Virtual experiential learning: Key strategies and takeaways for educators

November 6, 2023
5 mins
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The ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the very core of education, driving institutions into the digital realm quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

Universities and colleges worldwide suddenly faced the mammoth task of implementing online learning as an alternative to their traditional, hands-on, experiential learning methods.

Higher ed institutions are embracing more virtual and hybrid programs, focusing intently on bolstering engagement and retention rates. 

The ultimate goal? Preparing students more effectively for the dynamic demands of the modern workforce.

This article offers a comprehensive guide, diving deep into the intricacies of virtual experiential learning, ensuring that your institution adapts and thrives in this new era of education. Whether you're building from scratch or refining an existing program, you'll find the insights and strategies you need here.


Why virtual experiential learning is the future of education

Even before COVID-19, online education was gaining momentum. In 2016, over 30% of all undergraduate students enrolled in at least one online course to complete their degree. This trend has only grown post-pandemic.

A virtual environment offers an invaluable opportunity to take advantage of technological advancements and provide every student, regardless of their situation or background the chance to have more real-world projects in their curriculum. Let's take a closer look at how it helps expand students' educational journey in this post-pandemic era.

It enhances student engagement. 

When students primarily memorize information for tests, engagement is bound to wane. In fact, a significant 53% of students and 66% of educators identify engagement as a consistent challenge. However, when students feel their work mirrors real-world challenges or they are tackling genuine projects, engagement greatly increases

Virtual experiential learning aptly addresses this appetite. As students engage with authentic projects that positively affect the world, they shift from passively consuming content to actively contributing to it.

It enables the practical application of classroom concepts. 

Beyond engagement, 53% of students and 48% of educators cite retention as a concern, often due to a lack of real-world application of classroom concepts. Experiential learning addresses this gap directly. 

It invites students to apply their knowledge and skills to contemporary industry challenges, ensuring a deeper understanding and greater retention of the academic material.

It's flexible enough for diverse learning styles.

Each individual's approach to learning is unique, with some favoring hands-on experiences while others resonate with visual cues or in-depth discussions. Virtual experiential learning recognizes these varied learning styles, offering educators the adaptability to tailor instruction. 

Educators can set clear goals and expectations, provide access to supplemental resources, and open feedback loops to ensure that every learner thrives in a customized educational environment, regardless of how they best absorb and interpret information.

It ensures equitable access to opportunities.

Learning experiences shouldn't be limited due to a student's personal/professional connections or their geographical location, yet many often face these constraints. In fact, many minority students complete fewer internships mainly due to a lack of availability. 

Virtual experiential learning serves as a potent solution, redefining the boundaries of opportunity. Its inherent inclusivity ensures that students, regardless of their background or circumstance, are not left behind but have a fair shot at obtaining the skills and experiences they need to be competitive. And platforms like Riipen amplify this access. 

It provides career clarity. 

Career clarity is a growing concern among students, with 12% more students uncertain about their major than the year before (2021). Introducing virtual experiential learning early on helps address this.

By exposing students to real-world industry challenges, they can better assess their aptitude and passion, providing insight into potential career paths and assisting in informed future decisions.

Crucial elements of a successful virtual experiential learning program

For a virtual experiential learning program to be genuinely impactful, it must include several essential components, such as:

Seamless integration with learning management systems (LMS) and existing online platforms

It's imperative that your virtual experiential learning program syncs up with your existing systems. Make sure it’s easy for everyone involved to:

  • Import/export all educational materials, data, and resources
  • Navigate the platform and have access to rigorous support when needed
  • Synchronize tracking and assessment information between the LMS and virtual experiential learning program
  • Have access to cross-platform communication

Interactive, student-centered activities

At the heart of experiential learning are real-world tasks that immerse students in hands-on problems, guided by classroom concepts. These tasks should:

  • Be designed to closely emulate real-world situations to maximize engagement.
  • Foster peer-to-peer learning through forums or group chats where students can discuss and reflect on their experiences.
  • Ensure all tasks are purpose-driven, reflecting genuine real-world problems or scenarios.

Feedback loops/mentorship

Mentorship and feedback amplify the benefits of experiential learning. By connecting with experienced educators or industry professionals, students receive guidance and nurturing throughout their experience. Learners should have access to: 

  • Experts who can guide and support them.
  • Regular check-ins or scheduled touchpoints to monitor progress.
  • Digital communication tools to streamline collaborations.
  • Project management tools to track tasks, accomplishments, and areas for improvement.

Clear objectives and outcomes

Defining clear goals is paramount in guiding the direction of virtual experiential learning. This ensures that every activity, discussion, and piece of content aligns with the intended learning outcomes, driving purpose and clarity in the virtual learning experience. Every task should:

  • Connect to genuine real-world problems.
  • Promote interactivity to keep students engaged, facilitating deeper immersion and understanding.
  • Integrate regular feedback loops, so students understand their progress and areas of improvement.

