A long-time leader in employing an immersive, hands-on approach to management education, MIT Sloan Action Learning is also part of a rich community of experiential learning practitioners from MBA programs around the country: Leaders in Experiential Project-based Education (LEPE).
Formed in 2009 as a professional networking group, LEPE meets annually to share insights and best practices on experiential learning, a pedagogy centered on learning by doing. Last year’s conference brought together representatives from more than 30 peer schools to discuss the challenges and opportunities of running such programs in business schools—particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference was organized by MIT Sloan’s Action Learning Office, which employs “action learning”—a form of experiential learning centered on problem-solving through a combination of classroom instruction and team projects that address real management challenges.
The presentations and discussions at the LEPE Conference revealed that the very qualities experiential learning programs work to instill in their students—commitment, communication, resilience, and inclusion—proved invaluable to the programs themselves as they worked to provide quality experiences to students working remotely, globally.
Successful experiential learning programs begin by sharing course learning objectives with host organizations, advisors, mentors, and students to ensure everyone is working toward shared goals. Providing project management and structured problem-solving training for students and mentors can help keep work on track. And, including advisors in training sessions can strengthen relationships and ensure that all stakeholders share a common language and goals.
LEPE keynote speaker Bethany Patten, a lecturer and senior associate director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, emphasized that training hosts is a particularly good method for developing projects that support learning goals. “Training the hosts has been probably one of our most successful initiatives,” she said, noting that Laboratory for Sustainable Business (S-Lab) hosts are asked to spend a full day learning about class objectives and MIT Sloan’s approach to project management. As an added benefit, she said, “hosts have this opportunity to meet and network with one another and find possible synergies among their projects.”
Align projects with coursework
Students should not feel as if they have been thrown into the deep end of the pool. That was a key message from Daniel Sheats, director of experiential learning at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “It's more about swim lessons: we're going to start in the shallow end and give them some fundamental tools so that eventually they end up in the deep end feeling much more confident,” he said.
Program leaders should choose projects that reflect the academic content of their courses—such as complex problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Patten pointed out that good projects start with good problem statements. Teams should be encouraged to develop problem statements that:
- Connect to a clear and specific goal of the organization, with reference to its mission;
- Articulate the gap between the current status and the goal;
- Are quantifiable, even if results cannot be precisely measured;
- Are as neutral as possible about possible diagnoses or solutions; and
- Are manageable in scope.
Students need to learn about hosts’ mission and goals. Hosts need help identifying and scoping suitable projects. Advisors and mentors need to track progress, fill knowledge gaps, and relay expectations. Good communication is central to all of these tasks.
Working virtually during the pandemic amplified the need for clear, responsive, and transparent communications, LEPE presenters said. David Birnbach, a lecturer in global economics and management and Action Learning mentor at MIT Sloan, said shorter, more frequent team check-ins helped him keep on top of numerous projects. “I would gear all of my check-ins with students on how are we optimizing your learning, both personally and professionally,” he said.
Adding brief check-ins with individuals as well as groups enabled people to support each other through stressful pandemic moments and proved especially helpful for students who were shy or reluctant to speak publicly. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Slack, as well as calendar apps like Calendly, can be useful tools for enabling these check-ins.
Jayne Tan, a lecturer in global economics and management and Action Learning mentor at MIT Sloan, said she found Calendly particularly helpful. “Not only does it simplify coordination,” she said, but “that tool really enables more contact and collaboration.”
Foster resilience and adaptability
While it’s important to set expectations, it’s equally important to be willing to adjust those expectations as obstacles arise. Running experiential learning programs during a global pandemic forced everyone to pivot, reset expectations, and adapt on the fly.
MIT D-Lab, for example, was faced with how to teach students about the challenges of global poverty without any onsite component. In one case, D-Lab—whose name reflects the lab’s focus on development through dialogue, design, and dissemination—challenged students to carry their water in from outside faucets, to mimic the experience of those who had to haul water during a pre-pandemic trip to El Salvador. “We had them go through these different types of experiences to think about what it's like to not have running water,” said Libby Hsu, associate director of academics and lecturer at D-Lab.
In another case, a D-Lab team worked virtually with locals in Colombia to develop quinoa harvesting equipment repurposed from agricultural equipment that didn’t fit their needs. The students brought their technology and know-how to provide the design, and locals physically built the prototype.
Support emotional learning
Experiential learning naturally brings many emotions to the fore, from excitement and joy to frustration and fear. Programs often focus on the positive emotions that emerge from experiential learning, but negative emotions can be just as valuable. “Emotions on the whole are meant to focus our attention and help move us to action,” said Michellana Jester, lecturer and course manager for Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab) at MIT Sloan. “We learn when experience runs counter to our expectations.”
If students see mistakes not solely as regretful errors, but also as opportunities to learn, that can embolden them to take risks and fail, speak their minds, share their struggles, and trust more fully in their teammates and advisors.
Kerry Laufer, deputy director of the Dartmouth-American University of Kuwait Program, said her program specifically includes emotion as a standard of best practices. “The role of emotion and its impact on learning is one that we tend to neglect,” she said. “We try to build some intentionality into how we address the issue of emotions and use them as catalysts for learning in our courses.”
One way to do this, said Shannon McKeen, executive director for strategic engagement for the Renaissance Computing Institute at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is to incorporate prompts about emotions into feedback and reflection activities.
LEPE Conference presenters underscored that even successful experiential learning projects are works-in-progress. Like the students they serve, program leaders learn from experience and collecting feedback from students and hosts—both during and after the project—can help ensure continuous improvement.