How Unconventional, Experiential Learning Is Reshaping Higher Education


http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonma/2015/05/15/how-unconventional-experiential-learning-is-reshaping-higher-education/?ss=forbes-woman

“More caffeine, please!” My inner voice craves. I stare attentively at the same macroeconomic graph with X, Y, and Z axes on the projector screen for the nth time. In class the next day, the professor provides another interpretation of her theory. “Has she any real-world work experience?” I ask myself. Once again, sitting close to the exit door of the lecture hall, I wonder how on earth we apply any of this theory.

As a college student decades ago, I generally disliked overly theoretical and impractical courses without real-world references or applicability that were taught by professors with seemingly minimum experience working in the real world. I really enjoyed the more creative or practical ones taught by engaging professors who have experience outside academia.

Today, on average, upper-tier college life is both more competitive but more collaborative than ever before. Success in college is commonly defined in terms of summer internships or (part-time) jobs, skills-honing extracurriculars, and ultimately the job you undertake or the graduate program you’ll go for post-college. For both early and more experienced careerists, managing time and stress and finding the right job aren’t easy, given increasingly demanding employers. Concurrently, many firms run by middle-aged executives are challenged to effectively understand Millennials’ mind-sets in today’s increasingly interconnected, sophisticated, and inundated digital age.

Without a sound combination of mind-set, skill set, direction, strategies, and effective execution, you may find yourself a bit disappointed in both your “admit rate” to choice companies and your future prospects. You need to set yourself apart, to offer employers your experiences outside the mainstream that make you stand out from your competition. Employers want to know that you can apply your knowledge to the real world.

That said, I have observed a trend in the rising usefulness and impact of alternative, experiential learning that complements the curricula of more traditional college and university campuses. Experiential learning in the real world adds value to both the employee and the employer, given the increasing need to close the skills gap between employers and workforce in many parts of the world. I know this need well as a member of the Employment Taskforce at the B20, which leads engagement with G20 governmental policymakers on behalf of the international business community.

In this article, I highlight the dynamic diversity of unconventional, experiential learning providers and related exemplars, who promote fairly personalized instruction, who do not merely instruct online, and who are not degree-granting programs or institutions. These exemplars — the majority related to entrepreneurship — are by no means comprehensive. I caught up with these folks recently.

Draper University students with Tim Draper (Photo credit: Draper University)

Draper University students with Tim Draper (Photo credit: Draper University)

1. Draper University‘s goal is to encourage people with a spark to have the confidence and boldness to try something new and stick with it until they become successful. Rather than just have people read about and discuss historical case studies, Draper U gets them to study the future. Instead of having them individually struggle for grades that encourage them not to make mistakes, this unconventional school breaks students into teams and encourages extraordinary efforts, whether they fail or succeed.

Tim Draper, founder of Draper University and DFJ, a venture capital firm, reflects: “In 2008, I watched the world panic about the financial crisis, and I thought, ‘the world needs more heroes.’ From that point, I decided to create a school to generate heroes from people with a spark. We worked to create a curriculum that I would have loved if I were about to launch my career. We teach entrepreneurship in a new way. We challenge them academically, physically, and emotionally, and we make it fun. Everything we do is tied to their success in life.”

Jason Marmon, Michael Lisovetsky, and Dean Soukeras, HomeSwipe (Photo credit: Daniel Sun)

Jason Marmon, Michael Lisovetsky, and Dean Soukeras, HomeSwipe (Photo credit: Daniel Sun)

Here is what a Draper U alum, Michael Lisovetsky, co-founder of HomeSwipe, has to say.

“Draper U has been incredibly helpful because it shifted my mindset. It exposed me to “10x thinking” and the power of thinking of new, grandiose new ideas instead of simple iterations. It offered me the opportunity to learn from top thought leaders in Silicon Valley, and use their perspectives to improve my company. It’s an incredible opportunity that changed the course of my life. Its core tenets are creating dramatic value for society and holding integrity above all – it’s a formative experience that has left me a better person.”

