Municipal Institute Of LearningMILE - Municipal Institute Of Learning
“Building Healthy Communities for Children”
eThekwini Municipality's Municipal Institute of Learning (MILE) and UNISA Bright Site Durban hosted a Service Learning Colloquium at the Durban Botanical Garden Conference Centre on 22 June 2015. The guest lecturer, Prof Jenni Owen from Duke University, North Carolina, and two of the Duke University students, currently participating in  the Duke Engage civic engagement initiative funded by the Duke Endowment and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shared the aims and objectives of this programme as well as the challenges. 

Duke university students volunteer for this programme on an annual basis. The programme is designed to complement their coursework learning, though their participation in civic engagement initiatives, either in the United States or in other countries, increasing their capacity for global learning. This is Prof Owen’s sixth visit to Durban. Each year she has brought a group of nine undergraduate students to work in the Wentworth area for eight weeks. Students are hosted by local families and connected to non- governmental organisations to provide day to day assistance and initiate short term projects in the organisations with the intention of making a valuable contribution to the organisational operations. Some examples of the projects that she shared were the development of a resource booklet for a welfare organisation, researching and developing a “willingness to pay” model for the local medical health clinic. Efforts are made to create service learning opportunities that can be expanded upon by the next group of exchange students in the following year. Students are supported by a faculty member during their stay. 

Prof Owen elaborated on the need for research and policy makers to intersect and shared informative examples of how students can be connected with legislators, school governing bodies, non- governmental organisations to conduct research to inform policy development.
The presentation by Duke University was followed by two local examples of service learning initiatives developed by the Bright Site Durban project. Mrs Mollie Kemp presented the school social work model as developed in conjunction with the KwaZulu- Natal Department of Education. The project currently offers 54 schools in KwaZulu- Natal supervised social services provided by 91 fourth year students. Learners at schools are provided with much needed support in the form of individual counselling, group therapy and small scale community projects. The first year of implementation of the project suggests that the model offers excellent learning opportunities and benefits for pupils and educators.

Mrs Nora Saneka, Principal of the Clare Ellis Brown Pre Primay School, discussed the benefits that Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres have gained from initiatives started by the Bright Site Durban project. Fourth level social work students helped to revive an ECD Forum for the inner city with the intention of empowering them to work towards attaining the norms and standards required of ECD centres. ECD centres in the inner city have been able to access additional training such as “Learning through Play”, First Aid, the National Policy for ECD and safety. Student projects have empowered the centres to improve health standards. Collaborations have secured additional resources such as the much needed Lego Kits that formed part of the STEM project initiated by the eThekwini Municipality.

The colloquium was attended by academics from University of KwaZulu-Natal, UNISA, city officials from the eThekwini Municipality, service providers, and students of different disciplines. The participation from the audience emphasised the importance of service learning initiatives being based on collaborative partnerships, learning opportunities being structured with roles of partners and learning tasks for students well defined. The importance of working with the community rather than imposing upon them and developing sustainable projects that empower and promote social inclusion were highlighted. Whilst service learning offers valuable learning opportunities for students such as personal learning, a variety of leaning experiences at multiple levels, and opportunities for students to test knowledge application to practice, student learning should never be regarded as more important than the communities that they are meant to serve.

Areas that need to be taken forward in further colloquiums were, “What are the implications of using service learning as a tool for developing learning cities?” “What are the benefits of arranging international learning exchanges and how should these exchanges impact on curriculum development?”, “If the intention is to uphold and promote Children’s Rights through Service Learning, what platforms should we be creating for children to voice their experiences and expectations and how can we engage policy makers and local governments to hear them?”

In conclusion, Collin Pillay from MILE underscored the need for collaboration and reminded the audience of the power of working together. He demonstrated this through the analogy of working in partnership using the 2 action words for the day:  “service” and “learning” – each one having little relevance on its own, but when brought together – has an incredible, positive and profound effect. MILE is currently considering a structured approach to community based learning and will work with key stakeholders in the design and roll out of this program. 

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