Harvey P. Weingarten – Experiential education: Let there be evidence

Harvey P. Weingarten
Harvey P. Weingarten, President & CEO

The Business Council of Canada has added its voice to the now ubiquitous call for the expansion of postsecondary experiential education. The general direction and intent of the recommendations are sound, although we worry about the capacity to find meaningful experiential education opportunities for all students.  HEQCO and others have long argued the benefits of work-integrated learning to meet the demands of both a complex world and the modern workplace.

But while the Business Council’s recommendations are bold, lofty and appropriate, I cannot shake some thoughts (some of them cynical) when I imagine how the recommendations might play out.

First, because of the stature and profile of the Business Council and its membership, and the apparent widespread concern about the skills gap and its consequences on the Canadian economy, I have little doubt that governments and institutions will rally behind the recommendations.

Second, institutions will point out that experiential education programs are expensive (and they are), so they will petition government or the private sector for additional funding or seek to charge additional fees to students in these programs.  Governments, because of the perceived significance of this issue, will pony up.  So will the private sector, but there will be complaints that they are not contributing enough.  Students, because of the presumed value of these programs, will also be prepared to pay more.

Third, postsecondary institutions will fall all over themselves greatly expanding whatever experiential programs they now offer and developing new ones.  Many different programs will now be labelled as experiential education or as having an experiential component.   The rhetoric over the importance of experiential education and job skills will continue.  The postsecondary sector will tout the dramatic increase in the number of students taking experiential learning opportunities.  However, very few institutions will actually evaluate whether these programs result in the desired outcomes.  Ontario’s recent history of a proliferation of entrepreneurship programs provides a stellar example of this phenomenon.

Fourth, the media will profile students whose experiential education in the workplace consists of buying coffee or photo copying, prompting concerns about whether experiential education really is the panacea for all that ails postsecondary education.

How can we can increase the probability that the Business Council of Canada’s recommendations will be successfully implemented and actually result in the outcomes motivating their promotion.

  1. Business can be a little more articulate about the skills they expect to be fostered or acquired as a result of an experiential education experience. The Business Council suggests many:  students that are more innovative, more technologically proficient, more adept at working in teams, etc.  I’m not sure we can do all.  Which are most important?
  2. Let’s identify in advance how we will measure the skills we expect experiential education to foster or develop.
  3. As the Business Council suggests, let’s be sure to incorporate best practice when developing experiential learning opportunities. The benefits do not come solely from spending time in a workplace.  Rather, there are a number of pre- and post-workplace academic experiences and practices that maximize the benefit of a work placement.

Finally, and most importantly,  let’s be sure to evaluate whether the experiential education students get actually leads to the development or acquisition of the skills we, and they, want as a result of the experience.

Experiential education is a good thing.  No doubt institutions will foster an endless number of programs, of different character, nature and duration that rightfully can fall under the rubric of experiential learning.  Let a thousand flowers bloom.  Some blooms will bear beautiful fruit.  Some will look pretty but have little value.  Some blooms are poisonous.

We hear endlessly about the importance of evidence-based decision making.  The call for more experiential learning offers a terrific opportunity for its application.  Surely, evidence, data and evaluation should be used to determine how well different experiential education opportunities are working.  Those that produce the best results should be deemed best practice and disseminated.  Those that are less effective should be acknowledged as having given it the old college try but then amended to provide better results.  We learn from failures.  The essential element, though, is to evaluate whether the things we are doing result in the outcomes we want.  Applying the lens of evidence and evaluation in higher education is a no brainer.  If it cannot be applied in this sector, in what other public sector do we expect it to be used?

Thanks for reading.

Harvey P. Weingarten is president and CEO of HEQCO.

3 replies on “Harvey P. Weingarten – Experiential education: Let there be evidence”

Experiential education is not a new idea in Canadian post-secondary education. Experiential education has been a defining characteristic of college programs since their founding. Colleges are experts at this form of education, and they do it with less funding than universities get for conventional academic education. The most efficient and economical way of increasing experiential education in Ontario would be to allow and support an increase in the number of baccalaureate programs offered by the colleges. This would be a more sensible approach than trying to get universities to do less of what they are excellent at doing (what Flexner said “they and only they” can do), so that they can do more of what they have neither experience nor interest in doing.

Every student that enters into post-secondary education seeks a job when they graduate. The reality of work is far better learned while in school versus once they graduate. I am the Manager of a Co-op/Internship program at the University of Regina and I can tell you, our students find employment upon graduation much easier than those who choose not to participate, regardless of their respective work term experience. The reality of work, the bridge between academia and the work world, is an experience best discovered early in a student’s chosen degree path.

Experiential learning is indeed important. Ask college students and many will answer that the “hands-on” aspect of education — which takes many forms — is something they very much value. At the same time, they also value interaction — with other students and particularly with professors. We need to invest in experiential learning, but if we do so at the expense of this aspect of education, we might find that we gain in one respect but lose in another. To the “let there be evidence” call, we should add “let there be balance” in how we design education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *