Hanlon’s Experiential Learning Vision

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Colin Walmsley ’15, the quintessential “experiential learner”

The state of the liberal arts is near the top of the list of recurring themes in today’s chatter on higher education. It has become increasingly clear that complexity in white-collar industries, matched with the recent economic downturn, have made employers less willing to take a chance on graduates without practical skills. America’s universities are left to adapt their curricula to employer needs or risk gradually diminishing their ability to match graduates with top recruiters, a major selling-point of any college brand. The dilemma is shared amongst schools that identify as liberal arts colleges and research universities that nonetheless maintain liberal arts programs at the heart of their undergraduate curricula.

While the trend toward practical skills has provided an opening for the occasional STEM champion to proclaim the death of the liberal arts, most voices in academia still believe that the liberal ideal is worth preserving. “Successful careers require critical thinking, teamwork, sensitivity to cultural, demographic, economic and societal differences and political perspectives. A liberal arts education provides this grounding,” offered Oregon State University President Edward J. Ray in 2013, providing a succinct summary of the conventional wisdom.

Having agreed that traditional education remains as essential as ever, professors and faculty are tackling the challenge of retooling courses and extracurriculars to develop tangible skills on top of knowledge and perspective. President Phil Hanlon ’77 assumed office with full recognition of this growing demand, and has been describing a broad vision for academic reform since his first day on the job. “To instill wisdom in our students, we must fully-harness the power of experiential learning—learning by doing,” he proposed in his inaugural address on September 20, 2013. President Hanlon has repeatedly touted the concept of experiential learning as the best solution for Dartmouth’s liberal arts predicament. But with no major initiative announced regarding experiential learning after Hanlon’s first year, and especially in the wake of Moving Dartmouth Forward, one must look for the hallmarks of Hanlon’s vision in specific courses and activities.

Positioned at the intersection of the liberal arts, research, and pre-professional instruction, Dartmouth has always included opportunities for hands-on learning in its formula for student development. The D-Plan, which was adopted in 1971 to create space for an expanded coeducational student body, has evolved into the primary method by which Dartmouth students seek out experiences that reinforce theoretical knowledge and skills they hope to apply in postgraduate life.

During an off-term in his junior year, Colin Walmsley ’15 embarked on what would become a quintessential example of experiential learning. Walmsley, who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship last December, received funding from the Anthropology Department to do a term of field observation at New Alternatives, a transitional-housing center for homeless LGBT youth located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. He described his intention to apply and build upon his anthropological studies in an interview with The Dartmouth Review. “In anthropology you learn methods of experimentation and observation, so the process was applicable,” Walmsley recalled of his attempt to view his encounters with the center’s visitors through the lens of concepts he had learned in class. He elaborated on the challenge of reconciling anthropological theory with humans’ habits and social patterns as they exist in the present tense, noting that his classroom experience “didn’t apply in terms of the facts I had learned because the situations in the real world are constantly changing.” He felt that he could never grasp his particular topic of study without field research, because there “just wasn’t a lot of literature on queer homelessness.” The distinction Walmsley has achieved within Dartmouth’s Anthropology Department and in the eyes of the Rhodes Trust is a strong indication that top undergraduates will be increasingly expected to go beyond mastery of existing concepts, and reach a position of contributing within their fields.

Though the leave terms afforded by the D-Plan will continue to offer the best space for Dartmouth students to learn through experience, the full development of President Hanlon’s experiential learning vision will require professors to create opportunities for hands-on learning within the regular curriculum. The Review reached out to Mr. Hanlon for his thoughts on this crucial but undeveloped part of his academic plan. He spent the large part of the conversation highlighting a litany of courses that have always incorporated student activity, mostly in the engineering and social sciences departments. “[Experiential learning] comes in many types; one is courses where you build or design something,” he described in specific reference to ENGS 21 and ENGS 12, Dartmouth’s renowned introductory engineering courses in which students focus on basic mechanical engineering and design projects. For a more ambitious example within the Engineering department Mr. Hanlon cited ENGS 71, an advanced course on structural analysis taught by Professor Vicki May in which students design and construct a full-scale, functional structure for an organization in the Upper Valley community. To touch on experiential learning development outside of the naturally practical engines department, he brought up ENVS 50, “a course on environmental problem analysis where they actually work with a company in the Upper Valley that needs consulting help”, and Professor Charles Wheelan’s nascent Public Policy 85 course which has prepared students to present policy recommendations to government panels in India and Northern Ireland. And finally, he included a reference to hands-on learning in the arts, citing Art History courses that allow students to design temporary exhibitions in Dartmouth’s Hood Museum.

Though President Hanlon did mention details for upcoming “research-and-travel” courses within the Economics Department, plans for specific future courses in the experiential learning were far from the focus of his remarks. He emphasized that long-term curricular reform would always be up to the department chairs and faculty to design and implement, but he communicated his investment in growing hands-on learning by stepping back to describe its benefits at the conceptual level. He recalled first embracing the idea during his courtship with the Board of Trustees before assuming the presidency. “One of the things that really attracted me about Dartmouth was the strategic planning that went on for several years before I got here. If you look in the ‘Students of the Future’ section, they have essentially an articulation of what I’ve just said; here are the outcomes we’re going to really double-down on, this is the set of skills to be successful in the future.” He appreciated the straightforwardness of stepping into leadership with the trustees and faculty already united by a bold academic vision.

