Going global in physical therapist education: International Service-Learning in US-based programmes

Physiother Res Int. 2011 Dec;16(4):225-36. doi: 10.1002/pri.501. Epub 2010 Dec 7.


Background and purpose: Internationalization is expanding its presence in higher education in the United States. Reflecting this trend that includes incorporating global perspectives in the curricula, physical therapist education programmes increasingly offer international opportunities such as International Service-Learning (ISL) to their students. Service-learning, a teaching strategy that integrates community service with structured learning activities, has gained broad acceptance in health professions education including physical therapy, and is therefore the focus of this paper. The specific purposes of this paper were to identify and analyse the commonalities that existed among established ISL programmes within physical therapist education programmes in terms of structures and processes, and to consider its broader implications for physical therapist education.

Methods: A descriptive, exploratory study was performed using grounded theory. Snowball and purposive, theoretical sampling yielded 14 faculty members with experience in international service, international learning or ISL in physical therapist education programmes. Faculty were interviewed by phone. Interview transcriptions and course documents were analysed applying grounded theory methodology. Data from eight programmes which met the operational definition of established ISL were used to address the purposes of this paper.

Results: Five phases of establishing an ISL programme were identified: development, design, implementation, evaluation, and enhancement. Although no single model exists for ISL in physical therapist education; commonalities in structures and processes were identified in each phase. However, attention to service objectives and outcomes is lacking.

Conclusions: While analysis revealed that each programme shared commonalities and demonstrated differences in structures and processes compared with the other programmes, the study demonstrated a general lack of focus on formal community outcomes which raises ethical concerns. Future research and dialogue is warranted to explore ethics and good practice in ISL and other global health initiatives in physical therapy. This study may facilitate reflections and creative solutions by individual faculty and the profession.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum
  • Education / trends*
  • Faculty
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation
  • Internationality*
  • Physical Therapists / education*
  • Physical Therapy Specialty / trends*
  • Program Development
  • Program Evaluation
  • United States