Using Social Networking for Service Learning

Holly Nevarez
California State University, Chico, USA


Health Education Theory and Practice is a senior level process course for students earning a Bachelor’s degree in Health Science with an option in Health Education. Historically this course has planned, implemented, and evaluated a community-based health education project. Recently the instructor added a modern twist to the traditional service learning project: technology. This course has made a link between service learning and social networking tools. By adding technology to the traditional service learning project Health Education Planning students learn social marketing techniques and substantially increased their target audience for the social marketing program.


Health Education Theory and Practice is a senior level process course for students earning a Bachelor’s degree in Health Science with an option in Health Education. Historically this course has planned, implemented, and evaluated a community-based health education project. In brief, the class teamed with an agency to increase awareness of the services provided by the agency, increase awareness of the needs of the organization’s target population and collected donations for the organization. This service learning project met course objectives while providing students a hands-on approach to learning.

Recently the instructor added a modern twist to the traditional service learning project: technology. This course has made a link between service learning and social networking tools. By adding technology to the traditional service learning project Health Education Planning students learn social marketing techniques and substantially increased their target audience for the social marketing program.

Topic Selection

At the beginning of the semester the instructor introduces the project and asks students to brainstorm organizations to collaborate with for this project. Several week later students are invited to present their project ideas. These are informal presentations that require students to identify the name of the organization, the organization’s target population, and how we could measure success (behavior change in our target population). As an example: the organization could be the local food bank, the population served would be local people who need assistance with getting food and the success could be measured through the number of cans collected or pounds of food collected. Typically one-third of the class presents ideas which equal 10–12 possible topics. Through a democratic process Health Education Planning students narrow down the selection and choose one final topic for this project.

The instructor has completed this project with this class several times. Past projects have included collecting school supplies for the Boys and Girls Club, eyeglasses for the Lions’ Club, baby supplies for the Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting Program, organ donor registrations for the California Transplant Donor Network, and many items for local homeless shelters and food banks including food, socks, ponchos, and hygiene products. Another past project was to create ‘survivor kits’ for victims of sexual violence. This is the project that will be used as an example for the remainder of this article.

The idea for survivor kits was proposed by two students who were also completing their internships at the local rape crisis organization. We would team with this organization for the project. According to the students, the need of the organization and the target population is as follows: if a survivor of sexual violence chooses to press charges their clothes become evidence and are kept by the police. Local hospitals do not have clothes on hand to provide the survivors upon discharge. The survivors have two options at this point (1) leave the hospital in a hospital gown (2) choose to call family or friends for clothes. Either of these choices could be embarrassing for the survivor. The class goal was to create survivor kits including a set of clothes, a granola bar, toothbrush and toothpaste, comb or brush and a wash cloth. We would measure the projects’ success by getting donations of these items to assemble survivor kits. The kits would then be distributed by the rape crisis workers who council the survivors at the hospital.

Once the class has voted on a topic a goal is set. This is a goal for the class as a whole to reach. Our goal was to create 150 survivor kits. At this time a name is also chosen for the project through a brainstorming and voting process. Clothes for Crisis was the name of the survivor kit project.

Marketing Material

Once a topic has been selected students are asked to create marketing materials to be used to promote the program. Students are asked to submit fliers and posters for extra credit. Through a democratic process Health Education Planning students select one poster and one flier to be used for the program (see image).

Each student in the class is required to create a video to market the program. To create the videos students have the option of working individually or in groups up to 5. Videos must identify the project, the unmet need the project hopes to meet, and the action the group is asking the target audience to take (donate items for the survivor kits). Applying marketing theory, techniques and tools the students identify the type of messages and the format of the messages that would be most effective with their own social networks/target audience. The assignment states videos need to be 2 ½ – 3 ½ minute long and in .wmv format. All videos are previewed in class by Health Education Planning students for issues and errors. After the preview, each video is provided a list of edits and/or changes. Final videos are posted on Vimeo or YouTube and links are available for all students to use during the implementation of their social marketing program.

After the social marketing campaign begins students will distribute the videos they choose to their own target population via social networking sites, email, or DVDs. The DVDs were then used for personal showings in classrooms, clubs, or work places or the DVDs were mailed through US mail to target audience members without access to the internet. Simple messages, emails, and/or phone calls are used as follow-ups to the videos.

Keep in mind these are health science majors. Therefore creating these marketing materials are often a new skill. While the materials created are high quality and acceptable to both the instructor and the agency, the materials are not produced at the level of a student majoring in computer graphics or video production. Once idea for future projects would be to collaborate with other majors or departments on campus to work with students with skills specific to creating marketing materials.

Creating a Social Marketing Plan

Next, each student creates an individual social marketing plan. Each social marketing plan includes an individual goal and at least 3 SMART objectives the student intends to achieve by the end of the four week project. In addition, the 4 P’s of Marketing are applied specifically to the project.

