Learning from the Lives of Others is a small 20-credit first year course which requires the students to maintain a weekly commitment as a volunteer at a partner charity, and to integrate reflective learning from their experiences as part of assessment.
The course has attracted students from across the University since it began in 2014/15. It offers an early taste of learning outside the lecture room and the library in different social spaces, and an explicit focus on transferable skills and making connections between the more theoretical or conceptual content of lectures, and life experiences, challenges, and situations occurring in our local communities. It also offers a way for students new to Edinburgh to explore their environment and build different kinds of valuable relationships while out and about in the city.
The heart of the course for students is practical experience through assisting or engaging with people who are facing challenges which compromise their health. Thus students simultaneously make a contribution to the quality of others’ lives in our local community and enhance their own understanding of situated individual experience and its consequences for health and daily living. Hands-on activity takes place alongside academic work which introduces students to academic materials and approaches germane to the needs they will encounter, so that learning is connected across both an academic and societal context. This provides an innovative learning opportunity that deepens appreciation of academic course materials while also developing life and employability skills. A further important aspect is the enhancement of understanding of civic responsibility and social ethics through making a genuine contribution to local people’s lives.
Each student applies for a volunteering role with a partner charity, and on acceptance develops, in discussion with the charity, a mutually agreed volunteering brief. Training is provided by the charity, along with an introduction to the ethos and operation of the organisation. Students are encouraged to bring both prior learning and their many skills to the task, and also to be open to accepting help to put these into operation effectively in this new context, while also acquiring new skills and learning. The students take responsibility for their individual volunteering schedule and role. They are encouraged to be proactive in developing and maintaining good working relationships, and in organising themselves to undertake agreed activities as efficiently and effectively as possible. This fosters good communication, listening, and interpersonal skills, as well as time management.
Each student has support from the course organiser as necessary, and is mentored by the organisation. This whole recruitment, training and mentoring process is perfectly aligned with the charity’s regular volunteer-recruitment practices so that the students, and liaison with the course and course organiser, present as little drain as possible on the valuable but scarce resources all such organisations operate under. The course is founded upon the ideals of social justice, and its aim in its relationship with the charities involved is to give, not to take.