If I look at the major changes in higher education in recent years, the increase in student engagement and experiential learning are two of the most significant. I recognize that changes in the use of technology to further facilitate learning are also very significant but I think that engagement and experiential learning may be even more impactful.
For many years experiential learning on the undergraduate level was in teacher education and the student teaching. This was a vital experience, in which student teachers gained a better understanding of teaching and the capability of a student teacher as a result of this experience. Almost no other area had an equivalent undergraduate opportunity, although accounting students sometimes had the opportunity to intern with a firm for a limited amount of time. And, of course, many of us had jobs which could have served as relevant internships, though the connection might not be that apparent.
Currently, it is not unusual to find internship opportunities for almost every major or for students to take advantage of more than one such opportunity. Experiencing work related to your field of interest sharpens your skill set and enhances your chances of finding an employment opportunity right after graduation. I believe that students are more sophisticated as a result of this experience. If the internship experience is also tied into your major course work via a project or research paper, it serves another beneficial it bridges the perceived silos that often exist between the world of academia and the world of work.
Engagement is also critical. My generation and other generations took part in protests. When the protests reached a critical mass, they changed the course of policy, and ultimately history. However, what we didn’t do to the same extent is get involved in solving area and community problems on a continuing basis. Many problems taken care of early never reach the level of significant protests. Being involved and embracing an engaged culture makes a positive difference. The current generation of college students and high school students, with the mentoring and encouragement of faculty, understand the importance of civic engagement. All of us appreciate that issues confronted sooner is better than reacting late in the game.
In so many ways, higher education looks similar to what has taken place for decades. But beneath the surface, the changes are huge and, I believe clearly for the better.