McMaster CCE: Heather Pollex Showcase

March 12, 2020

The world of work is changing and it requires students to graduate with specialized skills and experiences that allow them to hit the ground running from day one. However, when students are only evaluated on their ability to study and pass exams, students and their employers are in for a rude awakening. Students need to be prepared and given both the hard and soft skills to succeed in the workplace.

Higher education institutions such as McMaster CCE are taking advantage of changes to programs and certificate requirements in order to better prepare their students. Instead of focusing on solely theory, McMaster CCE has introduced experiential learning to help students gain practical experience. Due to the constraints of continuing education students, McMaster CCE uses experiential learning engagements embedded into the classroom in order to provide students that opportunity.

Not only are students gaining better learning outcomes but instructors spend less time grading and more time teaching.

McMaster CCE’s programs open the doors to learning and accomplishment for anyone looking to upgrade their skills, earn a professional designation, or make a career change. They offer more than 200 courses and workshops that blend both theoretical knowledge and practical application to help build your skills and expand careers. Areas of focus include: Business & Management, Communication & Design, Health & Social Sciences, and Metallurgy.

To learn more about experiential learning at McMaster, we sat down with Heather Pollex. Heather facilitates the experiential learning programs at the McMaster University Centre for Continuing Education (CCE). Let’s see what she had to say!

Why is Experiential Learning Important to McMaster CCE?

At McMaster CCE, students are either fresh out of school or have spent a number of years in the workforce and are looking for new career opportunities. No matter their experience level, most students’ main goal is to earn a certificate that will get them a job. Workplace experience is critical to their success.

What Kinds of Experiential Learning Engagements Were Readily Available to Students Before Riipen?

Not too much. A few courses had case studies, but that was pretty much it. A lot of the evaluations were paper-based and not real-life applications.  

What Motivated McMaster CCE to Start Looking into Experiential Learning?

Senior people at McMaster CCE were looking at different ways to evaluate students and the success of the program. It started off with the Human Resources certificate. Students used to have a difficult final exam that was worth a lot of their grade.

Fortunately, the requirements on the final exam changed, which gave McMaster CCE the ability to update their program. Experiential learning was the main idea that came to mind. Previous faculty and program directors knew about it or participated in it.

Why Riipen?

When it comes to experiential learning, co-ops and internships weren’t really an option because most students were part-time or already worked full-time. Everything had to be within the constraints of the students.

The solution was work-integrated learning embedded into the classroom. However, this brought about a big issue: where are they going to find these workplaces who would like to work with students? One of the directors of the program learned about Riipen and explored how the partnership would work.

How Do You Do Riipen Projects at McMaster CCE?

Each course has small tests or quizzes, but the bulk of a student’s grade is on the Riipen project. The project itself is divided into different components: a group contract, a project plan, a draft report, and a final report. This helps make sure the emphasis isn’t just on the final report - there is a bit of a build-up.

How Have Faculty Responded to the Change?

For educators, the introduction of embedded projects forced them to work differently. Before, an instructor would set up a course a few weeks before the start of class and then went through with teaching the class. Now, with Riipen, they have to be more dynamic. Instructors monitor the platform and connect well ahead of time to make sure they have a suitable industry project.

It’s a different way of working the term. There is a bit more upfront work in the beginning. However, the switch from the exam to Riipen worked out really well because the work is done upfront, but, during the course, there is less grading. Additionally, since students work in groups on the project, instead of having dozens of exams to grade, the instructors only have to grade a few final reports.

When they first started out, faculty only wanted one industry partner for their class because they thought they’d only have the capacity for one. Now, instructors are taking on two to three since they’re more comfortable with the whole process.

How Have Students Responded to the Change?

In the beginning, it was great on paper but there were several technical difficulties and logistical issues. However, after the hurdle of getting set up and figuring out what they were supposed to do, working with an industry partner was a great learning experience. Now that they’ve been doing it for a couple years, there aren’t any issues with signing up or finding things. There has been plenty of work put on the Riipen platform.

A lot of students have done a Riipen project in more than one course. Feedback is mostly positive. Anything negative is more about the student group itself (something many of them will face in the real world).

Any Advice For Other Higher Education Institutions Looking To Introduce Experiential Learning Into Their Programs?

Tip #1: Start out small and keep adjusting as you go. When they first introduced Riipen projects, they didn’t change much else about the course, including the several assignments they’ve had for a long time. This overwhelmed the students. The grades need to be redistributed.

Tip #2: Not all courses will integrate experiential learning into it the same. Look at the course content. What’s required for students to complete a project? For some courses, students go through course content in the first few weeks and then spend the last few weeks doing their experiential learning project. For other courses, the content and project are done all throughout the course.

Tip #3: Listen to your students. Constantly get their feedback to see if there are any red flags or things that need to be updated.  

Thank you so much to Heather for speaking with us and sharing your experience. To learn more about Riipen and how to get started with experiential learning, visit our website or click here to connect with a team member. Take a look at how Riipen has played a role over the years at McMaster University in our last blog post and keep up with Riipen on Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, and Facebook.