Action Learning expands its reach

MIT Sloan deepens its longtime commitment to hands-on learning with investment in, changes to its Action Learning program

October 30, 2013

MIT Sloan Action Learning team: McLaren Gould; Laura Koller; Michellana Jester; Jessica Penca Livingston

MIT Sloan Action Learning team: McLaren Gould; Laura Koller; Michellana Jester; Jessica Penca Livingston

Action Learning at MIT Sloan is continually evolving, and some programmatic changes this year will further strengthen the School’s many opportunities for hands-on learning outside the classroom.

From its early origins in a 1960s Industrial Dynamics class taught by Professor Ed Roberts to the launch of Entrepreneurship Lab (E-Lab) in 1992 and through the creation of Healthcare Lab (H-Lab) today, the MIT Sloan Action Learning initiative has grown steadily to more than a dozen lab offerings, all of which bring on-the-ground, project-based learning opportunities to students.

Establishing the Action Learning office

In 2010, MIT Sloan established the Action Learning program office and hired adult learning specialist Michellana Jester to direct the program, as part of the School’s commitment to Action Learning. Program Administrator Laura Koller and Program Coordinator McLaren Gould were brought on board in 2011, and Program Assistant Jessica Penca Livingston was added to the team in 2013. All three have helped to further expand the services and support offered to all of the labs.

This past summer, MIT Sloan increased its investment in the program with the appointment of Professor Yasheng Huang as the associate dean for International Programs and Action Learning.

“In the past, when people talked about Action Learning at MIT Sloan, they usually meant G-Lab,” Jester said of Global Entrepreneurship Lab, the flagship course that has brought student teams to work on projects at more than 250 companies in more than 25 countries in emerging markets over the past 13 years. While G-Lab continues to thrive, students can choose from many other lab offerings—from China Lab, Sustainable Business Lab (S-Lab), and GlobalHealth Lab to two of the newest, Enterprise Management Lab (EM-Lab) and Healthcare Lab (H-Lab).

“What’s distinctive about MIT Sloan Action Learning is its portfolio of learning opportunities. While many business schools offer one or two project based-learning courses, MIT Sloan has more than a dozen,” said Jester. “These courses provide rich opportunities for students to integrate their learnings from the classroom and previous work experience, while also enhancing and refining their leadership skills. It is the best method for developing the most effective managers for our increasingly complex global environment.”

Through the efforts of the Action Learning Office, today’s MIT Sloan students have a better understanding of the variety of project-based learning course offerings. The office provides counsel to students who might want guidance in choosing labs and works with faculty and staff to help them share best practices across labs, create common resource materials and templates, and coordinate project recruitment efforts. The Action Learning office also organizes information sessions for lab students to advise them about travel health and safety, visa requirements and travel logistics, library resources, and MIT’s nondisclosure agreement policy.

As part of its outreach beyond MIT Sloan, Action Learning hosted its first Action Learning conference at the School last year, and will host an upcoming conference in China in January 2014. This November, the Action Learning Office is supporting the first G-Lab CEO Summit which will bring key G-Lab host company entrepreneurs to campus to meet their teams and one another, and to connect first-hand with the MIT Sloan and MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem.

An evolving program

Huang, one of the faculty leads for G-Lab, will continue to run China Lab and India Lab, which he founded, albeit with some slight changes this coming year. Previously, the lectures were at the beginning of the term, and the project component took place during the second half of the semester. Next spring, the order of lectures and projects will be reversed. “The first half will be all about the project,” Huang said.

Students in the course will travel for project work to India or China during the Sloan Innovation Period (SIP) and spring break as usual, then participate in case-based lectures back on campus during the second half of the semester. Huang said the goal is to provide students with more opportunity to reflect on their projects and integrate their on-the-ground experiences with classroom learning—reflection being one of the main tenets of action learning pedagogy. “Students go to these two countries, they interact with entrepreneurs, and there’s a lot of learning in just doing that, but we have little chance to reflect on that and no chance to use that knowledge … [this modification to the course] will give the cases and lectures a richer context since the students can add to the discussions by speaking about their own current experiences,” he said.

Some other labs have undergone changes as well. This fall, G-Lab is divided into two separate courses within the semester. During the first half of the semester, students are presented with business cases and can bring their knowledge and work experiences into classroom discussions. For a few sessions, select entrepreneurs from around the world are invited to facilitated discussions about the opportunities and challenges they face. The second half of the semester then focuses on the projects: student teams are matched to their host companies by late October, when they begin to conduct project-related research and collaborate remotely with their hosts. In January, students will spend three weeks on the ground with their host companies in Latin America, Africa, the Asia Pacific region, and the Middle East, with final deliverables and reflection sessions occurring in early February.

Healthcare Lab, a new action learning course launched this fall, is offered as part of the new MIT Healthcare Certificate program. Students will have the opportunity to work on projects with domestic organizations, focusing on complex problems in health care delivery in critical areas such as operations management, analytics, IT, marketing, and organizational dynamics.

It’s a pivotal time for Action Learning, said Huang. “MIT Sloan has done this on our own, but now other schools are doing it as well. We need to continue to do a good job and continue to innovate,” he said.

To learn more about MIT Sloan students’ Action Learning experience, be sure to watch the new Action Learning video.