Startup Weekend Education at Galvanize, San Francisco (Photo credit: Name.com, http://www.name.com/blog/events/2015/02/startup-weekend-edu-san-francisco-2015-photo-gallery/)

Startup Weekend Education San Francisco hosted by Galvanize (Photo credit: Name.com, http://www.name.com/blog/events/2015/02/startup-weekend-edu-san-francisco-2015-photo-gallery/)

2. Galvanize‘s integrated campuses, educational programs, and diversity initiatives provide an on-ramp for anyone to enter and thrive in the tech industry and to access life-changing opportunities for growth. “I believe we can change the power distribution between those that ‘have’ and those that ‘have significantly less’ by bridging the long-existing gap between industry and education. At Galvanize, we’ve created a bridge through a community where students, startups, and industry partners work together on an integrated campus,” says Jim Deters, founder and CEO. Ninety-eight percent of Galvanize graduates have landed jobs.

Marlon Evans, the author, and Diane Flynn at GSVlabs (Photo credit: GSVlabs)

Marlon Evans, the author, and Diane Flynn at GSVlabs (Photo credit: GSVlabs)

3. GSVlabs, a portfolio company of GSV Capital (Nasdaq: GSVC), which democratizes access to venture capital-backed companies, offers international groups the chance to have a full Silicon Valley immersion experience. The two-month program includes workshops, mini-MBA style classes, internships with one of its eighty startups, and opportunities to learn from resident experts like Guy Kawasaki. “Because we focus on innovation around four key verticals: EdTech, Big Data, Mobile, and Sustainability, we have rich ecosystems of corporations and mentors into which our students can tap,” declares Marlon Evans, CEO.

GSVlabs hosts hundreds of groups from Brazil, Malaysia, China, South Korea, and other parts of the world each year. It also arranges field trips to local companies including Facebook, Google, and Apple. Marlon adds, “We believe we uniquely offer a fabulous immersion experience including a 72,000 square foot facility with a dedicated Academy classroom, an extensive mentor network, quality programs designed to help entrepreneurs thrive, and eighty startups that can provide quality internships.”

Randy Williams, entrepreneurs, and Dave Mosby, Keiretsu Forum Academy (Photo credit: Keiretsu Forum)

Randy Williams, entrepreneurs, and Dave Mosby, Keiretsu Forum Academy (Photo credit: Keiretsu Forum)

4. Keiretsu Forum Academy, part of the world’s largest angel investor network, Keiretsu Forum, equips entrepreneurs, investors, and innovation centers to accelerate their success by engaging them in a learning environment rather than imposing an educational one on them. The Academy delivers programs to learners using a timely and relevant inquiry-based learning methodology. Each faculty member is a practicing domain expert and Keiretsu Forum investor member. Dave Mosby, executive director of Keiretsu Forum Academy, states: “Each topical session is expert-led yet community-driven, which consistently produces surprising high-value outcomes.”

Mosby recounts: “So many presenting entrepreneurs struggled to resonate with investors, who frequently expressed their frustration that entrepreneurs ‘just couldn’t speak my language.’ I felt called to find a way to reshape these parties to mitigate their disparagement and struggles, to help entrepreneurs accelerate access to capital, and to help investors accelerate access to sound investments – so they can commercialize innovations together. Keiretsu Forum Academy was born of that call.”

Lightspeed Venture Partners Summer Fellowship

Lightspeed Venture Partners Summer Fellowship

5. Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Summer Fellowship program gives young entrepreneurs the time and resources to fully experience what it is like to start a company. This venture capital firm’s program and all its activities are entirely focused on “learning by doing” with a belief that entrepreneurship is like most things in life that are truly valuable to learn – you have to fall down and pick yourself up to truly understand the lesson. “In the words of Goethe: ‘Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being’,” states John Vrionis, partner at Lightspeed.

