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Experiential Learning in the Knowledge Economy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Angela Pool-Funai
April 19, 2016

The traditional classroom setting featuring rows of quiet, dutiful students taking notes from a dry lecture has trudged along for generations as a way for students to learn facts by rote memorization and grasp concrete theories. Remembering and understanding form a solid foundation for learning, but they are the lowest tiers of accomplishment along the continuum of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In order to achieve higher, more abstract levels of educational goals – such as application, analysis, evaluation and creativity – students need opportunities to put the information they are learning into practice.

Education used to be seen as a product to consume and students were the clientele. Perhaps instead of viewing students as consumers, we should elevate them to co-producers of their own education, as described by Alistair McCulloch in “The student as co-producer: learning from public administration about the student-university relationship.” Modern education needs to be less about regurgitating facts and figures and more about cultivating problem-solvers.

Nowadays, we live in a knowledge economy that hinges on our intellectual capacity to process and adapt to a flood of information at our fingertips and this pertains to the public sector and private industry. “The challenge confronting governments around the world is to enhance the employability of the workforce,” wrote Brown, Hesketh and Williams in The Mismanagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy. They went on to explain, “The rhetoric of the knowledge economy also speaks of a world of human creativity, initiative and energy.” If that is the case, then public administration programs today are uniquely poised to help ensure that the workforce of the future has the requisite skills, knowledge and experience, as well as an innovative mindset, necessary to tackle tomorrow’s problems.


“Universities are seen as a key driver in the knowledge economy …” explained Olssen and Peters, as demonstrated by a stronger push for measurable outcomes, rather than merely intellectual inquiry (or education for education’s sake).­ The accreditation process immediately comes to mind as a familiar example concerning the call for quantifiable objectives in education programs. How do we craft our programs to ensure that we not only fulfill the necessary knowledge-based goals, but also adequately prepare students for the workforce of the future?

Experiential learning (or project-based) courses are a natural fit for letting students take ownership of their educational journeys. Through internships, professional project courses and related service-learning opportunities, students can play a more autonomous role in developing the goals and objectives for their studies and evaluation through self-assessments. Experiential learning courses can require students to set benchmarks with interim reporting requirements to measure progress toward the individualized goals. A self-assessment allows students to reflect on their own accomplishments in light of the goals they determined.

Public administration degrees feature a practitioner-oriented curriculum, so it stands to reason that many MPA and DPA students will be nontraditional, employed professionals. Here at Southern Utah University, for example, roughly 60 percent of our MPA students are in-service (defined as having more than one year of public sector experience). By contrast, pre-service students are those without substantial work experience. The numbers vary slightly around the country and with different sized programs, of course. In-service and pre-service students are pretty evenly distributed at East Carolina University, whereas about three-quarters of MPA students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs are in-service and upward of 80 percent to 90 percent of MPA students at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs have work experience.

In-service students, in particular, have the opportunity to use experiential learning courses to focus on a project in the workplace. Pre-service students can certainly glean benefits from such classes by jumping in with both feet to experience a new learning opportunity and gain valuable job skills. However, in-service students often have a built-in selection of projects from which to choose. By engaging both in-service and pre-service students in experiential learning courses, we set the stage for them to personalize their education.

Such personally vested involvement not only benefits students academically by putting much of the responsibility into their hands, but these applied projects can also increase overall civic engagement, as Sandra Reinke explored in an article about MPA students’ service-learning projects. When students are exposed to the communities around them in ways they might not have ever considered before, they gain a new perspective to recognize needs and opportunities in their own backyards. This civic awareness coupled with problem-solving skills is just what the knowledge economy of the future needs.

Author: Angela Pool-Funai is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Southern Utah University. Opinions are her own. She encourages feedback and can be reached at [email protected].

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