Bringing Experiential Learning (EL) to Students in Emerging Market Economies

There will always be gaps between the outputs of formal education and the changing needs of a society. While academic degrees are still important, they are no longer sufficient. Beyond coursework and knowledge, young people need specialized skills, competencies and experiences that align with emerging needs and opportunities. Not surprisingly, internships, mentored research, and other forms of Experiential Learning (EL) are becoming increasingly sought after by students, employers, and other stakeholders. Through integrating experiences with degrees and coursework, students can connect their preparation with opportunities to contribute and find meaningful employment. This trend is important for individuals seeking success and prosperity but also for sectors of the economy that can benefit from talent and capacity building.

While interest in EL is growing within American colleges and universities, it is largely nonexistent in East Africa and other emerging market economies. Yet the need is even more compelling. In Tanzania and Uganda, for example, secondary and tertiary education graduates continue to swell, and pervasive underemployment threatens long-term stabilization and sustainability. In recognition of this crisis, many are calling for Higher Education to reform curricula and move toward competence-based approaches that emphasize entrepreneurship, innovation and sustainable development. While colleges and universities have an important role to play, they clearly cannot handle it alone. The scale and complexity of challenges calls for a multi-stakeholder approach, one that includes the potential of EL to cultivate high-value skills and competencies through engaging young people with emerging technologies and opportunities for innovation and impact. 

Those of us who recognize the potential of EL within this context, should also recognize the inherent risks. Once we see EL as a capacity builder, a technology that can be directed at specific needs, opportunities and priorities, we can begin to build systems that generate targeted outputs- namely, a workforce with talents, skills and competencies that can fuel growth and address needs, as we define them. Because young people are desperate for employment and prosperity, they will naturally respond to opportunities, which will be controlled by those who offer them. These conditions can perpetuate patterns of exploitation and vulnerability, the same conditions that we want to reverse through EL and capacity building. Accordingly, it is imperative to be thoughtful and strategic in developing this EL system we envision, grounding it in a thorough analysis of the specific contextual landscape and goals to which we collectively aspire. This use of “collectively” necessitates the active input/ownership of the young people who stand to benefit and support the intended change and EL engagement.

The opportunity for thoughtfully constructed EL systems represents an important area for investment and innovation in the years to come.

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