Experiential Learning: Not Just for Residential UndergraduatesJoshua Steele | Senior Director of UA Online, University of Arizona
Conversations on, and a focus around, experiential learning are experiencing a resurgence in higher education. Northeastern University and its President, Dr. Joseph E. Aoun, have been recent proponents of the role that experiential learning should play in a college curriculum. In his recent book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Aoun highlights the “experiential difference” advantage humans have over intelligent machines: “Instead of pure numerical data inputs, we strengthen our mental connections through experience.” He asserts that building these mental connections through experience will be a decided advantage as more jobs become automated, and thus it will be the diversity of lived experiences, and the growth associated with these experiences, that will be sought-after traits for post-college job seekers.
Few college administrators would refute the power of experiential learning. Study abroad, internships and co-curricular opportunities are often provided as part of the residential experiences found on many university campuses today. With fully online undergraduate education, however, these best practices tend to be ignored. These relative absences may even be justified. Perhaps it comes down to the belief that online students are degree completers who are merely a “piece of paper” away from a new job or a promotion at work. After all, the Learning House’s annual survey of the “demands and preferences” of online learners has consistently shown that online students are enrolled in degree programs for career reasons. Given this, perhaps higher ed professionals forego the creation of experiential learning opportunities as they know that the working adult has serious time constraints, where activities that compete with credit-bearing activities might pose a risk to a student’s ability to complete the curriculum. Or perhaps the thought of replicating or reconfiguring existing programming for an entirely different modality and student is too cumbersome, too taxing, or too expensive (or more likely, a combination of the three). In limiting experiential opportunities to a residential population, online educational providers perpetuate outcome gaps between residential and non-traditional learners and limit the learning possibilities that many online students might enjoy—and from which they might benefit.
With the launch of the University of Arizona’s 100% Engagement initiative, which aims to ensure that every graduate has the opportunity to engage in an experiential learning activity, it was important for us to think about how fully online students could have the same experiential opportunities as residential students. Because we embed online education within the existing university structure and curriculum requirements, this goal has become a communal partnership, where academic and co-curricular units, as well as Arizona Online leadership, work together to brainstorm how to tweak experiential opportunities to a new audience. Rather than develop separate opportunities for residential and non-residential learners, we have re-envisioned how those same opportunities can be offered to the fully online student. Below are a few examples of ways we have been able to engage online students in experiential learning opportunities.
Internships: Internships are a hallmark of the University of Arizona experience. This past spring, a fully online student was accepted into the university’s prestigious Arizona Legislative Internship Program, which provides some of the university’s highest achieving, civically engaged students with an 18-week paid internship in one of several state offices. Through this internship, the student discovered her passion for state politics and was offered a position upon completion—an outcome that would likely never have happened if her university experience was solely based on coursework. These are the stories that we are accustomed to hearing for our residential populations, and serve as a reminder that our working adult students can also have their eyes opened to new careers and opportunities through internships.
Short-Term Externships: When it put its top-25 business program online, the Eller College of Management was committed to ensuring that students in the online program could access the same professional development opportunities as their residential population. Recognizing the potential limitations of the adult learner’s schedule, the College identified experiences that can fit into times in which students may have a break from their current jobs, such as over the winter holidays. Leveraging their robust alumni network has also provided opportunities to connect current online students with alumni in their given locale.
Applied Projects: The opportunity to translate coursework into a capstone experience provides an opportunity for students to showcase their talents and provide meaningful contributions to their respective fields. The Online Bachelor’s degree in Geographic Information Systems Technology requires students to partner with one of their previous faculty members on a culminating independent study project. In one such project, a 2018 online graduate set out mapping cell phone reception in the Tucson Mountains with the aim of providing safe routes to hikers, where they know they will be able to reach emergency services.
Study Abroad: Just like our residential students, fully online students are curious about the world and are interested in delving into global issues. Study abroad provides an immersive experience; however, fully online adult learners often don’t have the same ability to embark on the typical semester or year-long excursions that have historically defined the study abroad experience. With a focus on increasing access to international experiences, newly created “micro” experiences (such as the Global Africana Studies Experience, in which students spend ten days in Paris exploring African migration to the city) are a great way for students to obtain international experiences with a substantially lower financial and time commitment. The Study Abroad office—the existing infrastructure that prepares students for travel and monitors student safety—is involved in creating these invaluable experiences for online students.
By creating an infrastructure that supports fully online students within the existing residential university, Arizona Online is able to leverage experiential options embedded within the various departments and colleges that have been creating those experiences for the last 130 years. By making the support of fully online students a responsibility of all, and not just a separate office devoted to non-traditional students, the campus is transforming its infrastructure.
Furthermore, the needs of online students are not just restricted to that population—the same cost limitations of study abroad programs impact lower-income students as well. Residential transfer students who are working 30+ hours a week while balancing school may not have the same capacity to undertake summer-long internships. Reframing experiential learning in a more accessible way builds a university that is truly designed for all, where students can experience these opportunities at lengths and costs that are possible for them, rather than potentially alienating types of students who may not be able to engage otherwise. While online students may have served as an impetus, the campus has responded in unforeseen ways to lift experiential opportunities across the board.
As many institutions grapple with the question of how online learning fits within their strategic plans, conversations typically center on enrollment management and instructional design. Indeed, these are the predominant services needed to build a new program, whether internally or through contracts with Online Program Management companies (OPMs). As the demographics of our institutions change and traditional universities diversify their modalities to increase access, experiential learning and engagement opportunities should be at the forefront of these conversations as well. The institution of the future will need to address the opportunity disparities between residential and remote learning.
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 Aslanian Market Research. “Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences.” 2018. P. 9.
Author Perspective: Administrator