An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Online Experiential Learning

The romantic notion that adults come back to higher education for personal enrichment and self-directed intellectual pursuits does not hold water. After nearly 25 years working with adult students, I have met only a very small number who are pursuing a degree for the pure satisfaction of it. Instead, the vast majority are in it for a better life, which almost always translates to enhanced career outcomes.

This is largely because the decision to go back to school is not a simple one, nor one that most professionals can afford to make casually; the personal, financial and time commitments needed to obtain a degree that could lead to enhanced career success are simply too great. Thus, online experiential learning—as an approachable, malleable entry point with clearly practical applications—is a crucial building block in the ongoing growth of online and hybrid higher education systems, and a true alternative for working professionals trying to make it all fit.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, online experiential learning infuses online curricula with the rich, hands-on practice that Northeastern’s co-op program does so well. It allows people with full-time lives to get an education while practicing in real time—online, with real organizations doing real work—what they’re learning in their classes.

This option couldn’t be more timely, or more necessary. A recent Wall Street Journal blog post references a 2011 study from Complete College America that states that only a quarter of college students in the United States are enrolled in residential full-time programs. The implications of this are huge for policy makers, educators and the American economy; the vast array of higher education policy and funding is targeted to this traditional audience, when three quarters of the student population are left out.

Beyond the policy implications, employability and jobs are the real story behind these data. The American economy—in fact, the world’s economy—is shifting faster than ever before. Simply to keep up, workers are seeing the need to retool and refresh more and more often. Gone are the days when 10 or 15 years on the job would be enough to gain deeper understanding of a change in one’s profession. Tapping into a university or college is a great accelerator that moves people ahead faster and further. Many adult students and employers, however, have discovered that a good deal of our educational system is slow at adapting to these new economic realities.

Employability skills are not to be confused with the vocational skills once associated with community colleges. In today’s work force, employees need sophisticated tools to manage complex regulatory environments; they need to know how to interpret complex data sets, analyze the effectiveness of communications strategies, develop project plans that span hundreds of people in multiple locations and incorporate effective planning tools in a financial strategy for an organization.

This is the academic realm of a university education. And I believe that online experiential learning is a key to filling this need.

The design of online experiential curricula needs special attention. We cannot behave in a business-as-usual way if we are to prepare our students to be job-ready on day one. For example, consulting with business leaders, advisory boards, professional associations and recent alumni, we recently developed and launched a pilot of an online experiential learning class that will give some of our employed online students a chance to directly and immediately apply what they’re learning in class to real projects with their current employers. We’re excited to learn all we can about how to make this first-of-its-kind program a success for our faculty, our students and their employers.

And, as I have noted here on Aspire before, real world competencies need to be clearly identified—and classroom work plans need to be mapped to those competencies; this pilot makes that happen.

Some professional fields are very familiar with this process. As an example, aeronautics and health care programs have long been industry-aligned and industry-informed. In factthe public, rightly concerned with their safety, has insisted on this alignment. These programs have very clear and measurable industry expectations and outcomes, coupled with experiential components that bolster their curricula.

This evolving methodology of developing learning platforms is still considered radical in some academic circles. But in order to meet the real world demands of our economy and the employability expectations of our students, we must transcend antiquated notions of curriculum development. In-depth understanding of theory and practice has to be the imperative to meet these modern challenges,and incorporating experiential learning into online and hybrid learning programs is not only a crucial step toward these goals—it’s an inevitable one. Let’s take it together.