Today, universities across the country are increasingly featuring experiential learning in their undergraduate degree programs. The learning style, which aims to better prepare students for the world of work, requires provinces, learning institutions, professional fields and students to take more of a skills-focused approach to the typical four-year degree.
“We’re seeing more attention on this type of learning among all the provinces and territories we work with,” says Tricia Williams, director of research, evaluation and knowledge mobilization at Future Skills Centre, an independent research centre housed at Toronto Metropolitan University. The centre focuses on the future of work and runs more than 200 pilot programs that engage government and learning institutions, many of which include an experiential learning component.
“We just wrapped a project with McMaster University in Hamilton where they looked at how social science and humanities graduates can create more innovation in the social sector with experiential learning. We tend to think about this type of training in relation to specific industries, like tech, but we also need to think of this when we’re addressing homelessness and other social issues,” Ms. Williams says.
The aim to build experiential learning into degree programs outside learning disciplines in the sciences and technology, which often have well-established practical requirements, comes as waves of students request better access to practical experience during their university careers.
“Students have been asking for it for a while now. Schools across the world are far more responsive to student wants as the market is competitive. We want to make sure that students are getting the experience they’re looking for,” says David Hornsby, associate vice-president of teaching and learning at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Experiential learning is not new. The practice of furnishing students and workers with skills-based complements to theory-based course work can be traced back to the early days of formalized education. The most recent iteration of the approach was popularized in the 1970s by educational theorist David A. Kolb, who led efforts to build links between experiential learning and professional development.
Kolb’s model hinged on knowledge, application and reflection as three critical components to programs where students are able to build connections between information, actors in an environment and how they fit into the world at large.
“We’ve been doing it in various forms since we were founded. Most universities have,” says Mr. Hornsby.
“What I think you’re seeing in the last 10 years is an explicit focus on integrating it across our institutions in Ontario, and more broadly, across Canada. As of 2016, it’s expected that every degree we offer has an experiential component, so we’re in a big moment of prioritization – and that’s good, because we know from academic literature that it is effective in getting students to understand a discipline.”
Ontario’s Ministry of Education unrolled a strategic mandate that holds Carleton, and other higher education institutions in the province, responsible for creating educational programs that are better aligned with labour markets by 2025. Experiential learning is listed as a key part of the strategy for ensuring graduates are equipped with job skills.
Experiences can vary, from traditional internships to coursework involving simulations. For example, public policy students might mimic a major global summit such as the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference. Students would participate in similar proceedings, preparing for the realities of moving through these unique environments effectively, says Mr. Hornsby.
Other experiential learning efforts are quite intuitive. “It could be having fine art students create physical objects instead of only learning theory,” Mr. Hornsby explains.
The focus on hands-on experience also provides students with the chance to build industry connections that can help them once they graduate. On a larger scale, these connections build stronger affiliations between learning institutions and industries looking for labour – a move that strengthens the pipeline between a university and various job markets.
Elisabeth Rees-Johnstone, executive director of continuing education and professional learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says this industry-institution connection is an essential element of creating educational experiences that reflect current labour market needs.
“From an education standpoint, research in this area shows five years is the shelf life of a given skill, so as educators we can’t let our foot off the gas with keeping up our skills, and then employers and employees need to be prepared to continue re-skilling throughout a person’s time in the work force,” Ms. Rees-Johnstone says.
“The articulation of what industry is looking for can quickly shift. We may not know where the industry is going, but if we can create a pipeline of people who will pivot and are committed to lifelong learning, then the job market can move to supplement enablers. This shouldn’t be only on the shoulders of the university. It needs to be in partnership with industry.”
To mitigate these challenges, experiential learning can be used to create what proponents call a lifelong learning mindset, where resilience and the expectation that skills will need to be upgraded throughout a person’s career is the result of the experiential learning process.
Ms. Rees-Johnstone considers experiential learning the scaffolding to a strong workplace transition. For students and guardians hoping for a stronger return on their investment in education – which averaged $6,580 per year in 2021, according to the Council of Ministries of Education, Canada – any steps away from historic patterns of requiring further training immediately after an undergraduate degree is an improvement.
“Parents obviously want their kids to be well educated, and to find opportunities for longevity of employment – a career. So there’s always the question of what they should study and where they should go,” says Ms. Rees-Johnstone. “The guiding advice may be to go where the learning is something that’s going to be of service over the lifetime, because learning can’t end at 24 years old.”