Experiential learning for online, working professionals: a pilot program

Experiential learning for online, working professionals: a pilot program

Have you ever thought about what portion of your job you learned “informally” versus “formally”? You’ll probably be impressed (with yourself) when you realize that most of what you learned at your job was self-taught. You might even think, “my employer is lucky I’m so resourceful and smart and can figure out what I am doing on my own. In fact, they should be paying me a lot more!” OK, confidence is good, but flip this around and think how lucky you are to have an employer who trusts you to figure these things out on your own. It allows you to be engaged with your job and push yourself to learn.

Study after study proves that the majority of what people learn (anywhere from 70-90 percent) happens informally on the job. One famous example is work done by Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo, who created the 70/20/10 learning model, which showed that 70 percent of job learning is from on-the-job experiences; 20 percent is from feedback from colleagues and mentors; and 10 percent is from formal trainings.

If these percentages are accurate (and they seem to be), all of us in higher education are spending too much time emphasizing classroom activity for our adult population. Plus, employers should think twice about how they offer professional development. Of course, I’m not interested in putting my faculty colleagues out of business, but I am interested in a new online experiential learning model involving immediate and direct application of classroom theories for working adults. It made us here at the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies (CPS) ask: What happens when we introduce the concept of experiential learning to working professionals taking classes online?

Over the next six months, I plan to find out.

I’m following a cohort of students from around the world—from as close as Boston to as far as Dubai—who are taking our first “formal” online course that supports and guides them to engage in “informal” education. Huh? It sounds complicated but is refreshingly straight-forward. They’ll design a project for themselves in an area of interest outside their existing job responsibilities, starting with identifying and researching a real problem/issue their employer is facing. They then develop a solid plan to solve the problem, provide recommendations and implement a solution.

And this work will relate to the degree they are pursuing at the College of Professional Studies, such as Non-Profit Management, Project Management or Corporate and Organizational Communication. The idea is that the students are motivated in a whole new way, by being able to practically and meaningfully connect their classroom work to their professional efforts—as they’re learning it, not six months or a year later.

Now, let’s return to the 70/20/10 concept. If working professionals earning their master’s degrees can engage in “formal” learning that is customized to their needs and directly applicable to their jobs, then that 10 percent becomes a driving force in their career and personal development. I am anticipating online experiential learning to prove itself to be a transformative learning model that will allow adults to showcase their new competencies and innovative ideas. Watch this space over the next six months as the pilot progresses—I’ll have findings to share.

About Ellen Stoddard

Ellen Stoddard is the director of Cooperative Education at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies. Her role in program design and oversight includes opportunities to prepare international students and adults for co-ops and internships. Previously, she worked with a variety of study abroad and teach abroad organizations in the United States and internationally. She has always been involved with programs that offer guided learning and reflection outside the classroom to enhance structured education.


  1. Katie Sue Zellner

    Congratulations on an exciting project, Ellen!

  2. I can’t wait to hear more about the project and see the outcomes, I think they will be great.

  3. This program promises to add another experiential learning dimension to what we’re trying to offer students as part of their graduate experience. It reminds me very much of a program at a Fortune 100 company in which high potential employees were assigned to work on projects outside of their official job responsibilities — projects that were strategic in nature and required the application of new skills and knowledge.

  4. Great article Ellen, thanks!

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