Can Experiential Learning Be Applied To eLearning?

experiential learning

Experiential learning is a process that allows learners to develop knowledge and skills from their own experience rather than from formal training courses. Experiential learning encompasses a variety of interactive and participative hands-on activities and is much more effective than traditional learning approaches. This article is the first in a series about Experiential Learning. Check it out and learn some of the critical elements of Experiential Learning and the reasons why Experiential Learning is important.


What Is Experiential Learning?

Way back in 350 BCE, a Greek philosopher, thinker, mathematician, astrologer, historian and analyst, wrote: “…for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Even prior to that, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, wrote:

I hear and I forget
I see and I remember
I do, and I understand!

Based on that, one might say that Confucius and Aristotle actually planted the seeds of Experiential Learning as it is formally called today.

Until those fundamental principles of Experiential Learning were articulated and understood, learning environments were confined to didactic and rote styles, where learners had more of a passive role to play in their education.

Perhaps a more “modern” definition of what Experiential Learning is all about comes from The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The AACSB Task Force, in their 1989 report, defined Experiential Learning as a:

“…curriculum-related endeavor which is interactive (other than between teacher and pupil) and is characterized by variability and uncertainty”

5 Critical Εlements of Experiential Learning

If we carefully analyze the above definition, we can see there are several key elements that a curriculum must embrace for it to meet the criteria of being called “experiential”:

  1. Participative.
    Unlike one-way rote or didactic learning, Experiential Learning is all about participation and two-way learning experiences, where students and other stakeholders actively engage in learning experiences.
  2. Interactive.
    While most learning styles (even rote and didactic, one may argue) require interaction between teachers and students, Experiential Learning stresses other interactions as well – student-student, student-environment, and student-outsiders (clients, civic leaders, community members, etc.). In other words, Experiential Learning experiences take learners beyond the classroom, and ventures out into the real world.
  3. Multi-dimensional.
    Not only does Experiential Learning tap the behavioral dimensions of learners, but also their affective and cognitive dimensions.
  4. Variability and Uncertainty.
    While “rote based” students are unprepared to deal with anything other than the prescribed syllabus, Experiential Learning curriculum is deliberately structured to add uncertainty and variability into the learning environment. Under the teacher’s guidance, learners are taught to deal with situations that they are unfamiliar with.
  5. Feedback.
    Experiential Learning relies heavily on feedback loops, both from students about their experiences, and from teachers about their views of the process.

Why experiential learning is important

The world today is much more complex and integrated than that which produced legendary minds like Confucius and Aristotle. The pace at which environments and knowledge change is far greater than what we have witnessed before in history. The need for “outside the box” thinking, and thinking “on ones feet” is even more important today than it was historically.

The only way that learners (either in kindergarten, school, college or the workforce) can survive and thrive in a dynamic and constantly evolving environment, is by learning to quickly adapt to change. It is only through Experiential Learning characteristics that, when weaved into learning curricula, students will be better prepared to face the complexities of the modern world.

The 2 Schools of Experiential Learning Kolb and Experiential Learning

According to psychologist David Kolb, Experiential Learning is “…a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” This was a radical switch from previously held beliefs of cognitive theorists (emphasis on mental processes) and behavioral theorists (largely ignoring subjective experiences in learning).

Kolb believed that learning was a more holistic experience than simply a function of the cognitive or behavioral elements. In addition to these two, Kolb’s theory recognizes that other factors, including emotions and environmental conditions, greatly influence learning outcomes.

Kolb’s theory of Experiential Learning is based on four factors: Concrete Experience, Abstract Conceptualization, Reflective Observations, and Active Experimentation. According to Kolb, these 4 elements form a cycle or process through which learners are able to observe, understand, grasp, practice (experiment) and learn.

Carl Rogers and Experiential Learning

Psychologist Carl Rogers advocated his own theory of Experiential Learning, which is grounded in several core principles:

  1. Learning is accelerated when the student is interested in the subject matter
  2. Where the subject matter is perceived as threatening to the learner (e.g., the need to change his/her behavior or attitude about strongly held perceptions), learning is accelerated if external (threatening) factors are eliminated or reduced
  3. Learning that has been self-initiated by the learner will prove to be more effective than learning that’s forced, without a choice of the learner)

According to Rogers, there are two distinct types of learning: Significant (Experiential) and Meaningless (Cognitive). Rogers opined that true learning only takes place when there is a confrontation between personal, social or practical challenges and the learner and/or the subject matter being studied.

How Experiential Learning Works?

At its very basic level, Experiential Learning seeks to foster learning as a by-product of learners experiences. Students can read all the books about venturing into space, but it is only an Astronaut who has actually traveled into space and really knows what space travel is all about. You do things. You fail at them. You understand why you failed. Then, you experiment again…and succeed!

Experiential Learning works by designing curriculum seeking to:

  • Mimic (as closely as possible) real-world experiences
  • Structure and monitor those experiences
  • Ensure that there is planned and deliberate “deviation” from the base curriculum
  • Provide ample opportunity for hands-on doing, experimenting and simulation

Using all of these elements produces a powerful learning experience that cannot be replicated by rote or other styles of learning.

How Experiential Learning Can Be Applied To eLearning

So, is there any “real life” application to Experiential Learning, and can we apply eLearning principles to facilitate it? The answer is a definite “YES” to both questions. Given everything discussed above about Experiential Learning, here are two situations where eLearning and Experiential Learning can be combined:

  • Situation#1
    In days of yore, future physicians and surgeons relied on cadavers to hone their skills and practiced under the strict supervision of senior surgeons/tutors in a hospital or clinic. Today, we can design comprehensive eLearning programs to simulate all the skills and knowledge needed by medical practitioners in an operating room. Medical “complications” can be introduced into the setting, and students can be forced to interact with their environment, and think creatively to resolve the challenges posed.
  • Situation#2: 
    Learning complex concepts like Trigonometry, Algebra or Calculus is not very easy without extensive help, especially for adult learners. ELearning can change all that! By creating interactive learning content, and offering skills tests, online assignments, and quizzes, self-assessment modules, learners can experiment with multiple solutions while they understand the underlying principles of the subject.

In both of these situations, eLearning and Experiential Learning are a perfect fit.

ELearning does not require learners to be co-located with tutors. Learning can be performed at the student’s pace. Students learn by doing, failing, observing (videos, graphics, audio, etc.) and then practicing. A varying degree of variability and uncertainty can be introduced in course content. Students can pace their learning based on the skills they learned previously (using a modular approach). Learning happens in a structured manner, yet “uncertainty” is part of that structure. There is a comprehensive mechanism of monitoring, tracking, and feedback built using eLearning techniques.

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