Most of the time, experiential learning is written off by institutions and educators before it’s even on the table for discussion. We typically hear excuses like:
- It’s not our responsibility to train students for corporate jobs,
- It’s too hard to find companies willing to participate,
- It’s complicated and burdensome to manage these projects,
- The companies expect too much of our students, and
- The students are lazy and don’t have the skills needed to succeed.
As an entrepreneur focused on overcoming these objections, I can tell you with certainty some are insurmountable. In fact, they indicate a fundamental difference of opinion on the purpose of higher education in the 21st century, the role of faculty in the student learning process, and the point of having students on-campus in the first place.
If, however, faculty within an institution are willing to be a student champion and fight for their best interests, gaining approval to implement an experiential learning curriculum is often just the tip of the iceberg. Even after you’ve gotten approval to implement these high-fidelity, high-stakes, complex learning experiences, there’s a very natural fear of failure that the engagement won’t go according to plan.
Although it may be hard to find, structure, launch, and manage industry-integrated projects as part of the student learning experience, in the end, there are no losers, only winners and learners.
In fact, just engaging with each other is a win for all parties. Before we dive deep into how these experiences benefit all parties in all cases, let’s explore who’s involved in these exciting public-private-partnership-based learning experiences:
- STUDENTS: The key players involved in executing these projects.
- EDUCATORS: The essential facilitator of the learning experience.
- INSTITUTIONS: The body that houses educators and their students.
- HOST ORGANIZATIONS: The third-party non-profit, startup, or corporate stakeholder willing to provide real-world context, intellectual property, and mentorship.
At its core, experiential education requires that all these parties are aligned when it comes to developing job-ready graduates, and that collaborating, in a carefully designed way, is beneficial to student personal and professional development. The dynamic between these key players empowers students to learn while delivering real outcomes to real third-party stakeholders with the help and guidance of faculty.
As the Founder of CapSource, a company that aims to make experiential learning easier to coordinate and scale for institutions, we wanted to shed some light on why we feel these engagements are always at least somewhat beneficial for all parties involved no matter what the project outcome.
But first, let’s explore why stakeholders often feel as though these engagements fail in the first place:
- Mismanaged Expectations: Companies expect too much of inexperienced students.
- Misaligned Goals: Companies, educators, and students don’t agree on a timeline and a common set of goals and deliverables for the engagement.
- Lack of Communication: It takes too long to get answers to questions and access to the key information and resources needed to make decisions.
- Lack of Mentorship: Students aren’t properly coached through synthesizing information and solving problems in the experiential environment
In an ideal world, none of these situations would happen, all stakeholders would be engaged and excited to collaborate throughout the whole project, the students would generate meaningful results, and everyone would ultimately walk away feeling like a winner. Realistically however, with untrained faculty, inexperienced students, and busy company leaders, it’s often impossible to avoid some if not all of these circumstances. That said, we are confident that if everyone goes into these situations aligned on expectations with their eyes wide open, everyone will be a winner in the end no matter what the project outcomes!
Now, let’s explore how each of the key stakeholders win (or at least learn) when it comes to experiential education collaborations…
How do STUDENTS win?
Well, that’s easy. Experiential learning engagements are essential, immersive, and transformative learning experiences that build students into better working professionals and global citizens upon graduation:
- They expose students to new industries, job roles, and business models
- They require students to understand the environment before trying to solve problems
- They encourage students to build relationships, develop interpersonal skills, and collaborate as a team
- They require that students get out of their comfort zone and solve problems that don’t have one correct answer
- They allow students to reference real experience in interviews and on their résumé and LinkedIn
Students are the clear winner, even if the project doesn’t go according to plan. At the very minimum, they’re walking away with real experience working as a team, collaborating with diverse stakeholders, and attempting to generate meaningful results. Even if their outcomes are lackluster, they’ve learned some hard lessons around the need to think critically, keep stakeholders engaged, communicate effectively, manage their time, and accept/deliver constructive feedback. All-in-all, students that have an opportunity to engage with industry through a project-based experiential learning engagement have an essential point of reference for what it’s like to work on complex challenges in a team dynamic, a crucial skill for all working professionals no matter the field.