“The Lightspeed Summer Fellows are under no obligation and we don’t ask for equity. I started it nine years ago because many of my entrepreneurial classmates in college and graduate school took traditional internships for the money and worked at night on their startup ambitions. We wanted to create a risk-free program so young people interested in pursuing entrepreneurship could learn a set of critical skills and also test if now was the time in their life to make that choice.” Most college-aged people aren’t ready to be entrepreneurs. Building a great company requires insight and timing, not just energy.

Ben Nelson, Minerva (Photo credit: Martin Klimek / Getty Images)

Ben Nelson, Minerva (Photo credit: Martin Klimek / Getty Images)


6. Minerva founder and CEO Ben Nelsonsays: “Minerva is not only the first American Ivy League-caliber university launched in over a century but also the only university designed from the ground up to produce effective leaders and innovators who are broad thinkers and globally minded.” Its curriculum is structured to allow choice in course selection and a scaffold that provides deliberate intellectual development for each student. Every class is capped at twenty students and is driven by active learning since lectures are banned. Instead of building an expensive campus, Minerva uses some of the world’s great cities as their campus with students spending their first year in San Francisco and then living in six global capitals over the coming six semesters.

Nelson adds: “Imagine if the big three carmakers didn’t have to worry about Volkswagen, Toyota, Kia, and Tesla over successive generations. Cars would cost a lot more and be of much lower quality. That is what is happening with elite American universities, which is why Minerva’s lower-cost, higher-quality offering is so critical.”

7. The Thiel Fellowship, at which I am a mentor, brings together some of the world’s most creative and motivated young people. The Fellowship helps them bring their most ambitious projects to life. Thiel Fellows are given a grant of $100,000 to focus on their work, their research, and their self-education while outside of university. A community of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can’t be replicated in any classroom and who can access a wealth of additional resources, mentor the fellows. Rather than just studying, they are doing.

Let’s hear what two of the Thiel Fellows have to say.

Maddy Maxey, co-founder, The Crated, and a Thiel Fellow (Photo credit: Bonnie Tutur)

Maddy Maxey, The Crated, and a Thiel Fellow (Photo credit: Bonnie Tutur)

Madison Maxey, co-founder of The Crated, pays attention to enabling technologies that will contribute to the future of the wearable tech industry. “I started The Crated because of my love for mechatronics and apparel and a deep desire to contribute to the future of the emerging market of enhanced apparel and wearable technology. I think it’s a space that’s susceptible to the technology hype cycle. We collaborate with other companies in the space to bring products to market. The Thiel fellowship has been incredibly helpful to me in providing tools and mentorship while pursuing a road less traveled.”

William LeGate, co-founder, Ponder, and a Thiel Fellow

William LeGate, co-founder, Ponder, and a Thiel Fellow

William LeGate, co-founder of Ponder, is focusing on its interactive social network, which allows people to share what’s on their mind, get crowdsourced feedback for their everyday decisions, and influence the world around them. “I went straight from high school to the Thiel Fellowship in order to turn my vision for Ponder into a reality, and I haven’t looked back since. The most valuable thing the Fellowship has provided is a community of like-minded peers whom I can relate to. I was worried about missing out on the social experience of college, but I was happy to find out that the Foundation emphasizes happiness as much as success.”

8. TiE Institute focuses on providing deep insights and shared experiences from “people who have done it” to “people who want to do it” — all aspects of starting and running a company, in a peer-to-peer format. The Institute is part of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), which has 13,000 members, including over 2,500 charter members in 61 chapters across 18 countries. TiE fosters entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking, education, incubating, and funding. Dedicated to the cycle of creating wealth and giving back to the community, TiE’s focus is on generating and nurturing next-generation entrepreneurs.

Venk Shukla and Naeem Zafar, TiE (Photo credit: TiE)

Venk Shukla and Naeem Zafar, TiE (Photo credit: TiE)

“Many of us as TiE charter members have been through the school of hard knocks – we struggled to learn what no one teaches you at school and it is our obligation to share those insights and perspectives with the folks who are earlier in their journey,” says Venk Shukla, president of TiE Silicon Valley. The world’s largest entrepreneurship conference, TiEcon, will once again be held in Silicon Valley on May 15-16, 2015.