Evaluations and assessments

Comprehensive evaluation ensures that the content remains relevant, effective, and in line with the intended learning outcomes. Every task should be evaluated: 

  • During and after to measure learner progress comprehensively.
  • By all participants to make course adjustments and refinement for future iterations.
  • To assess how effectively students applied their learning in real-world scenarios.

Building an effective virtual experiential learning program: a step-by-step guide

Experiential learning should seamlessly blend into the curriculum, feeling less like an “add-on” and more like an integral part of the learning experience. To do this, you should consider taking the following steps:

1. Assess your student's needs

The first thing you need to start with is analyzing the student population and determining what they need. This will vary, of course, depending on their academic level, demographics, etc. 

2. Determine opportunities for experiential learning 

With a clear image of a student's needs, carefully choose experiential learning activities that highlight the essential course concepts and integrate smoothly within the broader curriculum. 

This will involve scrutinizing the existing curriculum to discern which areas would significantly benefit from hands-on learning. Target the subjects or concepts that may feel too abstract when taught traditionally and see how they can be made tangible. 

However, it's important to note that not every experiential learning activity can be transformed seamlessly into a purely virtual format. 

Take field work as an example—it often needs students to be right there, on the ground, completing the activities in a specific location. On top of that, not all businesses and organizations are on board with this whole virtual trend, which can further limit your options.

If you're solely relying on your institution's existing network or industry partnerships, it can be difficult to find the opportunities you need. One way to overcome this hurdle is by using a platform like Riipen to tap into a global marketplace of 100% virtual experiential learning opportunities. 

With access to over 31,000 industry partners, educators can explore existing activities that would fit into their course content or create their own projects and seek out potential matches for the ones they design.

3. Design meaningful experiential learning activities 

Once you've found the type of virtual experiential learning opportunity that will enrich your student's journey, you'll be able to frame it into the coursework. To do this, you want to make sure the activity:

  • Aligns with your learning objectives
  • Addresses a specific problem that compliments the course content
  • Has clear goals and ways to be evaluated so that students and industry partners know what to expect

For example, when educators design projects on the Riipen platform, they are asked to provide complete details about their experiential learning activity. 

Not only does this help set clear expectations for the project, but it also provides industry partners with details about the deliverables students will provide. The first thing educators are asked to provide is the basic details about the project, including:

  • What learners can do (including their skills) and how it will benefit employers
  • Examples of the work previously done
  • What deliverables the employer can expect
  • How many learners will be completing the project
  • Whether they will work together as a team or individually

Educators will also set timelines for key deliverables to be handed in. This helps ensure that the project is completed on time and can also be used as benchmarks for evaluation.

They are also required to include information about which industries would be best suited for their project. This helps the intuitive matchmaking algorithm find the most suitable partners. 

Once the project is designed, all the details will appear on the educator's dashboard, and the project will go live in the marketplace. 

From there, educators can use advanced project management tools to add learners or industry partners, monitor progress, and provide updates.  

4. Encourage reflection 

Reflection stands as a cornerstone of experiential learning. It's this reflective process that facilitates deeper comprehension, allowing students to contextualize their experiences within the broader scope of their education. 

By reflecting on their actions, results, and emotions, students can identify gaps in understanding, rectify misconceptions, and truly internalize the learned content. 

5. Gather feedback and make adjustments

Gathering input from all participants, including students, educators, and even industry partners (where applicable), ensures the program remains effective and aligned with its core objectives. 

Such feedback helps identify areas of improvement, ensuring that the experiential component remains dynamic and evolves based on the needs and responses of its participants. 

Riipen makes it easy to collect feedback directly on their platform. Each industry partner, learner, and educator has their own profile that allows you to see:

  • General information
  • How many experiences they've participated in/hosted 
  • Feedback they've received 
  • Any achievements they've earned

Closing thoughts

It’s clear that online learning is here to stay. For educators and institutions aiming to be at the forefront of this transformative journey, now is the opportune moment to integrate these enriching experiences into your courses. 

By embracing this innovative approach, you can better cater to the diverse learning needs of students, offering them invaluable insights, hands-on opportunities, and career clarity.


Jump ahead:

Key takeaways

  • Virtual experiential learning greatly enhances student engagement and retention by allowing learners to actively contribute to authentic projects and apply classroom concepts to real-world challenges.
  • This mode of learning supports diverse learning styles, promotes equity in education, and offers career clarity. 
  • For a virtual experiential learning program to be successful, it requires interactive, student-centered activities, consistent mentorship, clear objectives, and regular evaluations. 

If you're looking to tap into the vast potential of virtual experiential learning and require a seamless platform to facilitate it, consider scheduling a demo with Riipen and witnessing firsthand how it can elevate the learning experiences you offer.

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