In eLearning, as in all Learning, we Learn Best by Doing

In a third-year online course we helped one of our higher education clients recently develop, it was decided to add in quite a few elements of experiential learning. That is, rather than following a strictly didactic approach of transmitting information and testing on it, we had learners working in groups on distinct real-world tasks, such as devising budgets for a start-up non-profit organization. The initial response from some students to these experiential learning activities was surprising, but, in retrospect, understandable. And it points to how far we have to go to before such approaches are the norm rather than the exception.

I was frankly stunned when some students in this course posted pleas on the discussion boards about how difficult it was for them to complete this aforementioned budgeting exercise. “How do we know how much things cost?” was a common refrain. Well, I thought, that’s the whole point, you are going to have to find out, and then integrate this information into the provided framework for what is typically included in a budget for such an enterprise.

On reflection, though, I came to realize that I should not have been surprised by such learner push back (even in a level three course). After all, they have been conditioned, in large part, from primary school, through middle school and high school, and in university as well, to regurgitate what they have been given. This is the tell-and-test-syndrome that characterizes so much of education at all levels. No wonder many in this course did not know what things cost – we didn’t tell them.

I have seen such initial push back before, even in an online MBA course. It goes to show how ingrained expectations are for how education is to be conducted. It also explains why we get so many learners focused on and obsessed with marks and “what’s on the exam.” If the predominant model is tell-and-test, we should expect this. Ultimately, we get the learners we create.

However, as happened in the MBA course, and as happened most recently with the third-year course, once learners get over the initial shock of realizing that they are not going to be spoon-fed, they roll up their sleeves and get on with the task at hand. And they end up learning things at a much deeper level by actively creating something out of nothing and reflecting on this experience. Learning by doing trumps learning by memorization every time.

There are an infinite number of ways to introduce experiential learning into the curriculum. Some great examples from online courses that I have seen include:

eLearning Design Course: Having learners actually design and produce a small eLearning module, sharing this online with their peers, and receiving feedback.

International Tourism Course: Having learners, working in groups, create detailed business plans for destination tourism spots, with the instructor acting as an investor and evaluating the work based on whether these plans are worthy of investment.

Food Science Course: Learners conduct kitchen-based experiments to learn the principles of food spoilage and share results online.

Physics Course: Learners sent simple lab kits to conduct experiments about basic principles of physics.

Economics Course: Learners participate in an online stock market simulation, investing “virtual money” in order to better understand how equity markets work.

Horticulture Science Course: Learners sent seeds and seedlings with which they conduct experiments on the effects of differing conditions (water, fertilizer, light) on plant growth. They share results, observations, and photos of their plants online.

However, as learning theorists from Aristotle to Kolb have emphasized, it is not just the experience that is essential to learning, it is how the learner reflects on this experience. Therefore, in the examples listed above, it matters not that the learner in the stock market simulation loses all of his/her virtual money, or that the learner’s plants in the horticulture course all die in all conditions. What is important is that in their reflection on these experiences, they are able to discern why they got the results that they did, and what they would do differently the next time.

This reflective learning is the power of the experiential approach. Because in life, as they say, experience is often what you get right after you need it.

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