“Having worked at seven startups and led of four of them as the CEO, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge that can be dispensed. As charter members, we don’t get anything for it – actually we pay to have the privilege of sharing our knowledge and experiences – a form of paying it forward in Silicon Valley,” adds Naeem Zafar, the lead instructor at TIE Institute and an instructor on entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley and Brown University. I have been teaching at TIE Institute for 20 years now and it never gets old.”

Part of the UP Global team

Part of the UP Global team

9. UP Global CEO Marc Nager states: “The best way to learn how to start a business is to actually do it. Just like learning to play a team sport like basketball, you can memorize all of the plays and statistics, but you have no chance of winning without getting out on the court and playing the game with a real team.” UP Global embodies this philosophy of ‘No Talk, All Action’ through a series of experiential programs, including Startup Weekend, that help individuals tap into the networks and community that will facilitate the real world, hands-on experience necessary to truly help a startup get up and running.” Having guided student entrepreneurs in the Startup Weekend at a few top universities, I have found the event both intense and energizing.

Nager adds: “We believe that everyone should have the ability to pursue entrepreneurship as a path in life. There is nothing more human than wanting to create solutions to real problems, and entrepreneurship is the vehicle that can unleash that potential innate in every person on this planet.”

10. UP Global’s Education Entrepreneursdirector Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, chimes in: “In these past five years, nearly 100 Startup Weekend Education events have taken place across six continents, cementing it as the largest starting point for education entrepreneurship in the world. Now part of a larger initiative within UP Global called Education Entrepreneurs, Startup Weekend Education returned to its original home in San Francisco in February 2015 (SWEDU SF) to a sold out crowd of nearly 200 educators, developers, designers, business people, and marketers.” I was a speaker at this high-energy event.

Literator team, including Michelle Ching, along with judges, Startup Weekend Education San Francisco held at Galvanize (Photo credit: Galvanize)

Literator team, including Michelle Ching, along with judges, Startup Weekend Education San Francisco held at Galvanize (Photo credit: Galvanize)

SWEDU SF’s first-prize winner was startup Literator. Its creator and CEO Michelle Ching, a teacher at a high-need school in an inner city across the Bay, thankfully says the following.

“SWEDU SF provided a platform for a real solution to come to life. I identified a huge problem in my classroom — that I knew other teachers shared — but I simply couldn’t build it on my own. SWEDU allowed me to broaden my network to include engineers and designers who were eager to help. Together with a brilliant team, we were able to quickly develop a product that will have a positive impact.” Literator allows teachers to collect real-time data intuitively on students from informal assessments, beginning with literacy, and helps turn their observations into actionable data to determine pathways to success for students.

In conclusion, I believe that innovative, experiential learning, both off-campus and on-campus, will increasingly make marks worldwide. Many employers are not looking for those who simply “follow orders.” They need those who can think and act out of the box, those who bring a broad range of experience and skills to the table. What better way to set yourself apart from your competition? Of course, a solid education is necessary for success – but unconventional avenues of know-how and alternative, hands-on paths to learning are adding value to higher education, especially in the field of entrepreneurship.

If you would like to read more about successful students, young professionals, and young entrepreneurs who have learned the value of the experiential and experimental in attaining their goals, I recommend my new book, Young Leaders 3.0: Stories, Insights, and Tips for Next-Generation Achievers,which contains both practical advice and words of wisdom that students, businesspeople, and even parents will appreciate.

Any constructive comments or suggestions, please fire away below! 


Jason L. Ma is author of a groundbreaking new book, Young Leaders 3.0: Stories, Insights, and Tips for Next-Generation Achievers, and serves as founder, CEO, and chief mentor at ThreeEQ, a firm that privately mentors young leaders, coaches parents, and consults CEOs. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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