Merging experiential learning with the virtual world

When was the last time you had a learning “aha” moment? Most of my eurekas didn’t happen in a pleasurable moment such as Archimedes in his bathtub. My own personal learning breakthroughs occurred when I had to navigate a new context or solve a problem. The situation required me to apply what I was learning, to find a solution or master a new set of skills.

‘‘The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”  – D Kolb

Humans have been learning through our experiences since the beginning of time. Adult Learning is usually activated by the urgency of a pressing problem or having to find our way in a new environment. Every point in history which has catapulted our collective learning forward is set off by a change in our environment. We are witnessing this phenomenon in the current pandemic. Accelerated learning is happening on multiple fronts from the discovery of a vaccine, to the shifting of our mindset, to working in a new way. It has all been triggered by an experience of a spreading virus across the globe.
The progressive educator John Dewey (Experience and Education, 1938) introduced the adult learning concept of Experiential Learning. Dewey identified that adults need an experience for their learning and to transform the experience to learning, requires two characteristics :

(i) Continuity – what is experienced needs to relate to the learning

(ii) Interaction – there needs to be active engagement in the subject matter and environment.

It was in 1984 that David Kolb published his learning styles model, based on Dewey’s Experiential Learning. His work provided a framework to untangle an abstract theory into four steps connecting experience, reflection, and practical application.

The Kolb Learning Cycle differentiates the four steps using the dimension of thinking (how do I process an experience and information) and the dimension of feeling (how do I feel about what I am learning). The combination allows for both a mental and emotional change to embed a new skill set or mindset. The approach is iterative leading to new insights between each step and accommodates differing learning styles and preferences.

The four steps can be summarised as:
Merging experiential learning with the virtual world
4 steps of experiential learning infographic

Experiential Learning has delivered high impact results in the area of face-to-face interventions. We can reference many examples of this from business simulations crossing the divide between abstract concepts, to practical application, to role-play in behavioural change interventions. Several research projects have measured both the quantitative improvements (benchmarked against standard lecture/ teacher led) of between 24% – 90% change in performance on the job*. There are numerous sources of qualitative benefits from more holistic development to improved retention and ability to self-correct post an experiential learning intervention.

With our increasing migration of learning to the virtual world, experiential learning allows for digital learning to be reinvented from a one-dimensional series of content pages to nuanced and multifaceted learning processes. The Learning Styles Inventory and the four-step model can guide us in designing impactful learning for adults. Technology improvements and the changing learning landscape are opportunities to design immersive and scalable learning.

We would like to hear your opinions on how to transform learning in both the quality and scalability? Are their any other approaches or perspectives which you believe can improve and innovate learning even over a distance and with limited physical interaction?

In our next article we will be sharing our ideas and practical examples of how we have been applying the four step Experiential Learning model to Virtual Learning. This will include links to tools, reference sites for both synchronous (virtual session in real time) and asynchronous (offline learning / content in digital format).


Experiential Learning in Adult Education, Fenwick; www.methodenpool.uni-koel.en
Norwich University Online
Virtual Training Tools and Templates, C Hugget, 2017
Experiential Learning : Experience as the Source of Learning and Development; David A Kolb, 2014
Live Connections, Fredrik Fogelberg and Jude Tavanyar, 2015

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