Sonya Hooja, COO & Co-Founder, Imarticus Learning

In her career of over 12 years, Sonya Hooja has been involved in strategy development and project management roles across diverse industries such as financial services, education, tourism, public sector and pharmaceuticals. Sonya holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in IT and Economics from Rutgers University and an MBA from INSEAD. She began her career at Accenture, where she formulated and executed a five-year tourism strategy for the government of Brunei. This was followed by project management and consulting roles at Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers across US, Singapore, and India. She has also conducted workshops with the Prime Minister’s Office in Singapore. In 2012, she co-founded Imarticus Learning along with Nikhil Barshikar with an aim to make aspiring professionals in the financial services and analytics domain fully equipped with the necessary skills to excel in their careers.

For a very long time, technological innovations and customizations were touted to be the biggest transformations in the professional reskilling and employee upskilling sector. Training sessions were going virtual and modules were being tailored according to the changing needs of the learners and their professions. Hence, when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic struck, technology-driven educational institutions and edtech companies were quick to address the challenge by offering a host of online modules and implementing sophisticated technological infrastructures for virtual learning.

It has been a tremendous initiative, and virtual education deserves all the credit it has received for making education location-independent and inclusive for everyone. Remote learning and online classrooms have helped eradicate some of the most rudimentary obstacles to receiving quality professional education, namely a lack of good institutions and proper mediums of delivery. Every year, lakhs of deserving professionals and aspiring students in India miss out on invaluable educational opportunities due to geographical factors or as a result of institutes not being more flexible. Therefore, credit must be given where it is rightly due, as remote learning, online education and virtual classrooms have guaranteed quality education and skill development to one and all, irrespective of an individual’s location or physical ability to travel to a classroom.

Changing face of skill development and L&D

But has this been enough? Technology and customization will only serve a limited purpose if the overall approach to learning has not changed. Virtual education and customized learning have achieved relatively limited results. Even though the infrastructure and attributes of learning have evolved, the psychology has not. Yes, there has been modernization, but it is still blanketed by a duvet of tradition. Teaching methods still followed the traditional sage and student model, albeit from physical classrooms to laptops and tablets. Employees and students pursuing professional courses were compelled to sit through hours of training sessions in the name of learning and development (L&D), which in retrospect had no positive impact on their professional growth or future career goals.

What professionals and aspirants of GenZ needed was an overhaul of the existing L&D regime. Technology alone was not enough for skill development to reach the zenith of its efficacy, as a change in other aspects of learning was also required. This gave rise to the concept of immersive and experiential learning.

Immersive and experiential learning

With the mushrooming of Edtech Startups and the growing interest of investors in schools and educational incubators that prioritize reskilling, new methods of learning became the focus of organizations, educators and entrepreneurs. Concepts like flipped classrooms, kinaesthetic learning, expeditionary learning and game-based learning have gained increasing prominence. Among these new concepts, what made clear sense to most ‘in-transition’ organizations and edtech Startups was the introduction of experiential learning. Technology-heavy L&D and reskilling institutions are already leveraging data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide experiential learning to its students.

What is immersive and experiential learning?

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, immersive learning is a macro concept of which experiential learning is a primary model. Put simply, experiential learning is learning through experience. In such a learning system, professionals are taught concepts through real-life experiences. These experiences can be artificially stimulated through virtual reality and artificial intelligence, or through real-world projects and assignments.

What makes experiential learning different and more effective is that it helps in combating the lack of attention span in learners. Since it involves engaging students in some form of activity or virtually transporting them to a completely different environment, it maintains their interest in the subject without becoming one dimensional and monotonous. This is completely opposite to the traditional method of studying in which students have mastered the art of ‘sleeping with their eyes open’ while teachers deliver drawn-out lectures and notes.

Experiential Learning and muscle memory

Brought to mainstream popularity by the works of prominent American philosopher John Dewey in the 1870s, experiential learning derives a lot of its techniques from the concept of muscle memory. For example, no matter how many driving lessons you are theoretically taught in a classroom, you will only master the skill of driving by physically getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. Thus, learning skills like driving, cooking and swimming are some of the most basic forms of experiential learning.

In a system of experiential learning, students are put in situations where they physically experience a certain emotion or surrounding, thus imbibing it into their muscle memory and enhancing their ability to learn from the experience. In fact, this form of learning has been around for years. It is only now that edtech companies and schools are realizing the benefits and productivity it can bring over traditional textbook-based education.

A prime example of experiential learning for working professionals would be real-time stock market training courses that some institutes offer. In such courses, professionals are given a sum of money each day and asked to trade based on their knowledge and research. Consequently, these courses give them an immersive and personal experience of the stock market and its workings.

Why experiential learning?

One of the foremost reasons experiential learning has gained momentum as a preferred model of learning is due to its nurturing of crucial real-world skills like decision making, cognitive thinking, creativity, strategy and problem solving. Along with learning the subject, students also develop incredibly important behavioural life skills which are considered must-have qualities in today’s rapidly evolving and competitive professional environment. Experiential learning prides itself on giving students real-world experience, thereby directly influencing their feelings and emotions. It is through experiential learning that one realizes the drastic difference between what they have been taught in theory and how things actually work in practice. This ensures that students and professionals looking to acquire new skills to learn the right thing in the right way at the right time.

Reimagining education

Educational organizations and professional institutes have traditionally followed the principles of ‘teaching’ concepts to students and thereafter letting them out in the real world to learn practical aspects on the job. However, experiential education emphasises on the need to avoid merely ‘teaching’, while focusing on directly ‘learning’ by building experiences and practising in real-life scenarios.

Not only does experiential education help in the continued development and upskilling of students, but it also makes them more adaptable and alert to changes in situations and their surroundings. With a growing number of edtech companies and technologically driven professional reskilling institutes making huge investments in blockchain, virtual reality, machine learning and AI, experiential education is not only restricted to physical surroundings now.

However, there are a few drawbacks associated with this type of education as well. As mentioned earlier, experiential learning relies on the principle of muscle memory, which means it may be slower than the traditional way of rote learning. Since learning through experiences needs to grow on a person, it may take a few attempts till the concept is completely clear in a student’s mind. With that being stated though, once learnt, the knowledge remains with the student permanently.

In the new world order, especially post the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, experiential learning is guaranteed to become the most sought-after form of employee learning and development. Stimulated learning, boot camps and gamification are going to form the new basis of professional reskilling and training. The old methods of teaching have become redundant and obsolete and will no longer serve the demands of Industry 4.0. With career changes and dual professional certifications becoming the norm, skills acquired through experiential learning are going to be the differentiating factors between two candidates with the same degree and experience.

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