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Online experiential learning: Engaging students through real and virtual activities

June 02, 2016

By Wayne A. Nelson, Ed. D.

Online experiential learning: Engaging students through real and virtual activities

Wayne A. Nelson, Ed. D.
University Fellow for Online Learning and
Coordinator of Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Experiential learning happens when students are engaged in direct experiences and focused reflections within real-world settings and contexts. Also known as learning through action, learning by doing, or learning through discovery, experiential learning can be an important pedagogical tool in online courses. There are many types of experiential learning employed in higher education, including clinical experiences, fellowships, field work, internships, student teaching, study abroad, and service learning. Regardless of type, experiential learning activities must be integrated within the course so that the experience is relevant, students understand why they are doing something, students are reflecting on what is happening, and the instructor delegates authority to the students in order to empower their learning. The focus on problem solving and critical thinking that is a hallmark of these kinds of experiential learning challenges students to go beyond mere memorization and rote learning that often happens in lecture-based, textbook-dependent courses.

Experiential learning is not a new concept in education, having been originally popularized by John Dewey in his book Experience and Education (1938). Kolb (1984) expanded on notions of learning through experiences in describing an experiential learning cycle that moved from concrete experience, through observed experience, to the formation of abstract concepts, and culminating in testing in new situations. Process is as important as content in experiential learning. Content may vary across individual learners, but the learning process should require activities that are carefully chosen and supported by synthesis, critical analysis, and reflection. The best experiences engage the total individual (intellectually, socially, emotionally and/or physically). Learning should be personal, relevant, and meaningful for each student, and students should take the initiative to guide their own learning. They will learn from consequences and mistakes as well as successes. Instruction in experiential learning involves setting contexts for students, posing problems, and supporting students by facilitating their activities.

Why online?

Enrollment in online courses is increasing for a variety of reasons. The vast majority of courses are designed as lecture/reading/discussion courses, but online students still need concrete experiences even though they cannot complete traditional on-campus experiences. Online experiential learning can encourage pedagogies that are more engaging for students. But the instructor must utilize course management software in ways that effectively support student engagement in the learning process and with others in the course.

Good designs for online experiential learning provides hands-on, collaborative, and reflection experiences that are best structured to follow these five steps:

1)      Exploring or Doing

2)      Sharing and Reflecting (“what happened?”)

3)      Processing and analyzing (“what’s important?”)

4)      Generalizing (“so what?”)

5)      Applying (“now what?”)

Implementation of this structure could feature a variety of combinations for experience and interaction with the instructor and fellow students. Interaction could occur on site or online, or experiences could occur on site or online. It is also possible to arrange the course so that interaction and experience all occur online, or both occur partially online.

Several examples of experiential learning using online tools are being implemented at SIUE. For example, the Instructional Technology master’s program requires students to complete “design studio” courses where they work with a client to solve instructional problems or build technology-based instructional materials. Several programs including Instructional Technology and Nursing utilize Blackboard tools as part of capstone project communications and student presentations following project completion. Sorin Nastasia in the Applied Communication Studies program has utilized online tools to support study abroad activities for students, including Web-based communication with clients and between instructor and students. There are many other instances of online experiential learning that exist at SIUE. Please let us know about other examples of experiential learning by adding a comment at the bottom of this blog.

Assessment of Experiential Learning

The assessment of online experiential activities presents a unique problem because process is as important as the final outcomes. This requires specification of separate learning outcomes and criteria. Online experiential learning activities can have great variability between students, making assessment difficult because students are learning different things in different ways. Another difficulty when developing assessments involves the variability of experiential activities. Because students are working on different projects or participating in different external activities, they can’t all be expected to learn the same things, and each student may take away something different from his or her experience. Beyond the variability of activities, there is also the variability amongst the different students.

There are many ways to assess learning that results from experiential activities using online tools and communication strategies, however. For example, students can keep online journals or create a portfolio of their activities and associated products. Reflection on critical incidents can be shared with the instructor and other students. Writing activities can be assigned, including book reviews of a book related to the experience, reports of activities and outcomes, written analyses of the ways that course concepts are applied in the field, a newspaper article explaining something encountered in the setting, or a recommendation for improving some element of the observed practices. Oral reports and interviews of the student can be completed, along with surveys and questionnaires about learning activities.

Experiential learning, whether online or in traditional courses, has the potential for positive effects on student learning and engagement. Difficulties incorporating experiential learning activities in online course settings can be addressed in many ways. If you are interested in finding ways to design and organize experiential learning activities in your courses, contact the Instructional Design and Learning Technologies group at


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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