner is not reliable, the whole plan might not work out’. Another suggestion was the creation of an opportunity for students to generate and test own sustainability entrepreneurial projects.
The partner selection, however, turns out to be another success factor. The partner organizations do not only have to fit the needs of the format and the lecturers’ addressed competencies, but should also be reliable in terms of transparent and frequent exchange. They should be aware of the fact that the success of the service learning approach for both sides depends on the quality of interaction. ‘The partners are very important. And it is important that they are informed upfront about demands, goals and expectations’ (IP6). Different expectations must therefore be carefully analyzed and moderated: ‘Expectation management is crucial’ (IP19). If it turns out well, long term cooperation can be developed, as stated by one lecturer: ‘I got an email from two students the other day. They kept working for [name of an NGO] after the course had finished’ (IP11).
As a third factor, an applicable didactical concept can be underlined. In comparison to the requirements expressed concerning the design of the teaching format, the statements regarding the didactical format were less related to the specifics of service learning for sustainability entrepreneurship. Lecturers especially stressed that it is critical to formulate clear problem statements and tasks. ‘It is important that the students know whats’s going on. They have to be aware of what is expected’ (IP19). That is seen as important in order to avoid distraction. Additionally, the examination performance has to be applicable. It is frequently criticized that the module descriptions often do not allow for suitable forms of examination. If there is flexibility, it is seen as a positive exception: ‘The students delivered a business plan and a videotaped pitch presentation. I know that it is not the normal case that you have this freedom in teaching. At the [name of university] this was totally different. The students had to write an exam. That does not make any sense with service learning’ (IP2). As suitable forms, the lecturers especially mentioned sustainability business models/plans, presentations, learning diaries and reflections, as well as mixed forms of examination. Moreover, it was pointed out that creating room for interaction and supporting feedback loops is more relevant for service learning than for traditional teaching formats like classical lectures. This was explained by the fact that service learning in general needs a very flexible structure and, thus, indicates frequent interaction with the lecturers, the partners, and the peers. Our results indicate that this effect might even increase when working in sustainability entrepreneurial practice, since it is the lecturers’ responsibility to ensure that the students keep working in the right directions and that planned topics appear so that the relevant knowledge and the selected competencies can be imparted.
4.2.3. The Lecturer Aptitude
Next to the formal surroundings and the quality of the courses, the human resources, i.e., the lecturers themselves are indicated as extremely relevant for the development and implementation of successful service learning. Without motivated and competent teachers, no service learning format can be offered. As stated above, service learning comes with an increased workload for the lectures on the one hand. On the other hand, it has the potential to lead to outstanding learning results while being more fun for all participants, and positively contributes to societal development. This is why the lecturers’ answers indicate that intrinsic motivation is a precondition for engaging in service learning. ‘If it’s not in your heart, you fail’ (IP18), or ‘People only get involved in these new approaches when they have a strong interest in education—or have a personal interest in one of the sustainability topics’ (IP7). This might hold specifically true for entrepreneurship education, since lecturers with an economy or management-oriented background might be more aware of the missing rewards that could extrinsically motivate them, as explained by one lecturer: ‘Offering service learning does not pay off. And I have learned to calculate. It’s my business. See, I am more or less at the beginning of my academic career and, you know, it prevents us from the important stuff. You don’t get extra payment and it has no impact on your academic future. Well, besides a negative one probably’ (IP16).
Nonetheless, there are also some hints that extrinsic motivation—if being supported—can have a positive influence on the creation and realization of service learning. This is especially the case if the academic business rewards it. ‘My colleague and I once won the [name of an award] for our course [was a service learning format]. That was an extra motivation and it also pimps my CV’ (IP17); ‘I got an excellent student evaluation, even though their workload was also high. And of course you can put it on the table when you negotiate bonus payments’ (IP15). Unfortunately, this seems to be an exception until now, as underlined by a lot of the interviewed lecturers: ‘Let’s face it: At the end of the day it is money and publications. That counts. This is how it works’ (IP13).
Others, however, stress that being intrinsically motivated counts as the better motivation for service learning anyway, because then the lecturers really see the goal behind it and can act authentically in the service learning setting: ‘I am convinced that you can only do a good job here if you really like what you are doing. Some people are not born for teaching. You should neither force them nor try to attract them by wrong incentives’ (IP18).
Finally, being motivated is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for successful service learning. Our interviewees stress that it also takes certain skills and competencies of the lecturers with regard to designing and offering service learning courses. Awareness of and knowledge about the service learning approach is seen as a precondition. This includes supportive tools for developing and structuring service learning-based formats like a sustainability competencies tool or a sustainability performance tool [121
]. In addition, it is underlined as essential that the lecturers also have profound knowledge in the study subject. In our case that means that they can combine entrepreneurship and sustainability knowledge. And this is seen as scarce; one lecturer asked: ‘How many experts in sustainability entrepreneurship are out there? What do you think? But this is what we need here’ (IP2). Another one put it like this: ‘You have to be experienced in both fields. There can be so many questions coming up. And when the students ask something that you don’t know—you never know. And you also do not want to make a fool of yourself in front of the partners’ (IP1). That quote also leads to another sub-factor underlined as important: educational self-efficacy. The interviewees’ answers often pointed to the importance of a certain self-confidence and the belief in one’s capability to develop, organize and execute service learning courses. ‘You have to be an experienced and self-confident teacher. There is so much that you have to know and so much that can go wrong’ (IP2). They also refer to the different role that a lecturer has compared to traditional teaching: ‘You have to be able to act more like a mentor and coach, and be flexible’ (IP12). In this regard they particularly underlined the risk that lecturers face because of uncertainties from two perspectives: uncalculated practical changes and additional demand of knowledge that emerges from the practical work. People who do not dare to accept these challenges might not be successful lecturers for a service learning format. ‘I just do not think I am the right person for it. I mean, I have to be prepared. I like being prepared. Then I feel safe’ (IP8).