Innovations In Experiential Learning

Innovations In Experiential Learning

As schools moved their courses online in March 2020, students waged protests, signed petitions, and filed lawsuits against universities. In essence, they were asking two central questions: “Why am I paying all this tuition if I’m not on campus?” and “What am I getting for my money if all my courses are online?”

But people were asking similar questions even prior to COVID. In 2018, Lawrence Bacow, then the newly appointed president of Harvard, expressed dismay at this trend in his inaugural address.  “For the first time in my lifetime, people are actually questioning the value of sending a child to college,” he said. “For the first time in my lifetime, people are expressing doubts about whether colleges and universities are even good for the nation.”

So, what unique value do universities provide? Increasingly, we are coming to a somewhat unlikely answer: experiential learning. From consulting projects and immersions to capstone courses and action learning labs, experiential learning gives students opportunities to apply what they learn to real-world problems faced by real organizations. In the process, students gain valuable “human” skills such as problem-solving, relationship management, conflict resolution, and creativity—whether they’re learning in virtual or face-to-face formats.

Experiential learning has long been part of business education, but the coronavirus has put a spotlight on its true value. To demonstrate to students the true value of higher education, schools must embed experiential learning more deeply into their programs.


The old adage says, “Experience is the best teacher.” But having an experience is not the same as learning from it. To see real benefit, our students must engage in applied learning, through what we call “coached experience.” Universities and faculty are uniquely positioned to add value to students by providing them with opportunities to learn to interpret and apply their knowledge.

And yet, research shows that students lack these opportunities. According to the Pew Research Center, incoming freshmen have less work experience than those in any other generation in the last 70 years; and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that fewer teenagers are getting jobs than ever before. Once students graduate college, many of them overestimate their preparedness for work. For example, 89 percent of students surveyed rated themselves as proficient in professionalism and work ethic, while only 42 percent of employers who hired them felt the same.

That’s why Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has invested heavily in experiential learning. Each year, 2,000 of our students work on real-world projects arranged through our Magelli Office of Experiential Learning. For example, this fall, in our Business 301 course, 65 undergraduates completed projects for companies; we plan to scale this offering to all 900 undergraduates next academic year.

We also have Illinois Business Consulting (IBC), our student-run professionally managed consulting organization that serves for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Each year, 350 students representing 40 disciplines across campus are selected from 1,000 applicants to participate in IBC. Then there’s our online iMBA in which approximately 400 student teams participate in experiential projects, many for their own employers.


Prior to March 2020, we had planned seven to eight immersion experiences for our iMBA program in locations such as Ireland, Brazil, Germany, Los Angeles, and New York City. COVID forced us to cancel all of them. Companies in our fee-based program canceled or postponed projects, putting a strain on our staff and operations.

In response, in October, we held our first virtual Brazil immersion experience for our iMBA students. We lengthened the time of the immersion from one week to three weeks. With the help of our partner Campus B—a company based in São Paulo, Brazil, that helps schools facilitate international internship experiences for students—we matched 31 iMBA students with 15 students located in cities throughout Brazil.

Each team included approximately four iMBA students and two Brazilian students; they communicated through Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp. As a member of the faculty at Gies, I led class discussions and reflection; taught problem-solving, teamwork, and presentation skills; and graded coursework. Ronaldo Nagai, a professor who teaches in São Paulo at Universidade de Guarulhos and Fundação Instituto de Administração, created several videos that familiarized students with Brazilian business, economics, politics, and consumer trends; conducted a Q&A session with our teams; and took students on a virtual, real-time tour of a Brazilian retail company.

Freed from time constraints, our teams were able to meet almost daily; they shared memes, music, and articles over WhatsApp. Our students even met virtually with a Brazilian chef to cook a Brazilian dish in their own kitchens. Through these activities, they formed stronger relationships than they would have been able to during a shorter in-country visit—in some ways having a more immersive experience.

