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How We Built an Experiential Learning Program at an Online University

At this point, it’s no secret that experiential learning is a key component of workforce preparation in higher education. The team at Western Governors University created an experiential learning program designed for students to achieve the utmost career readiness. 

At Western Governors University (WGU), we’ve spent decades refining our competency-based education (CBE) model, which measures students’ progress based on skills and knowledge gained, not time spent in the classroom. This self-paced program is especially beneficial for non-traditional students juggling school, work and family obligations.

We recognize, however, that we must continuously improve our CBE model to keep up with rapidly evolving student and employer needs, especially in a post-COVID workforce. This includes finding ways to allow our students, who progress through most of their coursework independently, to collaborate on high-value projects. 

To meet these needs, we launched a small-scale pilot to implement experiential learning (EL), widely recognized as a vital experience for students, in our CBE model. While our courses are already designed by experts with a keen eye on career readiness, we recognize that even the best self-paced assignments can lack the complexity of real-world projects with stakeholders.

To immerse our students in authentic career experiences, our Master of Science in Management and Leadership (MSML) program created a pathway for students to complete a communication project under the guidance of an executive mentor. We partnered with the Student Opportunity Center (SOC), which sources thousands of EL projects from around the U.S., to recruit enthusiastic executives with exciting projects.

Designing a course featuring EL projects, which require regular live interaction with executive mentors, posed a novel challenge: How do we fit these types of time-bound projects within our standardized, asynchronous model? We’ve met this challenge with the aid of SOC, and we’re excited to share what we’ve learned. 

Solving the Challenges of Embedding Experiential Learning at WGU

While creating a parallel EL pathway to our competency-based management communication course, we encountered three primary hurdles.

First, WGU has an established online delivery model whereas EL usually takes the form of traditional, in-person internships. To mitigate this challenge, we built a robust support system to ensure students and executives maximized their time together. 

SOC, for example, facilitated weekly calls to keep the conversations on track and coached students to ask incisive questions. SOC also provided technical support and offered students multiple ways to communicate. This online model led to less wasted time (e.g., students didn’t mill about the office or fetch coffee) and heightened participants’ focus during each call. 

A second challenge: Our students complete coursework at their own pace and often work at night and on the weekends. Alas, each project required interaction during business hours, and executives expected results on specific deadlines. While WGU is built to support students at odd hours, we can’t expect the same flexibility from participating executives. 

To address this challenge, we recruited a team of WGU program mentors, who provide personalized guidance to each student from enrollment to graduation. Our mentors gauged students’ availability and interest in the EL pathway and only enrolled those whose schedules aligned with that of the sponsoring executive.

During these conversations, our mentors also ensured that students had taken relevant prerequisites and understood the nature of each project, thus ensuring they would benefit from the experience. (This also improved the quality of work provided to sponsoring executives.) 

While we sorted out pacing and scheduling issues, we encountered one final hurdle. WGU’s course objectives and assessments are standardized to accommodate large numbers of students and ensure equitable testing. In contrast, client-based projects are flexible and dynamic. Each company offers unique experiences that cannot be uniformly assessed.

To address this issue—integrating EL into our curriculum—SOC carefully vetted projects for their relevance to the learning objectives. Once selected, these projects were further refined by a WGU course instructor with expertise in the field.

Students then had the freedom to draw on their diverse perspectives and contribute novel ideas while being held accountable to the immediate course objectives. This contributed to students’ growth and added value for the sponsoring executives, who sought fresh, divergent ideas. 

Finding Executives Committed to Student Mentorship 

While we’d love to have a sprawling network of executives eager to provide feedback on students’ ideas and deliverables, we lack the time and resources to secure these opportunities for our students. This is where SOC made a significant difference. 

Our partners at SOC sifted through hundreds of potential candidates to identify four company executives who led six projects. Most of these projects involved creating a business communication plan. All of the executives were CEOs of small- to mid-sized firms.

And while each student ultimately created a final report, the weekly conversations with each executive provided benefits beyond the value of the project itself. In the words of one student: “When you hear CEO, you hear, ‘Big dog, chief, head honcho,’ so for him to be so personable and we’re sitting here talking every week, I was just like, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’” 

Identifying the Benefits of our First EL Cohort

Our first cohort demonstrated that EL can work in an online CBE framework. All students who completed their client-facing project passed their final course assessment. And most students reported positive experiences, citing the acquisition of real-world skills, a boost in confidence (particularly in foreign workplace settings) and face-to-face interaction with an executive as significant benefits. 

One student noted that “working with a real client in real time, doing real work, seemed a lot more enjoyable to me” than typical class-based work. “At least more than reading about theories, then talking about theories and then about how to hypothetically apply theories,” she said. 

Another participant, who already had a wealth of workplace experience, said she was no longer “afraid to speak now with senior leadership” and felt that the sponsoring executive allowed her to “just look at my senior leadership as a resource.”

Scaling Experiential Learning at WGU

Feedback from students and executives helped us identify opportunities to improve the course design and scale EL to fit our learners’ wide variety of situations and schedules. We’ve built clearer support structures, added learning resources to assist with real-world projects and created more opportunities for guided reflection with our course instructors.

And the success of our EL pilot in the MSML program led our Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) team to embed a similar opportunity in an existing capstone course, the final class for most MBA students. By adding this course, we’ve doubled the size of our EL offering, while being able to measure the benefits of EL at different phases of the student journey in two distinct programs.

Embedding experiential learning at WGU has required the effort of dozens of people, from program mentors to course instructors to evaluators. But now that we’ve seen the benefits of the projects, we can’t wait to watch it grow. And we hope that our virtual EL program will soon serve as a national model for the upskilling and reskilling of working adults.

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