Arizona State University Experiences Education

I spent a couple of days at Arizona State University in Tempe a few weeks ago, working with faculty and staff on experiential education. It’s an interesting institution, committed on the one hand to an extensive curriculum of online degrees, and on the other to making the on-campus experience more engaging and effective.

Their online coursework just received a big bump from Starbucks, which announced this week that the company would fully fund the tuition for any employee who enrolls in an ASU online degree program. It’s great for employees, but also a boon for ASU by increasing tuition income at a time when Arizona universities are experiencing cutbacks by the state’s government.

Considering ASU’s online focus, it was gratifying to discover they also have a deep commitment to on-campus learning, with the administration, faculty and staff enthusiastic about implementing a more experientially focused curriculum. Some great ideas came up during my visit, during brainstorming sessions that built on the work I presented from our SFU Semester in Dialogue.

One concern of ASU, and many U.S. state colleges, is that they are required to admit almost any applicant from their state as long as they have met very minimal standards. Many freshmen arrive unprepared for university, both academically and in their maturity levels, so that retention of these students during their first year or two is a real issue.

We came up with an idea for a mandatory first-year course, “Who Do You Want to be in the World 101,” to address this problem. The course would begin with a research-based exploration of values, using novels, magazine/newspaper articles, movies, online videos and other social media as a stimulator for students to reflect on their own core values and the outcomes they hope to generate out in the world based on those values.

Their assignments at this stage would include written reflections and oral presentations, providing opportunities for faculty and their fellow students to provide feedback. Students would then revise their pieces, thereby building communication skills while improving their writing and speaking skills.

The second half of the course would be implementation, with an assignment to do a values-driven project with outcomes that contribute positively to the community. For example, a student with a core value of helping others might decide to focus on poverty, and work to establish a clothing exchange or help build housing for the homeless.

Students could work individually or in small groups, and again at the end of their project they would present their work and receive feedback, possibly in a forum open to anyone from the university or community. The hoped-for end result would be that participating students would move into the rest of their university education more confident, with a clearer idea of why they were in school, and improved research, writing and speaking tools that would serve them well in university and beyond.

Another interesting idea that emerged had more to do with the internal approaches ASU administrators and faculty members were applying towards curricular reform. I spoke with a number of Arts faculty who described experiential learning methods they used with their dance, painting, sculpture, theatre and other classes, but which hadn’t gotten much traction outside the university arts community.

It occurred to them that ASU’s strategizing around learning models might benefit from bringing arts-based approaches into the usually staid and formal meetings that characterize university committees. They’re going to approach the administration about sponsoring some more artistic explorations of proposed teaching and learning models, to better walk the talk around experiencing education.

One final thing that impressed me about ASU was the capacity of the administration to implement new ideas in a big way. A few years ago the university decided that traditional departments were old school, and they eliminated this level in many faculties and encouraged faculty members to regroup along interdisciplinary lines. They amalgamated many departments into larger schools, and every few years faculty either confirm that their current alignments are working or realign in fresh new combinations.

I can imagine myself as a bee biologist aligning with faculty interested in dialogue, agricultural policy, environmental conservation and dance, and then shaking that up every few years.

Arizona is a politically conservative state, so it was enlightening to find such an innovative and paradigm-busting institution in the midst of a conservative mindset. But then, Arizona’s deserts are like that as well: startling and surprising when you get beyond the superficial.