How educators can adapt experiential learning post-COVID

I first attended university 22 years ago. I recall walking into a lecture theatre with 300 other students and sitting in silence while the lecturer spoke at us for two hours solid on the complexities of the English public law system.

This was, for me, the antithesis of an engaging education. Seminars were only marginally more palatable: large groups of students being coached through model answers to staid essay questions by PhD students. They, and we, would rather have been elsewhere. It was no wonder that, following the completion of my degree, I chose not to pursue a career in law.

The sea-change towards active learning

I understand now that the education I received, totally disengaging and impractical, was a major reason for my choosing not to enter the legal profession. A decade on, when I became a lecturer, I began to see pockets of change within the education system. There was more active learning, more case studies, more problem-solving and more excitement.

Only then did I appreciate my natural predilection towards experiential education – and I have asserted the benefits the methodology offers for a holistic educational experience ever since.

Experiential learning is more than merely ‘learning by doing’. Rather, it is a philosophy which informs many methodological approaches to teaching and learning. There are two commonalities within experiential education: that learners are engaged with direct experiences and that periods of focused reflection are contained within the learning cycle.

Experiential education isn’t merely mountain-climbing or orienteering, nor is it limited to model-making or practical placements. The scope of experiential activities is wide ranging and educators should consider the extension of classic case studies and problem-solving activities into authentic learning experiences such as collaborating on business problems with organisations, assisting charities and designing products.

Evidence from the OECD, Pearson and McKinsey helps us to understand that experiential methodologies help people develop skills and knowledge while also increasing their capabilities to perform tasks. Thus, students are given the tools to develop their character holistically, while society benefits through the enhanced capacity learners have to contribute to their communities.

Experiential learning is a methodology suitable for all settings and delivery modes, whether in collaboration with external employer-partners, in classrooms or online. However, while many forms of experiential education – such as apprenticeships, work-based learning and internships – have traditionally required partnership with external stakeholders and often take place outside the confines of campus, this is absolutely not a pre-requisite.

An alternative mode of experiential delivery is not only possible, but advantageous; particularly in the current, prohibitive landscape of ‘remoteness’. Institutions have predominantly used neo-experientialism as a litmus test for a new approach – where experiential learning is facilitated (not, I stress, ‘delivered’) through the more structured confines of classroom settings, timetables and programme specifications.

The 21st century has seen a growth in universities successfully using classroom-based experiential learning through active, authentic approaches and inquiry-based learning. This is, however, at risk today.

Challenges exacerbated by COVID-19

The purpose of universities has long been the subject of contentious debate. But, in the same way that measurement, marketisation and massification do not need to compromise the quality of a learning experience, nor should the move towards a more blended experiential approach.

COVID-19 may have been the catalyst for the expeditious embrace of digital approaches to teaching and learning, but educators must ensure they do not relapse into bad habits.

Institutions should ensure experiential methodologies continue to be used. Immersive and interactive experiential approaches, which were beginning to feature more regularly across university campuses, must now be used within digital learning.

The future for many institutions is likely to present a truly blended, non-binary – neither solely online nor on-campus – offering and now is therefore the perfect opportunity to develop a best-practice framework for the future.

It is imperative that the gains made through experiential methodologies are not lost amid the move online, nor in the subsequent, tentative steps back onto campus.

What I’m advocating isn’t a ‘traditional’ approach to blended learning – though there are increasing benefits to be extracted from such – but rather it is the assertion that experiential education must be plugged into online learning now in order that universities can meet the long-term needs of their students.

Practical ways in which experiential learning methodologies might be adopted are wide-ranging and include chat rooms, discussion boards, polls, quizzes, key concept videos, activity chunking and student-led learning.

Students can showcase their work through presentations, collages and conferences, question and answer sessions with expert practitioners and authentic assessments, such as video submissions, project portfolios and the utilisation of two-way reflection – where teachers and students interact to ensure students are supported and guided not only with their studies but with their lives.

Two-way reflection channels cement relationships between teachers and students and ensure that experiential education is facilitated effectively, particularly in an online context.

Students must also be encouraged to relax and have fun with their learning, sharing screens, doodling their thoughts, participating.

The ‘in-between’ space that was formerly filled with chats in halls, drinks in the student union or through social activities and clubs, is now a vacuum that can only be filled by the pro-active approaches of students and teachers who are willing to embrace new, alternative technological media or by teachers facilitating the growth of communities within their cohorts online, through engaging experiential activities.

The move towards an inclusive, engaging education

The concern that some universities might struggle to balance their competing priorities of a quality education, commercial success and strong graduate outcomes prompts the call to ensure that experiential learning methodologies are kept at the forefront of institutional strategies and that they become de rigueur for learning designers.

The move towards an engaging education must not be stunted. This will ensure that marginalised students – those who were beginning to benefit from governmental initiatives to widen participation – do not become disenfranchised and disengaged.

We cannot allow the digital divide between the ‘haves and the have nots’ to perpetuate; nor can the move to a new way of teaching – an online experiential approach – be the excuse for traditional lecturers to revert to type and produce merely repositories of information stored within virtual walls.

Experiential methodologies must retain their status as a crucial element within the evolution of education. I am buoyant in my belief that institutions and practitioners will continue their shift from passive learning to active learning and will not be deterred by the challenges that COVID-19 has placed upon them.

Experiential methodologies should be plugged into blended and online teaching in order to preserve engagement and foster holistic skills development. It is incumbent upon educators to create an approach which offers a new way forward for the new world.

Dr Rod Brazier is vice principal – teaching excellence and student success, Global University Systems, United Kingdom.