CANTON -- Malone University is not alone when it comes to extending the learning experience beyond the classroom by incorporating a service component. But what happens when the "classroom" is a beachside lounge chair and the learning experience is a 14-month accelerated degree completion program?

Faculty may find providing a service-learning component a bit tricky when it comes to the online adult learner. The issue was recently the subject of an award-winning presentation by Malone University instructors of management studies Jamie Krob and Laura Foote. The two appear to have cracked the code -- successfully incorporating a service component into an online accelerated degree completion program at Malone. They were recently awarded "Best of Region" at a presentation made to the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Program (ACBSP) regional conference.

Foote explains, "A review of the literature shows that, overall, adult learners in degree completion programs do not participate in program organized and or program required service learning because there is 'not enough time.' The significant aspect of this program is that we found a way to integrate the service learning component into the program by embedding it into program via course assignments."

Krob, instructor of management studies, adds, "This decision making process is actually one of the course learning outcomes. So, one could say that the activity serves a dual purpose: service learning not only helps to establish a culture of service but because it is integrated into the curriculum the activity of service fosters students' understanding of the connection between the course material and the community. Service learning is intentionally designed to promote both student learning and development."

Since students in an online course stretch literally across the country, they selected national -- rather than local or regional -- organizations for which to serve.

According to Foote, "Online students work together in the first course to decide which national organization they are going to serve. Then, later they work together in a virtual group in their Business Communication course to create a group PowerPoint that explains the national organization and how the members are going to, or have already, served that organization."

The students have the entire 14 months -- the full length of the program -- to serve the selected organization. Each student, in his or her own locale, donates time and service to the organization, providing various services for the organization in different places. The student determines how he or she will serve the program. Students also have online threaded discussions about the service learning project. In the final course, the students write an essay about the personal learning that occurred through the service experience, and they are also asked to explain how the service learning aspect of the program helps support the Malone mission.

For example, the students may all decide to donate time to the Salvation Army by ringing the bell and collecting change at Christmas. The minimum time requirement per student is four hours of service. The plan is designed so each student serves the organization in a way that best suits his or her circumstances in his or her unique locale.

"Interestingly enough," Krob interjects, "online students in the NE Ohio region have made plans to meet and physically serve together. This is an amazing thing! For most online students, they will only 'see' each other in a virtual classroom where there is no literal physical contact with peers or faculty." She continues, "I am hoping that this shared experience helps to foster a sense of community within the cohort as well."

Research has demonstrated that adult non-traditional learners often express a sense of disconnect from the parent university; however, these same students reveal a more favorable experience (especially with regards to retention) when they have a sense of belonging and a shared purpose.

The concept is not relegated to just the continental United States, but extends beyond US borders to include international students as well.

Student response has been extremely positive and the results -- life changing.

Says Foote, "We suspect that the online students will have the same kinds of transformative experiences and reactions as their ground peers. For example, many ground students, after serving with the cohort, have reported that they have continued to serve or are planning on serving the organization (or others) in the future. One 40 year old student, who admitted she had never done any kind of volunteering or service, now goes monthly with her family to serve a local food bank."

"Furthermore," Krob adds, "they often 'chat' about plans as one group . . . not as individuals. It is a real pleasure to watch this unfold."

Foote and Krob point out that the concept can be used in other venues as well. Businesses may find this an excellent way to promote corporate sustainability and corporate responsibility, developing employees who will impact their communities and businesses with ethical leadership. A service learning component develops students who improve their civic responsibility, academic skills, professional skills, and life skills, nurturing corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship.

"It is not only the ethically right thing to do," they say, "but it is also good business practice."

Malone University, a Christian university for the arts, sciences, and professions in the liberal arts tradition, affiliated with the Evangelical Friends Church, awards both undergraduate and graduate degrees in more than 100 academic programs.

Malone has been recognized by the prestigious Templeton Foundation as a leader in character development, as one of Northeast Ohio's Top Workplaces by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and is ranked among the top colleges and universities in the Midwest under the category Regional Universities according to U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges 2013.