Experiential learning is having something of a moment.
As graduate outcomes migrate from peripheral strategic decoration to become core drivers of educational missions, many universities are seeking to build out from the long-standing gold-standard of sandwich degrees.
Responding to the challenge of scaling and aborted early attempts at “a placement for every student,” universities are rightly diversifying how they integrate work-like “experiences” into the curriculum, heavily mobilising concepts like “practice” and “application” (of knowledge).
This may be something of a global trend, with a slew of new posts investing in experiential capacity through Australia and Asia in recent months – joining a more established appetite for “service” and applied learning in the States.
Though rarely anchored as experiential learning, this language is familiar to those of us committed to the area – committed not just for its manifest potential to support employability, but for broader and more humanistic reasons. Our practice is broadly unified by learning “from the outside in,” through immersion, experimentation, and play. And it recognises that scaffolded exploration in context generates rich understanding and academic authenticity that counterbalances knowledge-in-knowledge-out habits of higher education.
Framed through this lens, there is much to celebrate in this moment for experiential learning. It could be a robust response to pressures that might otherwise be experienced as pushing an instrumental view of higher education. It could propagate a slew of teaching innovation, with employability as a constructive pedagogic and curricula provocation and not just as a “mix-in” offloaded to professional services.
At its very best, it might interconnect with commitments to active and engaged learning, deepening authenticity and belonging and giving students genuine agency to enhance their experience and outcomes.
There are also real risks that we miss this potential of this moment, particularly if our grab at experiential learning remains accidental, or becomes a cheap sticking-plaster quick-fix to complex challenges.
Employability, at least, ain’t viral
It’s easy to “black box” experiential learning, particularly if it’s seen as a golden bullet: drop students in at one end and, through processes mysterious and undefined, they emerge transformed at the other. Learning gains are positioned as a simple function of immersion, manifesting a kind of viral metaphor: students “catch employable” from a placement, project or other experience.
One vector of the viral fallacy is the intuitive correspondence between graduate outcomes, placements, and mobilities. As educators and university leaders, we know that students with these experiences have strong prospects. It would be facile to suggest that these experiences are not a Good Thing, and there is a reason that the sandwich year is a gold standard for employability. We should do more of them, for more and more diverse students.
However, this embrace should have a critical refrain. We must be mindful of both a disciplinary and a demographic input bias: placement students are often those already more likely to have positive outcomes, and they are more prevalent in subjects where career destinations are more innately articulated. But more significantly, we need to untangle outcome from process: it is not the placement that improves employment prospects, this gain is the net of a whole range of transformative processes that happen inside it.
In this case black boxing is practical as much as conceptual. We outsource our students’ development for a year to their employer-custodians, with neither the means nor the resource to intervene in meaningfully pedagogic ways. There’s a lot of sink or swim to this.
But the idea that students learn by contagion also surfaces in spaces where learning is experiential even if we don’t think of it as such. As a sector, for instance, we are keen to extol the Broader Benefits of Higher Education™ and to assert that students absorb frameworks of “graduate attributes” by merit of their presence with us. But think how often we presume that we teach students to work well in groups by … getting them to work in groups. Or the extent to which we leave the extra-curricular space to do the heavy lifting around “rich and holistic” development. Again, sink or swim.
Without an articulation of how transformations happen, we can neither assure that students have the tools to make the most of opportunities nor be confident that benefits are experienced equally. I fear that the consequence is that these benefits are felt disproportionately by students already advantaged by confidence, demographic or social positioning.
And herein lies the rub. As we scramble to orient to work-integration, practice-led learning and the like, we need to deliver for the diverse needs of a vast number of students. A black-boxed foundation is both an alluring and dangerous starting point. It leads us to think we can do this on the cheap, by reducing experiential learning to pure activism: just do more placements, more employer-led workshops.
Low-hanging fruit reinforce this perception. It’s easy to set up your most sparkly and confident students in a project with your high-profile partners. Fire and forget, save for sending in the marketing team to reap some juicy copy. Scaling on this premise risks baking-in under interrogated presumptions. Without appropriate scaffold our attempt to scale experiential learning is liable to as many negative outcomes as positive. Students of all confidences and demographics deserve more than this.
A strategy resting on experiential learning needs, then, to be reciprocated with an enabling pedagogy. We need to render activity as ‘“teachable”, or at least recognise the need to plan for learning, and not just hoping it will happen.
The sector has become very comfortable with the reflective account in this space. It’s a legitimate, but partial, response. At worst, it places responsibility on students to retrofit learning around an experience. It presumes both a sophisticated meta-cognitive competence, and a degree of cultural capital necessary to externalise an experience and extract its value.
Learning scaffolds that happen after an experience (such as the reflective account) must be matched by conscious interventions before and during (of course, reflection-in-action has a powerful role to play here). This is how we will maximise impact whilst mitigating inequities. We can use these scaffolds to build capability amongst students to participate more fully, to recognise learning as it happens, and to pivot behaviour and thinking to new possibilities.
These kinds of “teacherly interventions” (scaffold, nudge, mark-out significance) are the meat-and-gravy of good classroom practice. The removal of “the classroom” in more experiential approaches can perhaps lead us to presume that they become less necessary. I think the opposite is true.
Cracking open the black box
The capability to respond to this challenge is already out there. For every grand strategic commitment, there are myriad exceptional educators putting experiential learning to work.
At Manchester Met we have been working to enable this work through the past five years. Through Rise, our co-curricular programme, we have enabled students to earn classificatory credit for experiential and skills-oriented learning.
It has been wildly successful in terms of reach (27k students in three years, over-representing “hard to reach” groups) and impact (across career readiness and graduate outcomes, academic achievement, belonging and engagement). It certainly hasn’t delivered all the answers to impactful experiential learning. But it has created an agile space to do exciting things with students – and home for our innovators which we continue to build on.
