Experiential Learning Elevates Online Graduate Programming
The following interview is with Brian Murphy Clinton, Kevin Bell and Sean Gallagher, senior administrators with Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS). Murphy Clinton, Bell and Gallagher have been influential in enriching the online programming across Northeastern’s CPS, including introducing experiential and work-based co-op learning into the institution’s graduate-level programming. In this interview, they discuss the importance of experiential learning and innovation in graduate education.
1. Why is experiential learning so important at the graduate level?
Sean Gallagher (SG): The graduate level compared to the undergraduate level is, by definition, much more aligned with working adults and much more professional in its focus. In the United States, most graduate enrollment is actually in professional fields; areas like business, education, computer science, engineering, and a much higher percentage of students are enrolled part time.
As a result, you have an audience for graduate education that is more interested in applying what they learned, reflecting the current workplace in the curriculum and in experiential learning.
Kevin Bell (KB): The immediate applicability of knowledge is something we think experiential education really speaks to. The fact that experiential prompts, encourages and enforces the peer-to-peer aspect of instruction really has a huge add-on.
Brian Murphy Clinton (BMC): You have all these employers — from corporations, non-profits, government sector — that are putting significant dollars behind tuition reimbursement policies for employees. Companies are paying for tuition reimbursements because there are huge benefits for employers. That’s something we focus a great deal on.
Often times when we say experiential learning or co-op at the graduate level, people say, “Well isn’t that counterintuitive? Aren’t employers going to get scared away, perhaps by thinking individuals will just gain additional skills and have an opportunity outside their organization and they’ll lose that talent?”
We’re finding those that recognize the importance of expanding that skill set and knowledge base within the organization.
2. How can experiential learning be integrated into the online learning setting?
KB: In some ways, it’s a very established concept; in other ways, it’s very new. Many universities and many colleges have been encouraging instructors to use real-world activities and many have done that well. What we’re doing is digging a little deeper and saying, “What different pieces —what non-cognitive skills, what life experience, what other elements — come into this?” A lot of what we’re seeing is [that] it’s often from the unforeseen things that students, when they experience it in real life, learn.
I’ve made the comment in an office environment: if the photocopier explodes, you don’t learn to repair photocopiers. You learn that you can deal with very stressful complex situations and you get through it.
In trying to replicate that with online, we’re looking at instructors and saying, “If you have a project due, why not change the parameters two days before it’s due?” People will panic but they will come through and say it’s all right. The reflection and the abstraction is that we can, generally, in our adult working life, deal with a lot of unforeseen circumstances and serendipitous happenings. That’s not something we really feel has been applied to an online environment or even analyzed and assessed in a traditional environment.
SG: When people think about experiential learning, there’s often the assumption about it being learning that’s within the workforce. If you have an online student who is employed full time, [it is assumed] they can’t use experiential [learning] at a workplace other than their own.
Instead, we thought about experiential learning as having a broader definition and relating to opportunities that are both immersed in real world and that approximate the real world. We do things like case studies and simulations and role playing and virtual labs and gaming, and then there are also ways to immerse online students in the real world with work — either in a project with their current employer that may take them outside of their day-to-day responsibilities and introduce a new area, or in other types of projects that have been sponsored by industry or some type of community partner.
KB: Within the [CPS] where my group is based, there’s a pilot project in the project management degree where the students are really encouraged to get real-world experience with either their own employer or provided employer. [We are] working to look at what’s happening experientially and then in the sessions between classes and online, and applying these filters, looking at how the knowledge is abstracted and applied.
3. With experiential aspects built into the curriculum, how does online graduate programming stack up against face-to-face?
KB: It’s certainly categorized as no worse and there are those of us who would say that if it’s well done, it could be substantially better. We’re looking at classes that have a large number of non-native [English] speakers from different cultures. We’re looking at working professionals [for whom] traditional classes are not an option. The ability to facilitate discussion and peer-to-peer interaction and the flexibility of the online environment means, in many cases, the processing and the discussion — if done well — can be far richer. This is a new facet of online education, this online experiential. There’s a real opportunity to get to Online 4.0 that goes way beyond the initial read/post discussion board with a PDF or a PowerPoint. My team’s work at Northeastern — it’s pretty cutting edge on this, and we’re certainly looking at that and saying, “What else can we really be doing, how can we push this?”
BMC: What we’ve seen out of some of the initial pilot projects mentioned is the engagement with experiential curriculum in the graduate professional degree programs has forced a really rich and purposeful engagement with employers and the corporate sector, which is something institutions always yearn for.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of bringing experiential learning into the graduate education curriculum, and how allowing for experiential learning can support online learning as a pathway for graduate education?
KB: The shift from static consumption of information online to actual production — which kicked in with blogs and Facebook — [created] opportunities where people can, with a very limited technical background, become producers with audiences. It’s a huge shift and it’s a huge opportunity. That switch from passive consumer to active producer is really in line with where we want to go with online, because we don’t want people to be sitting with eyes glazed over scrolling a 20-page document; we want people to be accessing information and then doing something. That in itself and that stress on the ‘do’ is really where the intersection comes with experiential learning.
SG: Most institutions are engaging in experiential models at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level, for whatever reason, perhaps there’s a bit of cultural constraint in higher education, in terms of the faculty or institutions less willing to engage with the real world of work and be a bit more practical compared to what happens at the two-year, community college-type of environment. Graduate education is filled with research and those typed of activities and, so, we consistently hear from our colleagues in higher ed and also see in surveys of the population of prospective students that there’s great interest in experiential at the graduate level. There’s a huge opportunity for more institutions to embrace it and experiment with it.
This interview has been edited for length.