Editorial, Opinion

McGill must prioritize learning outside of the classroom

University students often struggle to find stable employment in their field of study post-graduation, but incorporating experiential learning into post-secondary education can give students the marketable skills and valuable experience they need to succeed.

In its essence, experiential learning means learning-by-doing, rather than acquiring knowledge through lecture and reading-based instruction. Experiential learning allows students to acquire the practical skills and résumé-boosting training they need to flourish in their future careers. It also gives individuals the opportunity to experiment and discover which jobs are most suited to them. Learning-by-doing is a proven way for students to apply the important theoretical knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life scenarios.

Whether experiential learning takes the form of an internship or work experience, a field study, research, or anything that allows students to develop practical skills, universities—including ours—are starting to see its value.

But, opportunities for experiential learning at McGill are few and far between. Recently, McGill has advertised extra-curricular initiatives such as Building 21, a vaguely-described open-lab where students can experiment with ideas, and Skills 21, a series of workshops aimed at supporting “students in the development of 21st century skills, values, and attitudes.” These efforts seem more cosmetic than pragmatic, and touch relatively few within McGill’s large student body. To make the benefits of experiential learning available for all ambitious students, McGill must incorporate this form of education directly into its academic curricula. Not only will it better prepare students for employment, but it will enhance the quality of a McGill education.

McGill’s experiential learning website lists field studies and study abroad opportunities as valuable ways for students to apply theoretical knowledge while still gaining course credits. Programs such as the Desautels Faculty of Management’s Hot Cities of the World Tour or McGill’s Barbados Field Study Semester offer enriching experiences that able students should undoubtedly take advantage of. However, these opportunities present significant financial barriers, have enrollment caps, and are often tied to a particular department or faculty. As a result, they only benefit the privileged few who are eligible and able to afford them.

Incorporating experiential learning as an integral part of academic programs will not only boost students’ future career potential, it will enrich the value of a McGill degree.

Some majors, such as Urban Studies, require a field studies course in Montreal. These courses extend the benefits of experiential learning to a broader network of students. All departments should make an effort to develop these types of courses because they diversify students’ learning experience and offer the chance for them to put their theoretical skills to the test.

Granted, the university community offers a plethora of clubs and extracurricular activities that give students a chance to develop expertise relevant to future careers; however, these initiatives are largely student-driven, and often privilege-based, as they are unpaid and pose an extra time requirement that is unfeasible for students working part-time jobs.

To ensure that all students have the opportunity to acquire meaningful work experience, many Canadian universities, such as Concordia, Dalhousie, and Waterloo, have incorporated co-operative (co-op) education into their academic programs. Concordia’s co-op program “bridges university life and the working world,” and boasts the opportunity for students to “test drive their careers.” While McGill’s Internship Offices Network is a valuable tool for connecting students with employers, it only offers a handful of internship opportunities for students each year, many of which are unpaid. Integrating work experience into degree programs ensures that more students can reap the benefits of practical experience.

The options are virtually limitless: From research opportunities, to work placements at local companies, to offering classes that teach practical work-based skills, McGill has many opportunities to engage in experiential learning. The key is making sure these opportunities are diverse, widespread, accessible, and clearly communicated to students. Incorporating experiential learning as an integral part of academic programs will not only boost students’ future career potential, it will enrich the value of a McGill degree. If McGill doesn’t adapt to the changing academic landscape, future students may look elsewhere for a more hands-on education.

Participating in an extracurricular such as moot court or a student publication, studying abroad, or doing research for a professor are just a few ways students can increase their employability in a dynamic workforce, and explore potential career interests. However, in order for all students to benefit from experiential learning, McGill must develop a more comprehensive and consistent framework that integrates it into class curricula. Stepping outside of the familiar lecture hall education environment might be scary, but—as is becoming increasingly evident by rising youth unemployment—so is the real world. Experiential learning will give students the skills they need while at McGill to ensure post-grad life doesn’t look so bleak.

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