These pioneers will be critical if the sector is to make the most of its deepening commitments in this area. Their collective work is forging an interconnected response to what I see as two critical tensions to the delivering experiential learning at mass.
The first is the tension of scale: How do we achieve the volume of opportunity needed to engage all students? And how do we do so in the face of insufficient supply from employers, and uneven resources to engage amongst students.
Exceptional educators cut through to the specific transformations of broad experiences, like placements. They distil them so that they can be deployed within a pedagogy, building them into modules, courses and the core of the student experience. “Interdisciplinary contextualisation of knowledge” is manifest through live-projects, enterprises, sandpits and so on.
“Collaborative problem solving” becomes explicit in how and what they teach, not something outsourced to placements (or disconnected assessment demands). In doing so, they deliver a more coherent response to active learning beyond a smattering of retrofitted engagement “tricks” like quizzes.
Uncoupling work-integration from the supply-side constraints of willingness of employers – and aligning it to the core business of university teaching – is more scalable. It also delivers something oriented explicitly to educational drivers, in contrast with placements where the business needs of the host organisation must inevitably take precedent.
In turn, this uncoupling enables us to offer not just context but space within it to experiment and play, and where struggle and failure can more easily be a productive part of a learning process.
One of my favourite illustrations of this comes from a Rise project called Art School Live – brainchild of technicians Evan Wilson and Sam Heitzman. Each year, they enable students to organise and deliver a live-streamed music festival. They have grown involvement from media students, out to journalism, marketing, events and social media management (and expanded to university sport broadcasts).
The sandpit they have created is brilliant not just in its authenticity and ambition – but in the confidence that students have that it is a safe space to push their boundaries. One participant summarised the contrast with “real” placements perfectly for me: “I got to run the broadcast. Who lets the work experience kid push the buttons!?”
This positioning also begins to illustrate a response to what I see as the second tension of scaling experiential learning: that of impact.
Experiential learning happens through processes which are inherently less structured and controlled, where outcomes are more emergent and divergent. Scaffolding, supporting and assuring this kind of learning takes a particular kind of facilitative skill. It needs educators to be less directive and more strategic in their interventions and guidance. It places knowing stuff (or even carefully structuring knowledge) as secondary to empathy and intuition. It needs teachers to really notice the developing trajectories of students, and to drop in just the right content or intervention at just the right time to propel them into new possibilities.
This is not new practice in the fullness of the education system: some of the most exciting educators have been teaching like this as normal practice for years: in good nurseries and pre-schools across the country. But, despite a broad student-centred rhetoric, the higher education sector lacks this sensibility: the confidence and capability to build education from where the learner starts, rather than where discipline benchmarks want them to end up.
This pioneering work generates important challenges for the sector, and we must treat these as productive if we are serious about building capacity.
The emergent nature of experiential learning undermines some of the quality shortcuts of a knowledge-in-knowledge-out framing. It begs new understandings of standards, performance and progression. For its part, facilitative teaching is easily underestimated. Through the conventional lens of university teaching, it is easy to notice the absence of time at the front, and to overlook both the pedagogic expertise which replaces it, and the subject mastery required to mould disciplines around emergent learning.
If experiential opportunity is at the core of student experience, it needs different thinking on timetabling and administrative support (and there is a real hole in edtech in this space). It needs coherent student communication to avoid the risk that they perceive the absence of an expert-at-the-front as education-on-the-cheap. And it needs restraint on the part of managers not to do the same; it takes perspicacity to recognise the legitimate workload involved in genuinely academic and authentic experiential learning work.
Our pioneers are critical in helping us to find a coherent space for experiential learning in our academic traditions. But (perhaps because?) interesting people doing interesting things in these spaces out in the sector, are often frustrated and uncomfortable in their institutional framings.
Their work doesn’t look like conventional university teaching; it butts against regulatory and administrative conventions by failing to be a neat 12-week course of paired lectures and seminars. It is process-driven and not knowledge centric. It situates students as makers and doers and producers, and places expert knowledge as a secondary enabler to agentic behaviours. It can intersect painfully with entrenched norms which privilege research-oriented career paths. Often this is amplified as those involved have practice-oriented, or teaching-focused careers – or sit outside the academic role completely (as Art School Live shows, there is some amazing technician and careers professional led work out there).
In alienating emerging pioneers, the sector cuts off its own means to deliver on the transformative ambitions of its strategies.
Reversing this is worth the investment; the potential is vast of experiential, applied, practice-led, work-integrated and/or engaged learning. As a response to graduate prospects, it translates challenges into genuine, deep and robust pedagogy. Along the way, it affords us space to really occupy the void that generates an unhelpful and under-interrogated “skills gap” rhetoric – and which supports a lazy binary around vocational and academic learning.
Its pedagogies will grab hold of graduate attributes and make them real by ensuring that they are articulated and teachable, and not just vague, absorbed characteristics. In doing so, they are key to closing some of the demographic destination gaps which blight the sector.
More broadly, these forms of approach give students agency and a platform for participation, offering unique contributions to authenticity, belonging and community. And engaged learning also engages students beyond the university, offering unique ways of positioning the civic university, its relationships with communities and the value proposition it presents regionally, nationally and globally.
So let’s embrace our pioneers; let’s create platforms for them to engineer a new space in the UK sector for experiential learning, and help them to help us invest a new energy into our ambitions.
Mark is currently working to convene the Institute for Experiential and Skills-based Learning: a sector body bringing together senior leaders and leading practitioners, with an agenda of open collaboration to take forward experiential learning with impact. Register your interest here to be involved in the arrangements for a launch symposium.