Experiential Education is thriving in online environment

Student working at home having a video conference with colleagues

Experiential education (EE) is alive and well at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), despite the remote course delivery necessitated by the pandemic.

Both virtual classroom experiences and online work placements are going strong, and a boost from the Faculty’s Experiential Education Development Fund has lent a hand.

Students gather online through Zoom
Faculty members in Liberal Arts & Professional Studies are finding new and innovative wasy to offer virtual experiential education to students

The EE Development Fund, now in its second year, supports classroom, community or work-focused activities, such as guest speakers and online workshops (Stream 1). It also provides funding for virtual tours (Stream 2). LA&PS Dean JJ McMurtry has doubled the available funds for 2020-21, given the ubiquity of online courses, and as of Feb. 5, EE staff had reviewed more funding applications than they did in the entire 2019-20 academic year.

“With all learning going online, it’s a challenge to engage students and we need to think about how to keep EE interesting for students who spend a lot of time on screens,” said Melanie Belore, associate director of experiential education for LA&PS.

Faculty apply for funding for individual projects or tours, explaining how the activity will contribute to specific learning outcomes, and reflection must be included. The applications are screened and approved if deemed appropriate. Course directors can apply for $1,000 in Stream 1 funding per term and $3,000 in Stream 2 funding per academic year. The winter term application deadline is March 31 – or until the funds are exhausted.

“Faculty members are finding new and innovative ways to use the funds,” said Irene Seo, the Faculty’s EE co-ordinator.

Ryan James, an urban anthropologist and course director for Mapping the City, used the funds to provide the third-year students in this fall term course in critical cartography with a virtual seminar conducted by Philip Cote, a Young Spiritual Elder and Traditional Wisdom Keeper from the Moose Deer Point First Nation. Cote took students through a virtual tour of Toronto sites and the history associated with them, dating back millennia before the colonization of North America.

“He described sites in Toronto and deconstructed the current map as a colonial artifact,” James said. “Most people think maps depict reality and are simply for providing them with directions, but they are a product of history, politics and colonialism.”

James’ students wrote reflection pieces about the experience and submitted “a lot of exceptional work,” he said. “It was clearly very meaningful. Nothing is as good as visiting the sites in person, but it’s the best anyone could have done online. It was everything the literature says experiential education is about; it makes learning authentic and engaging.”

This term, James is teaching a course called Cities and Climate Change: The Challenge of Urban Resilience. He plans to incorporate an EE component in the form of group projects that improve Toronto’s response to this environmental threat.

“In the past, students have created a blog about sustainability and recipes using local native plants,” he said. “There has to be something practical in a course about climate change and I hope the EE activities will bring something hopeful to the table, given the gravity of the issue.”

Classroom learning isn’t the only aspect of EE that has successfully made the transition to the virtual world; work placement courses are also forging ahead, as Andrew Monti’s experience illustrates.

Monti directs a fourth-year workplace integrated learning course for the Department of Communications Studies that mirrors the experiences students will have in finding and applying for jobs after graduation; it also provides them with work experience relevant to their career goals. Students have the opportunity to work at a job for eight hours each week all year while doing relevant readings and reflecting on their experiences.

“They have the opportunity to apply the theory they have learned as they support an organization in its communications activities,” Monti said.

This year, of course, the majority of the work placements are virtual, and Monti lauds the LA&PS EE team for finding organizations eager to accept a student on board.

“The pivot to online placements has been challenging; 20 of last year’s organizations couldn’t host students this year, given pandemic restrictions and economic repercussions,” he said. “We had to rebuild our network of partner organizations and Irene Seo and the EE team did amazing work for us.”

He finds that online placements aren’t a perfect replacement for in-person opportunities, but they still provide valuable work experience for his students.

“Students participate in Zoom meetings and similar interactions, but it’s different than absorbing the workplace culture,” Monti said. “It’s harder to get questions answered – it’s more bureaucratized and less informal. My students have said it’s more cumbersome, but they appreciate being among the few of their peers who are working and still feel fortunate to be able to have the experience.”

Given that students today shouldn’t expect to have a single job for the rest of their lives, Monti said, it’s invaluable to see how individual organizations work.

“Once the course wraps up, they leave with a new entry on their resumes and one that is related to their area of interest. They are learning current communications practices and have an opportunity to determine if this is what they want to do or whether there’s another path they’d like to follow.”

Belore and Seo are delighted to see EE flourishing during this challenging period.

“Faculty members are making a real effort to bring the world into their classrooms,” Belore said, and Seo added, “The faculty are driving further innovation with different activities.”

With regard to placements, Seo noted, “There has been a lot of re-imagining what remote work looks like. The pandemic has shifted the sector’s thinking about the workforce and student opportunities to make contributions. For instance, students who live downtown can now work for firms in Aurora without any commuting concerns.”

Belore applauds all the effort that has gone into keeping EE successful.

“This demonstrates the collective resilience of our community,” she said. “It would have been easy to put EE on pause, but that’s not how the majority of our community members responded. Instead, they thought about how they could do things differently.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus