Using Experiential Learning in Online Courses

Students and instructor gathered around a computer in a chemistry lab
 Archeology dig with several studies working different parts of the site.
 A student in another country with a baby elephant.  Elephant has trunk draped over student's neck.
 Two students using a large tube to draw water from an artificial test pool.
 Instructor and several students measuring diameter of small tree in the forest.
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 Instructor and two students wearing  protective gear and looking at paperwork in a lab.
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 Four students sitting outside Armstrong Center at a cafe table discussing a group project.
 Botany class outside, gathered around a tree and doing an identification exercise.
 Group of students sitting outside painting pottery bowls.


The intersection of online learning and experiential learning is an intriguing curricular space for study and development. On the one hand, offering experiential learning to students in an online setting opens many opportunities for collaborative, community-focused learning that were largely reserved for their lecture-based course peers. It is congruent with the beliefs held by educators at many institutions that experiential learning is a key aspect of students' development as engaged, contributing citizens of their communities and the world at large. On the other hand, the proper execution of online experiential learning can fall victim not only to the difficulty of constructing projects suitable for online learners, but also to the added complication of the higher levels of academic dishonesty that tend to occur in an online environment.

Given these outwardly constraining factors, one might logically raise the question of whether or not online experiential learning is worthwhile in today's collegiate setting. The true issue is not whether or not to offer online experiential learning, but rather how to do it in a manner that is meaningful to the students yet largely free from issues of academic dishonesty and related concerns that can permeate all forms of online learning to a lesser or greater degree. There is nothing even close to a "one-size-fits-all" approach, but there are "watch-outs" to avoid and fundamental practices to use that if carefully followed, will generate a high-quality mutually beneficial learning experience.

What Does Work Well

While successful online experiential learning presents many challenges, there are fundamental practices to follow that can help ensure positive learning experience. Each item shown below, if applied correctly, can be highly beneficial.

  • All experiential learning project opportunities should be thoroughly developed and vetted by the instructor, ideally in close collaboration with the proposed community partner. This is an important principle for successful experiential learning in all situations, but it is particularly true for online experiential learning where linkages between students and their community partners may be harder to manage. Community partners should be made aware that they will be working with online students if they choose to participate in a project and the potential difficulties in scheduling "in person" contact time with online students should be explained - not to scare away community partners, but rather to be realistic about students' availability.
  • Students should be presented with a reasonable variety of experiential learning projects and afforded the opportunity to select something that fits their interests and scheduling constraints in the best manner possible. While it is true that having multiple experiential learning projects ready to go places an extra preparatory burden on the instructor, the end result of having online learners actively involved in projects that they have a choice in selecting substantially reduces the day-to-day stress and workload of managing students in project settings that are not amenable to their needs. To be clear, this is not to advocate setting up an unusually large number of concurrent projects, but there is value in offering, for example, three to four options, if feasible, so that students have a reasonable decision set from which to choose.
  • Offer an "off-site" experiential learning option. If realistic to the course situation, it can be helpful to develop an experiential learning project that does not require an online student to physically travel to a certain site to work with a community partner. For students living out of the immediate areas, students with severely inflexible work schedules, and/or disabled students that may find it virtually impossible to commute to any kind of community site, such options can mean the difference between being able to complete an experiential learning course at all and having to otherwise alter their academic plans.
  • Send details on the available experiential learning projects before the course begins. Especially in situations where students are permitted to select between several different experiential learning opportunities, there is merit in explaining the experiential learning process and the available choices a week or two before the course begins. Course rosters are typically available prior to the date that the course opens, so an explanatory e-mail from the instructor is a great way to broach the topic of experiential learning and begin to get students thinking about what they would like to do. This is especially helpful in online courses where nearly all communications are electronic and students do not have the opportunity to listen to an experiential learning project presentation by the instructor. Experience has shown that students frequently will correspond with the instructor ahead of the actual opening of the course to make their experiential learning selections and obtain answers to any procedural questions that they may have.
  • Be willing to monitor progress frequently, but unobtrusively. Experiential learning is a complex process and it is one that many students will be somewhat uncomfortable with at the initiation of a project. Some will view it as simply "putting in my hours" akin to a more conventional volunteer assignment that they may have had in another course. Similarly, some community partners new to the experiential learning process may see student participants as "pairs of hands" rather than partners in solving important problems. Both situations are easier to address if identified early and that requires diligence on the part of the instructor to stay in communication with both students and community partners. Often, a bit of "coaching" will be needed on both sides to make sure that everyone is focused on goals and staying in alignment as the project move ahead. The time required, especially if initiated early in the project, will be well spent and will help to ensure not only the best learning outcome for the students involved, but also a highly satisfied community partner willing to participate again in the future.

