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Bridging Theory and Practice: A Case for Experiential Graduate Education

Bridging Theory and Practice: A Case for Experiential Graduate Education
Experiential learning opportunities provide graduate students with labor-relevant knowledge, a competitive advantage universities have over emerging alternative options.
As our world becomes more complex and interconnected, a fresh look at the approach to higher education is needed. This is especially recognized in many public service sectors that have typically relied on “years of service” to build expertise organically rather than through formal education. With an estimated population of more than 300 million in 2010, the total population in the United States has more than tripled since 1900.[1] By 2050, it’s estimated that 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.[2] The cultural diversity that exists in many of these urban areas only compounds the coordination efforts required to provide for the safety and security of the public, especially in crisis situations.

The growth of the Internet and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) have created opportunities for many existing public service professionals, as well as those newly entering the workforce, to complete undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs in emergency management and related fields. Access to higher education via the Internet is much easier and more convenient, especially for the adult learner who often has a full-time job and family commitments. However, one of the persistent educational challenges in these learning environments is bridging the gap between theory and practice. This is particularly important for fields such as emergency management that rely heavily on collaboration and partnerships to provide effective crisis responses within culturally and economically diverse communities. Experiential learning is essential for students to get out of their comfort zone, experience new ideas and approaches and foster innovation. Graduate education, by its very nature, provides an opportunity for students to immediately apply knowledge from the classroom in a “real world” environment.

Georgetown University seized this opportunity in its newly created Emergency and Disaster Management (EDM) master’s program, a cohort-style program that includes both online and on-site instruction. The EDM program is offered in an executive format that enables students to retain their jobs while pursuing a graduate degree. The online portion uses both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. Synchronous instruction provides an opportunity for students to be active participants, learning from each other and the faculty, and, perhaps most importantly, to evaluate their individual progress. Each module in the EDM program consists of six weeks in an online learning environment followed by a six-day on-site intensive.

The intensive portion of the curriculum is dominated by field studies that enable direct engagement by the students with practical, social, personal or research issues. Each intensive is designed to reinforce the theoretical foundations and learning objectives through individual and group activities that demand critical thinking, empower creativity and motivate learning. An equally important element is taking the students away from their “home” environment and immersing them in a rich problem-solving experience that also affords an opportunity for reflection, which is often seen as the transformative link between action and understanding.

By completing the cycle from theory and practice to reflection, students are able to deepen their understanding and broaden their appreciation of the many dimensions of emergency management, especially the social and psychological impacts that accompany any catastrophic experience.

It’s through the experiential component that students come face-to-face with myriad challenges they will never be able to anticipate and work through those challenges with each other in a mutually supportive environment. This enables them not only to feel “the heat of the moment,” but also to think through and internalize the consequences of their actions. We have learned our students often come away from these experiences humbled, enlightened and much more compassionate which, in turn, leads to a stronger sense of civic responsibility and builds their leadership potential.

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[1] Demographic trends. (2002). Census 2000 Special Reports, Retrieved from

[2] Peirce, Neil R. and Curtis W. Johnson, Century of the City: No Time to Lose, (New York, Rockefeller Foundation, 2008), 18.

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