Experiential learning gets provincial boost

Experiential learning at Western is getting a welcome boost from the provincial government, support officials said will strengthen an already strategic priority on campus.

In response to a proposal developed by Western administrators, the Ontario Ministry of Education has committed $450,000 per year, over two years, to fund the expansion of existing initiatives, as well as development of new opportunities surrounding experiential learning on and off campus.

“The major focus in the province right now is around experiential learning and we’ve got a number of initiatives at Western. It is definitely a priority for Western, and we’re responding to the priority placed on it by policy-makers, students and families. The big picture is to have a greater focus on the development of skills and being more explicit about skill development for our students,” said John Doerksen, Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) at Western.

Western will establish an experiential learning working group in the near future to consult with the campus community over the course of the next year on strategic direction, ensuring the university reduces any barriers for student participation, he explained.

The funding from the province will support already existing experiential learning and community engaged learning initiatives on campus, all widely available to Western undergraduate students now. The funding, however, will look to hone in on new areas and opportunities for graduate students, Doerksen added.

“We will aim to expand the number of paid internships available in the Social Sciences, Engineering and Science through this funding, and we will look to strengthen or increase the number of opportunities in curricular and co-curricular community engaged learning activities,” he noted, with a nod to the Community Engaged Learning (CEL) program.

Earlier this month, CEL, a program that integrates community service with a specific course curriculum at Western, was recognized with a 2017 Pillar Community Innovation Award in the category of Community Impact. The program integrates community service with a specific course curriculum and aims to help students strengthen their sense of civic responsibility and understanding of social justice, while giving them hands-on experiences to connect what they learn in the classroom to what happens outside it.

There are nearly 50 CEL courses offered across all faculties at Western, and the new funding will expand some of the partnership opportunities with organizations in the community, Doerksen added.

“Another area is the development of online tools and resources for our faculty colleagues who are interested in embedding experiential learning in courses – there is a further development there supported by this funding,” he noted.

“A great opportunity for experiential learning is available on campus. We will be looking at all of the work study opportunities and positions that we have on campus and part of our goal is to run a pilot project where we will embed some self-reflection and assessment into those work study opportunities so we can be much more purposeful in helping our students understand, reflect on and articulate the kinds of skills they are learning through a work study placement.”

It is true when we speak of experiential learning, we tend to focus more on undergraduate students, Doerksen continued, adding Western is also looking at establishing more paid internships for master’s and doctoral students.

The university is looking to broaden its definition of experiential learning, he added, and will consider expanding opportunities students might pursue internationally as part of their curricular or co-curricular activities.

“It is recognized by the ministry, and by Western, that a lot of international experiences can have a big experiential learning component, and that can be things like Alternative Spring Break, or exchange programs. Some of the funding will be going to helping and building opportunities for students to participate in those,” Doerksen said.

“These are key initiatives we will see roll out in the next six months and into the next year on campus. It aligns with a lot of work going on at the provincial level, and more broadly here at Western.”