Virtual interactions enable us to overcome time and cost barriers, which will allow us to scale our experiential learning opportunities to reach more students—including those who otherwise would not be able to take time off work or afford a weeklong trip to Brazil. We plan to roll out more virtual project-based experiences in both our residential and online programs. These will likely be two to four weeks long and will be coupled with cultural immersions that match our students with students in each international location.


Before the pandemic, we viewed mentorship as something best done via face-to-face interactions. In a normal year, we would use about 15 trained mentors to provide guidance and feedback to students in our residential programs.

However, these last few months have shown us that mentoring can work just as well virtually. As people become more comfortable working virtually, we will be able to source a larger number of project mentors from our pool of 4,000 online graduate students. We predict that we will need 100 to 200 mentors per year to scale the model for our online programs, with each mentor working with two to three teams at a time. It’s a model that will allow for what we call mass personalized learning.

An internal study showed us that the most successful mentors were those who previously had a similar project-based learning experience. For that reason, the only students who are eligible to be mentors in our residential and online programs are those who have gone through our action learning programs.

In addition, all our student and alumni mentors must take our Project Management in Action course, where they learn principles of leadership, mentoring, and project management. This course not only helps standardize the student experience across programs but also provides mentors with a cohort experience during which they can share ideas and even workloads when needed. Starting in the fall of 2021, mentors who complete the course also will earn a certificate in project management, which they can stack onto other Gies programs.


As we converted our project-based programs to a virtual format, we found that the benefits outweighed the challenges in many areas:

Building relationships. It can be more difficult for faculty and students to build strong interpersonal relationships in virtual settings. We must spend more time managing misunderstandings, lack of engagement, and conflict, and we have become more intentional about deepening relationships online.

We now spend more time at the beginning of each class in casual conversation, so that we can connect with students on more personal levels. We also encourage students to spend time, both during and outside their team meetings, participating in ice-breaker activities or briefly discussing topics such as their personal lives or other courses. These efforts seem to help.

Making more of class time. In our Zoom-filled world, we have learned that no one wants to attend classes, training sessions, or meetings just to be “talked at.” So, we are doing more to flip our classrooms by providing more supplementary materials ahead of time and requiring students to come to class prepared to participate in discussions and hands-on activities.

Using virtual and face-to-face time more effectively. Through our move to online learning, we have found instances where virtual formats have an advantage over our physical classroom. For example, in many cases, students can focus on their group work more effectively in Zoom breakout rooms than they can in physical classrooms where seven or eight other teams are working at the same time. As we shift such activities to virtual spaces, we will be able to free up our physical classroom spaces—which over time could allow us to increase our enrollments.

Avoiding communication overload. In an all-virtual world, students are receiving more electronic communication, across more channels, than ever before. They might finish their team meetings only to continue to chat via text or on platforms such as Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Slack, and Zoom. This reality creates a vicious cycle: As people become overloaded with communication, they miss important information. To compensate, we send more reminders and messages, which leads to more communication overload.

To interrupt this cycle, we have streamlined the number of platforms we use. We have simplified our messages, and we take time in each virtual meeting to review the schedule, go over upcoming deadlines, and ask if anyone requires clarification.

Devoting more time to preparation and coordination. To better manage the challenges above, we must make sure our syllabi, class schedules, and project deliverables are clearly defined and presented as comprehensively and yet as simple as possible. We not only prepare and distribute supporting materials ahead of time but also schedule more meetings among faculty and staff to make sure we are on the same page. This preparation takes extra time and effort, but it has had a positive impact on our courses.


Conducting our experiential learning projects during COVID has helped open our eyes to ways of “learning by doing” that we previously had not thought possible. We believe that the post-COVID future of higher education will be a blend of online learning, hands-on learning projects, group discussions, and coached experiences that will add value to our students and help us engage with our alumni in meaningful ways.

Experiential learning will no longer be simply a “feature” of business programs, but the common thread that integrates all courses into a holistic learning journey for students. Students who undergo this type of transformational experience will not question if it was worth the cost of their tuition. And universities that provide enriching experiential learning opportunities will remain valuable for decades to come.

Read more about Gies on our Partner Publisher page.

Andrew Allen is the director of the Magelli Office of Experiential Learning at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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