Students organize their target audience into distribution channels. For each distribution channel students determine which videos and social media outlets they will use to reach the target population. When grading the social marketing plan, the instructor looks for common marketing ideas. In class the instructor connects students with common ideas so they can work together in their effort. As an example, there are usually several students who plan on targeting the sororities and fraternities. The instructor gives these students some time to collaborate to consolidate their efforts.

Project Implementation

Over the course of 4 weeks students implement their individual plans. Because all students include Facebook as a social marketing tool for their individual plans one Facebook page is created to advertise the event. Usually all students have a Facebook account before the start of this project. This Facebook page is then used by the entire class. The class uses Facebook because it is the most popular of the social networking sites. Facebook also provides statistical information about views and people reached by a Facebook page. This information is helpful for process evaluation. Some students use other social media sites such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. There has not yet been enough usage of these other social media sites to create a collaborative effort on these sites although the instructor sees potential need for this in the future.

The posters and fliers created by the class are distributed during the implementation. The distribution of these items is based on the students’ individual social marketing plans. Typically the poster is used on Facebook, distributed on campus and within the community. Often students hang fliers in their workplace, at club locations, and at their apartment complexes.

Project Evaluation

For process evaluation the class examines the information provided by Facebook to determine if target audience members are being reached by the project. The number of views on the videos is also used for process evaluation and class discussion. In addition the individual implementation of programs including success and road blocks are discussed in class.

At the end of the four weeks of implementation, students evaluate their individual plan and its implementation. Individual evaluations are submitted. These evaluations ask students to determine if they reached each distribution channel as planned and if they met their individual goal and objectives. Students are asked to reflect on any deviation from the original plan. The evaluation also asks students to evaluate the project as a whole.

In the end, 150 survivor kits were created by Clothes for Crisis. Donations were so great that the organization had a yard sale to sell the remaining clothes. These funds were used to further support the organization.


Besides meeting courses objectives this project teaches students to (1) identify key messages that interest and motivate others (2) achieve measurable results (3) use text and images to convey persuasive information and (4) have persistence with a task over many weeks. These are essential tasks for future health educators to learn. The majority of students are positive about the project in their written evaluations. Students recognize the project as a meaningful for the organization but also enjoy that they use modern technology (social media) for school. In addition students express that this project pushes them out of their comfort zone. As one student stated “I absolutely loved this project! I was a bit weary at first but was so please at how successful the program was and how happy the community was to help the cause. I first thought people would turn their backs on this topic because it is very ‘taboo’ and not talked about often, so I could not be happier to see how eager everyone was to help and discuss the cause.”

While some service learning projects create an increased work load for the instructor this project does not. The instructor has always found students eager to do extra work such as creating the Facebook page, assembling the survivor kits, and distributing the donations. This is attributed to the democratic nature of the topic selection which the instructor believes leads to higher student buy-in for the project.

For the agency this project increases (1) awareness of the services provided by the local non-profit organization (2) awareness of the needs of the organizations target population (3) donations. These are great outcomes for the agency but would be true of traditional service project as well. By adding social media to the traditional service project the class increased their audience. There was a substantial increase in the number of people reached by the classes’ efforts once we started using social media. The larger audience means an increase in all of the above benefits for the agency (awareness or organization, needs of target population and increase in donations). Another benefit of incorporating social media is the breadth of people reached. Before incorporating social media the class’ primary audience was local. With social media our class could reach outside of our geographical area. This further increased the reach of the project’s message about the organization and its target population. Using social media also increased in the amount of donations received by the project (and therefore the agency). Once social media was incorporated into the project words of support for the agency and donations were received from across the country and around the world. Several agencies we collaborated with continued to use the online marketing materials, especially the videos, after the project was completed. Therefore an additional benefit of the use of social media for the agency is the online marketing material created by the students. As evidence of this projects success, every agency we have collaborated with have asked us to repeat the project.

The project is a win-win. It meets the course objectives, provides students with a civic engagement opportunity, and it meets a previously unmet need for an agency in the local community. The author appreciates the students’ creativity with brainstorming project ideas. Using student ideas versus instructor’s ideas means potential topics are unlimited.

About the author:

Holly Nevarez

Holly Nevarez, PhD, MPH, MCHES, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Community Services at California State University, Chico. Holly is an alumni of the program; she received her Bachelors of Science degree in Health Science with an option in Health Education. She earned her MPH with a concentration in Community Health Administration from Benedictine University and her doctorate in Public Health from Oregon State University. Dr. Nevarez has 14 years of teaching experience 8 of which are at CSU, Chico. She strives to give her students hands-on experiences by providing service learning opportunities in her classes. Besides the project described in this article, other community projects include an organ donor drive and several fitness and nutrition programs at local schools.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.