What Does Not Work Well

The list of "watch-outs" in online experiential learning tends to be fairly short, but each bullet point below represents a possible source of difficulty.

  • Attempting to have one experiential learning project for all members of an online course section to perform concurrently. Students enroll in online courses for many reasons, but having the flexibility of time and/or place to complete all aspects of their studies tends to be critical. Requiring all students to coordinate their schedules to perform project activities together could have a significant impact on participation rates or even result in students dropping the course due to their inability to make a specific scheduling commitment.
  • Allowing students to develop and pursue individual experiential learning projects on their own. This approach is the diametric opposite of the one immediately above. While key criteria for projects can be developed and shared with students ahead of time, the project ideas generated are not universally acceptable. Often, students select community partners based on what maybe convenient and do not focus their energy on selecting a situation amenable to true, collaborative experiential learning. This approach even in the presence of great project ideas, is a huge logistical challenge for the instructor to manage. In a course of even modest enrollment, managing multiple experiential learning opportunities at the same time can become a full-time job.
  • Involving family, friends, and coworkers or supervisors. For best success, students involved in experiential learning projects must be able to view them, participate in them, and respond to challenges that occur within them using a relatively unfiltered lens. Working with an organization where the student has prior personal relationships (friends and family) or work obligations (coworkers and supervisors) can provide inappropriate influences on project directions and outcomes. The possibility of academic dishonesty situations arising also increases when students work for or with people that they know well.

Overcoming Inherent Challenges

The primary challenge to success in online experiential learning is the aforementioned issue of how to optimally connect learners with their experiential learning partners when the former are geographically dispersed and, in many cases, are working a full-time job while attending school. The space and time hurdles can be formidable to cross using any form of standard experiential learning approach. For example, creating projects that paired all students in a given course section with a community-based partner led to situations with scheduling meetings, scheduling actual work activities within the community, and overall difficulties in communications between all parties involved. Under circumstance of this type, satisfaction with both the process and the outcomes of an experiential learning effort was understandably low for students and for community partners. This was, in turn, frustrating for the instructor as well since leading any form of a detailed experiential learning effort requires substantial time investments at the planning stage and throughout the work. To end this effort with a dissatisfied community partner and/or students that believed their experiential learning time to be of little tangible value reflects poorly on the university despite the best efforts of all parties involved.

Allowing the pendulum to swing fully to the other side of its arc, namely by giving online students permission and freedom to design their own experiential learning projects from scratch proved equally problematic, but for very different reasons. Using this approach, even with carefully delineated instructions, online students had the tendency to seek out opportunities that aligned solely with their personal interests and/or were easy to set up and manage because they involved working with friends, family members, associates at their current places of employment, etc. This is not totally unexpected since the students were being exposed to experiential learning theory and practice for the first time and did not necessarily grasp the true meaning of partnering with community organizations to identify and work on issues of importance to the greater good of the community as a whole.

Within the senior-level leadership course used as an example here, the experiential learning project accounts for approximately 25% of the students' grades. It is structured to take place across the academic term as a whole, beginning with a brief statement of understanding between the student and the community partner and ending with the student submitting a final report to the community partner in exchange for the partner's evaluation of the success of the project. After some initial experimentation, the author settled on offering a slate of four different experiential learning opportunities each time that the course is taught, with one of the opportunities always being an option that could be completed entirely over the Internet - in alignment with the bulleted criteria previously discussed. In the current iteration of the course, the following community partners and projects are in play.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Experiential learning is a viable educational process for online learning situations, just as it is in traditional lecture-based course settings. With proper care, attention to procedural details, and a little extra diligence to minimize the risk of academic dishonesty, online instructors can provide a high-quality, community-focused learning experience to their students that meets the same goals and objectives as typically are found in traditional lecture-based experiential learning courses. Due to the wide variability of schedules, locations and other factors affecting online learners, the availability of experiential learning projects that learners can complete individually and/or can complete via the Internet will help maximize student success.