OPINION: Experiential learning necessitates equitable experiences
By Elisa Do and Yvonne Syed, Contributors
Education is often considered to be a stepping stone towards entering the workforce. University is not only supposed to teach students textbook knowledge, but it is also supposed to support students in the development of transferable skills. Hence, the Ontario government has implemented greater ties between university funding and experiential learning opportunities, which is why we are also seeing an increase in experiential learning within the curriculum of many universities.
At McMaster University, experiential learning is defined with six criteria, including: a workplace or simulated workplace environment, exposure to authentic demands, purposeful activities, assessments conducted by both self-assessment and by the employer, application of knowledge from the student’s university or college program and completion of a course credit. By structuring the experience with authentic demands and meaningful activities, students can face real-world problems and undergo conditions that are relevant to the typical responsibilities of the industry that they are practicing for.
The types of experiential learning that are offered at McMaster include: co-op, internships, professional placements, lab courses, community/industry partnered learning and research projects. Experiential learning provides wonderful opportunities for students to apply theory and gain exposure to the workforce. Therefore, as experiential learning makes its way into university learning, there is also a greater need to consider accessibility options for students.
For starters, the time commitment and duration of experiential learning placements may be difficult to manage for certain students depending on their situational circumstances. Students may also have other obligations, such as having to take care of a dependent, having to work to finance their education or having other commitments to tend to, preventing them from fully completing the placement. Some students may not be able to commit to placements for weeks or months on end, and some may not be able to dedicate a fixed amount of hours per week.
The strict time commitments can be a barrier to those who want to access meaningful experiential learning opportunities but cannot commit to the entire time. This could be in the form of a requirement of 5-15 hours a week of volunteer experiences or conflicts between student class times and shift availability.
Furthermore, since the Ministry of Education’s focus on experiential learning involves participation in a workplace or simulated workplace environment, transportation plays a huge factor. For example, nursing students being able to commute to their clinical placements is essential. However, nursing students at McMaster are responsible for their own travel costs to and from their placement locations.
For some students, this may mean travelling on the Hamilton Street Railway to nearby Hamilton hospitals, but others, it can also mean having to spend money on Ubers in order to make it in time to their placements located as far as Niagara. Not all students can afford a vehicle of their own and public transit is not always accessible. This can mean busses not running at times suitable for the student’s placement, or not extending far enough to reach other cities that the student must travel to. Clinical placements in and of itself are already putting students under responsibilities for which they are typically paid. When transportation becomes a barrier, students may endure heavy financial burdens, as they already dedicate much of their time to their studies and do not always have a source of income.
Clinical placements in and of itself are already putting students under responsibilities for which they are typically paid. When transportation becomes a barrier, students may endure heavy financial burdens, as they already dedicate much of their time to their studies and do not always have a source of income.
Looking at other European universities, such as the University of Dundee and the University of Limerick, travel allowance is often provided when expenses are incurred due to responsibilities associated with the nursing program.
When compared to more nearby universities, Queen’s University offers travel reimbursements to students of their school of medicine. Although each university has their own limitations and variations in their accommodations, the importance lies in providing support for students who have to travel beyond local public transport.
Lastly, when we look at accessibility options, we must also consider the methods with which students are assessed. Students enrolled in experiential learning courses often have to complete reflections. There is also a concern regarding the course outlines and required components that students are graded on as they partake in an experiential learning course. A challenge to assessing student learning through reflections is how to do so while respecting their privacy.
Novel assessment formats and unclear instructions may lead to students feeling they are required to disclose significant personal details in required 'reflection' assignments. They may not feel comfortable disclosing personal encounters or experiences they have undergone to their professor or teaching assistant, but they may still want to address the issues they’ve faced.
However, if they don’t want their teaching assistant or the professor to know of an embarrassing or uncomfortable situation, they cannot write it in a reflection. Thus, bearing this in mind, assessment through reflection can be made more equitable with revisions of this assessment method from instructors. Perhaps instructors could ensure that students are well informed of an anonymous reporting procedure if they ever feel the need to report any inappropriate behaviours or workplace violations encountered during their experiential learning placement. This eliminates the need to disclose this information in a reflection assignment while still addressing any private issues in an equitable manner.
It is undeniable that experiential learning has been growing rapidly within the curriculum of many programs today. With the benefits that experiential learning holds, it is important for universities to critically evaluate the accessible options that are offered. To start, basic support for barriers in time and scheduling, transportation and as confidentiality should be considered. If students are to carry extra burdens, such as financial costs, their learning experience can also be hindered. In order to provide a well-rounded experiential learning opportunity the way the curriculum intends for it to be, further improvements should be made.