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Experiential learning in a digital world

Children learning through experiment

Experiential learning is what we do as humans. It happens for most of us in some form nearly every day: learning by doing.

But what relevance does this hands on, very practical way of learning have in the ever evolving digital world?

A tried and tested method…

Often referred to as learning through discovery, relevant practice or by action, the concept of experiential learning has been around for centuries. Even Aristotle refers to the principle of humans acquiring knowledge through the experience of doing.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them…”

Fast forward to the twentieth century and John Dewey in his book Experience and Education (1938), was one of the first modern scholars to really focus on how human beings learn through a ‘hands-on’ approach. Dewey embraced the idea of pragmatism in education, believing that constructive engagement with reality would naturally inspire learning:

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

The experiential learning cycle

However, the most influential thinker on experiential learning is David Kolb. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (1984) still stands as the go to reference point on how this type of learning works.

The cycle basically involves four stages, namely: concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation.

Effective learning can be seen when the learner progresses through the cycle. The learner can also enter the cycle at any stage if the approach is logical.

Kolbs learning cycle

The importance of process

Process is at least as important as content in experiential learning. It provides the vehicle that allows for effective design and implementation. Charles Jennings, co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute sums it up this way:

“Think experience, practice and sharing rather than content, content, content.”

Experiential learning has taken many forms over the years, from apprenticeships, to field work, studying abroad and clinical simulations. All these approaches not only offer a more immersive, relevant experience for the learner but also provide an opportunity for empowerment.

The learner is given the responsibility to ‘do, reflect, analyse and evaluate’. The emphasis should always be on being proactive in problem-solving, encouraging critical thinking and responding to challenges as they arise.

Experiential learning online

Taking experiential learning online hasn’t been a seamless journey. At first glance there seems to be an inherent contradiction between practical, ’real world’ learning and learning in the digital space.

The static content of the early years of elearning seemed a world away from the hands on experiential approach. Critics doubted that it was even possible to bring experiential learning into this brave new world.

However, as technology has evolved and learning design has become more creative, experiential learning has begun to find its digital feet. It’s a question of choosing the right tools for the right job.

For those seeking to strengthen their experiential learning offer online, there are some simple questions to ask: how is what we are creating adapted and implemented to meet the real-world learning needs? Are we making the content and learning outcomes as realistic as possible? Are we offering repeated attempts, ongoing support and feedback to draw in all four stages of Kolb’s learning process?

The best experiences are said to ‘engage the total individual’, connecting with them intellectually, socially, emotionally and/or physically.’

Some practical examples

There are numerous contexts in which experiential learning can be brought online to support curriculum learning objectives and an overall learning strategy.

From exercises conducted by the emergency services, to healthcare simulations and corporate sales training scenarios, there are well trodden paths where the benefits of learning by doing are established and accepted.

Take complex risk-related training – anything from prison riots, to disaster response and the ‘hostile environment awareness training’ conducted by NGOs and international journalists. This type of learning can be highly expensive and logistically challenging to deliver.

By replicating the core principles of established exercises in a digital space, there is the chance to cost-effectively scale learning – reaching more people, creating a more standardised approach and even improving on data capture and feedback for both learners and organisations. Tools like interactive video and VR are making it possible.

Learners can potentially have much more scope to experience ‘safe failure’ and repeat an exercise or scenario that, in real-world training, is likely to be a one shot deal. And, importantly, if needed, digital learning can still be combined with additional face to face training to provide a blended approach. Again, it’s all about matching the right tools to designing the learning that will work best.

Over recent years we’ve seen learning projects such as AARP’s You’ve Been Hacked and the Resuscitation Council’s Lifesaver project deliver meaningful online experiences in fields such as cyber security and healthcare. Here at Near-Life we’ve been actively involved in working with the UK’s International Search and Rescue team on a platform called Resilience Academy, that has been focused on bringing complex, immersive scenarios to support learning for international responders.

Add a little gamification

Bringing in gamification elements such as time pressure, interactive choices, dramatic storytelling and jeopardy, can really enhance the learning experience. Research from MIT and others has shown that this type of approach not only makes learning more enjoyable but it also improves knowledge retention.

Additionally, receiving instant feedback in an experiential game can help learners feel invested in their own progress, further improving participation and interest.

Interest in the potential of gamification has continued to grow over the past decade and we’re sure to see even greater cross-fertilisation between this area and experiential learning as the field evolves.

Measuring outcomes

So how can experiential learning in the digital world help improve measurement? It’s often seen as an Achilles heel for this type of learning that, especially in group exercises, it’s hard to give individual or tailored feedback. Using a digital approach can actually help.

Most learning professionals, at some point, have come across the Kirkpatrick Model. It has been regarded as a benchmark for analysing and evaluating the results of training effectiveness for over half a century.

Kirkpatricks model of evaluation

Based on our own experiences at Near-Life and some of the research that’s been carried out in this space, these are some very practical examples of how you can look to address the four levels of the Kirkpatrick model: tracking responses, developing pass or fail gateways to progress, tailoring feedback according to the choices made.

The more data you can gather the better – and the more accurate and interesting the analysis that can be carried out.

A learning experience

This is an incredible time to be involved in the learning technology space. New avenues are constantly opening that are bringing innovative ways to adapt tried and trusted methods.

We are, of course, learning all the time. We know that we learn by doing and we know that, with technology, the scope of how we can apply this simple truism is constantly evolving.

With the growth of VR, augmented reality and AI, the future of learning will really be something to behold. And experience.

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