Student Research on Voluntourism: Creating “Real-Time” Benefits for Practitioners

Final Poster, Emma Redfoot, Lewis & Clark College

In case you were unaware of the burgeoning body of research on voluntourism that is being generated by students across the globe, you may want to take a moment to celebrate – it’s truly expanding!

What’s more, there is growing emphasis being placed on students’ sharing their research experiences and results in “real-time.” Why is this so important for the voluntourism community? It significantly reduces the timeline between research being conducted and results being published – a tremendous breakthrough for practitioners.

And, why is this information so valuable? Take a look at the following excerpt from a Master’s Thesis, which discusses the motivations of voluntourists interested in volunteering with aboriginals in the Eden Valley Reserve in Alberta, Canada:

The main question for this study was: What motivates volunteers to participate in volunteering trips into The Eden Valley Reserve? And based on the research conducted thus far, this study responds: seeking authenticity, community development, the search for unique experiences, predilection for cultural keenness, and catharsis together shape the motivations of tourists seeking volunteering through travel. Further analysis of the data provided by this study notes that voluntourism does contribute to socio-cultural sustainability.” [Source: Alomari, Thabit (2012). “Motivation and Socio-Cultural Sustainability of Voluntourism” Master’s Thesis, University of Lethbridge, p.90]

Since the majority of the research being conducted by students is experienced through actual participation in voluntourism engagements and/or getting out into host communities, even the subtle insights provided in the descriptions of their experiences can be incredibly beneficial for voluntourism practitioners seeking to improve their operations – – not three years from now, but TODAY!!

Is there a way to bring academics on board with this same approach?

Part of the Problem: ‘Publish or Perish’

“Publish or Perish” – remember that notion? It has been a standard-bearer in academe for the better part of a century and has focused on peer-reviews and editorial review boards. The timeline has become so long in the voluntourism space, for example, that the average time between field-based participatory research experience and publication is nearly three (3) years in duration! Is this information even relevant by the time it hits the pages of a journal? Whether the underlying purpose of a research study is meant to assist practitioners or not, the insights and commentary from researchers participating in voluntourism experiences could be quite valuable for all voluntourism practitioners.

Discover Magazine’s Neuroskeptic Blog produced a post earlier this year (2013) entitled “What’s Wrong With ‘Publish or Perish’?” The author provided an interesting description of this reality and how these two things have become inextricably linked:

Perishing is an inevitable consequence of the demographics. It’s linked to publishing only by accident, as it were; today, scientists happen to be assessed mostly by their publications, so it’s publications that save you from perishing. But you can’t blame publishing – there’s just not enough room for everyone. Some people will drop off the science ladder, until we either stop awarding so many PhDs, or until we create more senior posts. It’s simple arithmetic. So we shouldn’t expect reform of publishing, or alt-metrics, to save people from perishing. These reforms could certainly make the system fairer and better, but the fundamental problem is one of recruitment.”

Even if publishing and perishing are not as tightly bound as they appear, the current approach of scholarly publication is not helping practitioners as it could. Is there another way?

A Possible Future Landscape of Academe

The Neuroskeptic post links to an insightful piece in Nature – – “Scholarship: Beyond the paper.” Author Jason Priem offers a lengthy description of the future of academic publication and how the real-time generation of scholarly work will become the norm. He concludes:

We now have a unique opportunity as scholars to guide the evolution of our tools in directions that honour our values and benefit our communities. Here’s what to do. First, try new things: publish new kinds of products, share them in new places and brag about them using new metrics. Intellectual playfulness is a core scholarly virtue. Second, take risks (another scholarly virtue): publishing more papers may be safe, but scholars who establish early leadership in Web-native production will be ahead of the curve as these genres become dominant. Finally, resist the urge to cling to the trappings of scientific excellence rather than excellence itself. ‘Publication’ is just one mode of making public and one way of validating scholarly excellence. It is time to embrace the Web’s power to disseminate and filter scholarship more broadly and meaningfully. Welcome to the next era of scholarly communication.

Will this approach swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction? It is hard to say. Those who conduct academic research in volunteer tourism and voluntourism may regard it as being unacceptable. However, utilizing what Dr. Priem references in the Nature article for publishing research notes, particularly those which discuss actual experiences of participating academic “voluntourists,” could be invaluable for practitioners. Is there a middle ground?

Student Scholarship: A Middle Ground for Learning in REAL-Time?

Emma Redfoot, of Lewis & Clark College, is one of the first students who discussed her voluntourism research in a “real-time” format. In fact, she may be the first such student to do so anywhere. She shared the entire process of developing her research question, structure, methodology, experience in the field, results, and presentation of her results. Any practitioner who wished to follow her efforts could have done so. Doubtless, those who did learned quite a bit about Cusco, Peru, and the state of voluntourism within the surrounding community.

Now, imagine multiplying the effort of Emma Redfoot across hundreds of students who are conducting research on voluntourism across the planet. Afford each of them an opportunity to report on their studies today, to share that information with one another, with peers, with academics and practitioners and generate real-time awareness and real-time feedback. What if students discovered that another student was in the same city or a nearby village conducting voluntourism research? How much smarter could we be? How more quickly could we be improving our understanding of voluntourism and, therefore, improving it?

Final Thoughts…

The “Situating the Global Environment” (SGE) Initiative at Lewis & Clark College is testimony to breakthroughs in scholarship that can be modified with technology. I enjoyed following the situated research work of Emma Redfoot over the course of nearly 18 months through a social learning network – the dual combination utilized through the SGE program. Though I might not know the first thing about situated research, the social learning network made it possible for me to follow along.

The voluntourism community could benefit tremendously from accessing scholarship in real-time. Collaborating with students to create something along the lines of what has been developed at Lewis & Clark College could be a fantastic start. Students are interested in voluntourism and we would do well to afford them a “space” to share what they uncover in their investigations; the collective benefit will be an immediate impact to say the least.


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