Future of Education: Experiential Learning

The shelf life of skills and knowledge seems to be getting shorter and shorter, and with few employees having sufficient slack to take considerable time off to learn, there is a growing need to adapt learning so that it happens alongside our work. 

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor


The shelf life of skills and knowledge seems to be getting shorter and shorter, and with few employees having sufficient slack to take considerable time off to learn, there is a growing need to adapt learning so that it happens alongside our work.  As research from Accenture illustrates, most investments in new technologies, such as AI, will require new skills to effectively work alongside the technology.

This could be new technical skills, such as data science, edge computing or artificial intelligence, or it could be soft skills, which are increasingly seen as vital components of the modern workers arsenal.  Indeed, recent research from the London School of Economics highlights how soft skills are vital even for those with low technical skills, with people with skills such as emotional intelligence, collaboration and problem solving able to earn a significant salary premium over their peers without such skills.

This occurred because these people were able to support teams full of highly-skilled workers, and were therefore typically employed by highly-skilled firms, which enabled them to attract extra money.  It underlines the importance placed on working effectively with not only highly-skilled people, but also highly-complex technologies. This is predicating a shift in education towards a more experiential approach that includes these soft skills alongside more technical education.

A holistic education

For instance, at the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e), students often form teams that then compete in challenges set by the university.  For example, one team is looking at how to develop a solar-powered car, while a second team is working on an oven that can recycle batteries. TU/e believe that the cross-disciplinary nature of the teams not only helps the effectiveness of the teams, but also provides team members with a realistic portrayal of working life.  

It’s increasingly common for these student-based teams to venture out into public competitions.  For instance, the XPRIZE challenges frequently have student-based teams competing for the prize fund.  This is certainly the case at the XPRIZE spinout HeroX, whose Base 11 Space Challenge is sponsored by Base 11, a nonprofit that tries to encourage involvement in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) topics. 

The competition offers up a $1 million prize for a student-led team who can design, build and propel a single stage rocket up to an altitude of 100 kilometers by the end of 2021.  The competition, which has attracted entrants from 35 different universities across North America, aims to encourage not only collaboration, but diversity, with teams often constructed across borders with multinational participants.  By being able to provide students with exposure to the kind of challenges commonly faced in the workplace, Base 11 believe they’re equipping participants with valuable experience to help them transition smoothly into the world of work.

“This diversity gives students a big advantage because the reality is that the world is becoming more global, and we want to give students real world experiences so that when they enter the workforce, it’s not new to them,” Landon Taylor, CEO of Base 11 says. “They walk into a company having worked on real world problems and the ability to say that they’ve worked side by side with people from different countries and was able to deal with differences and see things from a multi-cultural point of view is a big advantage.”

Similar ventures are emerging in other disciplines, such as the Inter-ACE Cyberchallenge, which brings together teams from across the UK to compete in a cybersecurity competition.  The teams are placed in a real world virtual war game scenario whereby they have to break into a facility, and then defend it from the other teams. The winners of the competition not only win kudos and some prize money, but are then pitted against peers from the United States in a trans-Atlantic competition.

Novel experiences

This is a process that is increasingly common in the professional world as well.  For instance, coding schools are increasingly results driven, and schools such as Lambda focus intently on the employability of graduates.  This can often result in students working on real-life projects that give them direct exposure to the kind of challenges they will face in the workplace.  These challenges are often conducted in teams, so students also gain exposure to the kind of soft skills that are an increasingly important part of modern cybersecurity and software development.

Consultants Edie Goldberg and Kelly Steven-Waiss believe the gig economy can provide valuable lessons in experiential learning, and argue for organizations to adopt a gig-style approach whereby employees can easily move between teams on a project-by-project basis.

Their approach takes the 20% time popularized by companies such as Google and 3M, and fully integrates this into our day-to-day life.  They believe that companies today are tapping into a tiny fraction of what each employee is truly capable of, and that by allowing people to contribute in a wider range of business areas, they not only tap into this expertise more thoroughly, but also give employees a great way to stretch their skills in new ways.

It’s believed that the average person is going to go through multiple careers during their lifetime, and while there is likely to be a need for extended periods of dedicated study aside from work, there is also likely to be a need to learn new skills on the job.  Experiential learning offers a fantastic way of doing just that, as it provides a holistic exposure to the full range of skills required to perform a job well, including the soft skills that are so often excluded from curricula.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!