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Best Practices for Implementing Experiential Learning Opportunities Online

According to the research, experiential learning (EL) is an excellent way to build community and reduce isolation in the online classroom (University of Tennessee, n.d.). Although online EL does present some unique challenges, maintaining a focus on best practices will help ensure a successful EL experience for both faculty and students.

The National Society for Experiential Education (2013) created the following list of 8 principles of good practices for all experiential learning activities, regardless of the learning environment. Whether face-to-face or online, these principles can help facilitate a positive and constructive experience for your students. However, we’ve taken it a step further and included tips to help faculty implement each best practice in an online environment.

Students should understand why you chose this specific experience and what they will gain from participating in it.

Online Tips:

  • In your syllabus, provide a clear explanation of why you’ve chosen this type of experiential learning and how completing it online will enhance the course for your students and better prepare them for future classes and/or career opportunities.
  • Include learning objectives specifically related to completing this project in an online learning environment. Consider, for example, digital proficiencies or technical skills students are expected to gain.

Students need sufficient foundational knowledge before embarking on their experience and should have a feasible plan for achieving their goals while allowing for flexibility.

Online Tips:

  • To ensure clear expectations for students, faculty and learning partners, call or video conference any community partners or stakeholders before the class begins to make sure expectations for students, faculty, and partners are clear.
  • Contact students before the class begins and ask them what time zone they are in and what outside demands on their time will affect their ability to complete the experience.
  • Use the Discussions feature on Canvas to have students ask questions or raise concerns prior to beginning the experience. Encourage collaboration by having students respond to one another’s questions and concerns.

Students’ experiences must have real-world applications.

Online Tips:

  • Use breakout rooms in Zoom and have students brainstorm how this experience will better prepare them for an increasingly digital world.
  • Have students find an article, either popular or academic, that connects the course topic to their major, future career, or individual passion. Use Google Drive Collaborations to create a Google sheet with columns for students to write in the article topic, article title, 50-75 word summary, and web address. Have students review one another’s contributions.
  • Use Zoom to bring in guest lecturers who are subject experts.

Students should reflect on their experiences and what they are learning throughout the course to help deepen and internalize knowledge.

Online Tips:

  • Use Canvas Discussions or in a Google doc for students to keep an online journal. Find more information in our reflection takeaway document.
  • Facilitate group reflections through Canvas Discussions or a Zoom meeting.
  • Provide opportunities for oral reflection by allowing students to create vlogs (video blogs) in Canvas Studio.
  • Use mind maps to help students formulate new ideas, solutions, and reflect on learned experiences. Coggle and MindMup are free mind-mapping tools.

Students should be equipped with the necessary context and skills required to complete the experience.

Online Tips:

  • Record a video tour of laboratories, community partner offices, or other important sites for students to view before they begin their experience.
  • Have students use Google Maps’ street view to take a virtual field trip to and explore the neighborhood around the experience site. Google Maps’ satellite view can also be useful for exploring fieldwork sites.
  • Invite learning partners to record introductory videos of themselves for students and have students use Canvas Studio to create video introductions of themselves for learning partners.

Students need a feedback loop aligned with learning objectives, and the experience should be flexible to permit change in response to that feedback.

Online Tips:

  • Provide timely, specific feedback on assignments and reflections via Canvas SpeedGrader.
  • Involve students in the feedback process by creating breakout rooms in Zoom or asynchronously through Canvas Discussions. Students can share their experiences, challenges, and successes in a small group setting and provide feedback and guidance for one another.

Assessment helps to refine the specific learning goals and objectives, while evaluation provides evidence about whether students have met the intended learning objectives.

Online Tips:

  • Have students make an ePortfolio through Canvas that brings together their activities, associated products, and reflections.
  • Make a rubric to measure student performance on activities and learning outcomes through Canvas Assignments.
  • Use Qualtrics or QuestionPro to develop questionnaires for students to provide feedback on their learning experience and other queries of interest.

Students will recognize their learning by reflecting on and sharing their accomplishments, and they can find closure by celebrating everyone involved in the experience.

     Online Tips:

  • Have students compose an oral thank you note via Canvas Studio and email the thank you notes to community partners or supervisors.
  • Use Zoom for students to give a presentation of their ePortfolio at a required or optional live class. Provide an asynchronous option for students to record a video presentation of their ePortfolio through Canvas Studio.

Beckem, J., & Watkins, M. (2012). Bringing life to learning: Immersive experiential learning simulations for online and blended courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(5), 61-70.

Dill, E., Fischer, K., McMurtie, B., & Supiano, B. (2020). As coronavirus spreads, the decision to move classes online is the first step. What comes next? The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lederman, D. (2018). Online education ascends. Inside Higher Ed.

National Society for Experiential Education. (2013). Eight principles of good practice for all experiential learning activities.

Strait, J., & Sauer, T. (2004). Constructing experiential learning for online courses: The birth of e-service. Educause Quarterly, 1, 62-65.

University of Tennessee, Teaching and Learning Innovation. (n.d.). Benefits of experience learning.