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Experiential Education Provides Online Students with Valuable Benefits

Experiential Education Provides Online Students with Valuable Benefits

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By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University

Online students who juggle work, school and family life often overlook the many benefits that experiential education offers. Typically, these opportunities are voluntary and are not for academic credit.

At the college level, for example, experiential education focuses on learning by experience and observation. This involves everything from internships, student groups and study abroad opportunities to competitive activities like Model UNs, debating clubs and mock trial competitions.

Despite having limited time, online students should supplement their education by engaging in as many experiential experiences as possible to enrich their digital education.

Fortunately, students at American Public University have a host of student organizations and activities that provide the experiential learning experiences traditionally offered by brick-and-mortar universities. Moreover, digital universities like APU are increasingly adding new experiential learning methods to the digital classroom.

Earlier this November, some of our students participated in a mock trial competition hosted by Phi Alpha Delta and a Model United Nations conference hosted by the National Model United Nations. The students demonstrated their ability to transfer skills learned in a digital environment to live situations.

Benefits of Experiential Education

In the online classroom, students often focus on grades and their future career prospects. But experiential education focuses mostly on the process of learning for the sake of learning.

Another benefit is that experiential learning takes students outside their comfort zone and removes the threat of failure. Without the pressures associated with grading, experiential learning activities give students the freedom to experiment without the fear of failure.

For instance, some students struggle with public speaking or need work honing their social skills. They can use various experiential learning experiences, like competing in a mock trial or a Model UN, to work on those skills free of the fear of a poor grade affecting their GPA.

Likewise, taking a leadership role in one or more of the many student organizations, honor societies and professional organizations gives digital students the chance to assume responsibility for a small organization. At the same time, they learn conflict resolution skills and develop their leadership and social skills.

Experiential Education Supplements In-Class Learning

In the future, digital education will likely dominate the pedagogical landscape. For example, if someone wanted to learn how to drive a car, an instructor could spend many hours explaining the mechanics of the car’s engine and requiring the student driver to memorize the engine’s parts. The student might also learn the history of the automobile, create charts on the rules of the road or practice driving on a simulator.

However, millions of new drivers learn to drive by taking one of the most common experiential learning experiences, driver’s education. Students learn to drive by first learning the rules of the road in the classroom. Then, they spend hours behind the wheel under the supervision of a skilled professional instructor.

Likewise, online students supplement their learning by participating in a series of experiential experiences. APU provides students with an ample variety of such opportunities.  In the Legal Studies and International Affairs programs, for instance, experiential learning gives students a deeper understanding of the concepts they are studying in their class readings, assignments and discussions.

For example, reading about hearsay and its exceptions in a Legal Studies class could provide students with an understanding of this complex area of evidence law. However, observing a civil or criminal trial or participating in a mock trial competition can provide a deeper understanding of trial processes. That would include hearsay, its exceptions and how objections based on hearsay or other evidentiary rules are raised during the course of a trial.

Participation in a Model United Nations as a simulated representation of a country can give students insight into current events, the dynamics of foreign diplomacy and the activities of international organizations, all of which are subject matter explored in International Relations courses. These in-person experiences present unique challenges for digital universities, but the benefits for digital students, professors and their universities more than justify the time and effort.

Experiential Education Also Involves Internships and Study Abroad Experiences

Not all experiential methods are competitive in nature, however. For example, students can participate in short internships and study aboard programs to supplement their online learning.

EF Educational Tours provides opportunities for students studying history, politics, law or art on their spring or summer break to travel abroad on faculty-led or individual trips to supplement their digital learning.

In Washington D.C., the Osgood Center for International Studies offers a unique program that focuses on politics, foreign policy, journalism, public policy, and leadership skills.

The January 2019 Osgood Center seminar, “Continuity and Change in American Leadership 2019,” will explore the impact of the recent changes in political leadership in D.C. on the nature of American leadership. Digital students can participate in such internships and leadership forums during their vacation time.

Many organizations like the Osgood Center and EF Educational Tours can accommodate the busy schedules of working adults who may want to take advantage of these opportunities.

Differences between Traditional and Online Universities Are Changing

During the next decade, the distinction between brick-and-mortar universities and digital universities will further fade away as almost all brick-and-mortar universities will offer fully online degrees and blended courses. In the face of such competition, digital universities need to supplement their offerings with more experiential education experiences.

Such offerings will demonstrate to both digital students and to the outside world that the skills and knowledge learned in the digital classroom are transferable to various venues and institutions of higher education.

About the Author

James Barney is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James has several master’s degrees, including in American foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the APU faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club. James serves as the pre-law advisor at APU.

James has been admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and the District of Columbia. Over the past several years, he has served in various roles at debating and moot trial competitions in New York and Washington, D.C. In 2018, James coached the APUS mock trial team and was one of the faculty advisors for the school’s Model UN delegation to the National Model United Nations conference in Washington, D.C. in early November 2018.

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