How do EDUCATORS win?
Assuming educators are on-board with student outcomes like the ones listed above, experiential education should be a no-brainer. That said, for some faculty, collaborating with industry can often feel as the polar opposite of why they became educators to begin with. We hope they can see past the challenges associated with structuring and managing these engagements in the interest of student long-term success. In addition to student outcomes, there are also some core benefits for educators even if the engagements don’t go according to plan. These include:
- Staying up-to-date with industry trends and widely used best practices,
- Generating new industry contacts that can result in professional opportunities,
- Preparing for class and grading can often take less time compared to courses that include lectures, tests, and papers,
- Providing more context and application for academic research,
- Powering curiosity, lifelong learning, and personal/professional growth
The exciting thing about experiential learning is that it’s really a learning experience for the faculty as well. We have seen faculty personally pick up new tools and techniques by mentoring students as they navigate through complex projects that have no correct answer. Although high-fidelity learning can feel tough, it’s far more rewarding than the “rinse and repeat” style of education that comes from content-based curricula where the textbook and lecture are king and queen.
How do INSTITUTIONS win?
As the organization that houses these experiences, institutions can often feel as though they’re accepting a lot of risk in order to allow their students and faculty to collaborate with industry. That’s flawed thinking. Institutions should be a beacon of light and opportunity in the eyes of students, parents, lawmakers, and industry professionals. By putting institutions, their students, and faculty back into the mainstream, we’re empowering the longevity of the model by tying innovation to institutions and their community of endlessly curious, unadulterated young minds and facilitators. Beyond staying power, institutions are also always winning when it comes to experiential learning because:
- High performing programs can generate revenue from participating industry stakeholders
- These collaborations are meaningful, powerful, and novel way to engage alumni
- There are often additional opportunities to re-engage alumni as lifelong learners
- Students graduate more connected to each other, the institution, alumni, and industry
- It makes programs more marketable to the next generation of students
We know experiential education requires a careful restructuring of university goals and resources, but we hope this provides institutions with a little more confidence in their educators and the experiential learning model since it’s not essential that the students produce outcomes for external stakeholders in order to deliver meaningful project-based experiential learning programs.
How do HOST ORGANIZATIONS win?
Lastly, the final stakeholder to focus on is the third-party industry stakeholders involved in posing the project challenge, which typically includes corporates, startups, non-profits, government entities, and other hosts that are willing to sacrifice some of their time for the purposes of student learning. In the end, they’re the beneficiary of these engagements, because if successful, they are:
- Exposing next-gen creative thinkers to their complex real-world industry and challenges
- Acting responsibly as 21st century corporates, playing a role in educating the next generation
- Connecting and explaining their brand and value prop to the future consumer and workforce
- Directly and indirectly better qualifying and training talent for-hire
- Generating unique business insights in a fun, low maintenance, and often cost-freeway
My team at CapSource has been a key player in coordinating close to 200 different engagements over the past five semesters for educators and students at 50 different institutions around the globe with the help of 170+ different companies from small, early-stage pre-revenue startups and nonprofits through Fortune 50s.
We hope this article has enhanced your perspective on experiential learning and why it is a winning situation for all parties. We are confident that the future of higher learning will require a blend of theoretical and experiential learning in order to produce the most qualified and powerful global citizens and we hope we’ve been able to shed light on why we feel everyone’s a winner (or at least a learner) when it comes to experiential education.
If you’re interested in exploring ways to best ensure you are set up for success if engaging in experiential learning in the future, I suggest you check out these articles we’ve written that focus on preparing different stakeholders for industry-integrated project-based experiential learning engagements:
- Ensure everyone on the same page by using a project charter, which serves as the learning contract or syllabus
- Prepare companies for the experience
- Prepare students for the experience