President Hanlon continued into further detail about the growing importance of experiential learning as a value proposition for the College. “We’re on the cusp of the point where knowledge is ultimately going to be a free public good,” he said in reference to the popularization of publicly archived university lectures and participatory online classes, know as Massively Open Online Courses or “MOOCs”. He envisioned a quickly-arriving world in which any consumer could freely access the information being taught at Dartmouth and elsewhere, and used that scenario as a pretense for why the College must offer students more than “book learning” alone. “Think with me for a moment about developing the confidence to innovate and take risks. You’re not going to do that by sitting in a chair and having someone talk to you. You’re going to do that by trying things, by failing, by being coached and trying again.” By Mr. Hanlon’s reckoning, a shift toward this mode of learning would help ensure that prospective students continue to see the premium they would pay for a Dartmouth education as a worthy investment.

President Hanlon further noted that moves toward experiential learning at Dartmouth’s peer institutions have additionally increased the urgency of protecting our advantage in the shifting educational landscape. “MIT has an office of experiential learning that includes a design lab… Brown has something called the Use Lab, where students partner with faculty and community members on some major project in the Providence area… Duke began Duke Engage, which is 400 students doing service learning over the summer,” Mr. Hanlon described enthusiastically, noting the fact that more Duke students had cited Duke Engage than the basketball team as their top reason for matriculating as evidence of these programs’ mass appeal. Though he expressed confidence that experiential learning is already “deeply embedded in Dartmouth’s culture,” President Hanlon is clearly intent on making it a formal and visible component of the College’s brand in a way that will attract applicants eager to roll up their sleeves.

Among the most basic barriers to making experiential learning the centerpiece of a Dartmouth education is the ability of students to self-select into or away from courses that require them to go the extra mile in terms of independent, hands-on work. Though the list of applied learning courses that President Hanlon described covers a broader cross-section of academic departments than one might have imagined, it stands to reason that such courses may be occupied in large proportion by the most creative and driven students such that experiential learning can’t necessarily be said to define every Dartmouth student’s education. To broaden the base of participants in the growing list of applied studies options, the faculty may consider reworking the distributive requirements to require at least one course’s worth of non-classroom, project-based experience.

Another critical determinant of how the experiential learning vision will play out will be President Hanlon’s ability to reconcile increasing the time and attention students spend on experience with his stated goal of ramping up classroom rigor. After he dedicated a significant portion of his Moving Dartmouth Forward address to the idea of adding to students’ study time, many student commentators suggested that a strengthened academic burden would not be productive, including steering committee member Frank Cunningham ’16 in his recent interview with The Review. Walmsley also echoed this perspective, pointing out that “people need a social life. If you add more to the curriculum, you’ll probably lose the productive stuff rather than the partying.” Posed with the suggestion that students could not bear to increase their classroom commitments while also spending more time seeking out practical skills through hands-on activities, President Hanlon claimed to see no conflict between the two goals. His response was to describe the way by which experiential learning depends on a traditional learning foundation. “It’s not just the experience; there has to be some way in which you’re doing intellectual work that prepares you for the experience. And then there’s reflection after the experience, so that the student bookends both sides with some sort of intellectual growth.” The ideal of perfect synthesis between the two modes of learning offers a noble goal for the College, but the strain of a demanding curriculum has the clear potential to diminish some students’ ability to fully immerse themselves in the experiential side. President Hanlon and the faculty should seek balance if and when student results show this tension bearing itself out.

Some professors’ lack of preparedness could present another challenge to the dream of expanding experiential learning to every corner of Dartmouth’s curriculum. Many faculty members have spent their entire careers in the academic world, and having passed through universities before the recent explosion of applied learning opportunities it is possible that they may not have the base of experience to guide current students through hands-on projects. Walmsley expressed gratitude for having been spared a mismatch of this sort during his research project. “I’m lucky that my advisor is connected to that world, and understood the changes that were happening,” he said in praise of Sienna Craig, who he recalled had done field observations on topics similar to his investigation of queer homelessness. To maximize fortuitous pairings of this kind between experienced mentors and student learners, the administration and faculty should increase the weight they put on professor candidates’ “real world” credentials.

A final difficulty in spurring an experiential learning revolution is gauging progress. As much as the College takes worthy steps to promote opportunities for learning through immersion, it will be tough to discern how well students are learning or what role their practical skills played in helping them find success in the post-graduate world. President Hanlon agreed that finding criteria for judging progress would be a difficult but essential task. “Last year 16 percent of graduating students had either published a paper in a peer review journal or presented at a professional meeting,” he mentioned as an example of one explicit measure of applied learning success, and he expressed his hope of doubling that proportion to one third during his presidency. But he acknowledged his need for a broader metric to evaluate his vision’s results: “What are the measures of success? I would say they’re not fully developed, we’re mindful that we need to develop them.”

The fact that President Hanlon intends to weave experiential learning into the fabric of the College rather than promote hands-on learning through a central department makes it harder to define and measure. But it is also a reassuring sign that he has much more than PR in mind when he touts experiential learning as the key to Dartmouth’s future. A gradual increase in opportunities for students to learn by doing, spread throughout every academic department and extracurricular realm, will require more patience to implement than a Duke Engage and potentially offer a more modest immediate return. But if President Hanlon, the administration, and faculty manage to stay the course with experienced new-hires, curricular balance, and a way to gauge our progress, Dartmouth students stand to benefit immeasurably from the update. Defenders of the liberal arts should applaud this effort, which upholds the value of traditional knowledge by developing students’ ability to bring that knowledge to bear in today’s dynamic world.

Joshua D. Kotran and Michael J. Perkins also contributed to this report.