The Importance of Experiential Projects: Bring Learning to Life

Online MBA programs are putting on an expansive array of practical experiences, helping cement learning and strengthen MBA networks

Experiential learning opportunities, where students take their learning beyond the classroom, have long been a core part of the MBA curriculum. And while participants in Online MBA programs are generally studying remotely, there are still ample opportunities for them to get stuck into real-world learning.

Top business schools are putting on an expansive array of practical learning experiences for their Online MBA candidates, ranging from consultancy projects with leading global corporations to airplane cockpit simulations to get them thinking about crisis management.

The benefits to the students who participate are immense, in terms of strengthening bonds and networks and cementing the learning they have gained on the MBA.

Solving a real corporate challenge

At UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in North Carolina, the MBA@UNC students have the option to attend an in-person orientation in Chapel Hill to meet each other and establish personal connections with other working professionals even before their first online class.

Once they begin the MBA program, the students form teams to participate in the STAR consulting program, an optional course designed for students to learn by doing as they apply coursework and new skills to a real corporate challenge.  

“They take on the role of consultants to real companies which recruit and employ our students, delivering creative, fact-based and actionable recommendations directly to the corporate partner,” says Matt Hente, Director of the MBA@UNC online program.

“The projects are designed to expose students to new industries and roles, while strengthening their complex problem-solving capabilities and teamwork skills.”

The projects also benefit the business school. UNC Kenan-Flagler says learning by doing helps the knowledge “stick” and cements it in applications that mimic the challenges participants experience at work, which helps ensure the skills they build last. 

“These experiences also provide opportunities to apply what they learn in class in low-risk environments. They hone many skills, such as teamwork, project management and leadership,” says Hente.

A rich, practical learning experience

The Global Online MBA capstone at Imperial College Business School is an experiential module that represents the student’s final experience on the MBA. A seven-day experience, it takes place in London and draws on a multitude of disciplines, from entrepreneurship to marketing and strategy to finance, that participants students studied during their MBA.

“The brief of the module is for students to work in teams on a real-world corporate innovation and develop a strategy to take it to market,” says Professor Markus Perkmann, Academic Director of the Imperial Global Online MBA. “Teams interact with their company as well as experts to develop their proposition, and pitch it to corporate investors on demo day.

“These experiences are designed for students to deliver real world outcomes in a safe and mentored environment, allowing for a rich, practical learning experience,” he adds.

Experiences like the capstone benefit the school by creating very close connections with companies, some of whom may join Imperial’s advisory board or make other contributions to career services. 

“These projects are designed in close cooperation with companies, or with venture capital investors,” Perkmann says. “Project outputs may be implemented within companies, or [spun out as] start-ups by students.”

Mindfulness and meditation activities

The Australia Graduate School of Management, at UNSW Business School in Sydney, also creates experiential learning experiences that equip students to immediately apply what they learn on the MBA to the world of work.

Clients that the online students have worked with on consultancy projects include Google and Woolworths, but also a range of smaller organizations.

There are also mindfulness and meditation activities that are valuable in the context of developing resilience -- a key employment skill -- and outdoor physical activities that get students to think about team dynamics.

“One example is taking students to a 747-cockpit simulator to get them to experience awareness of complex crisis situations and work under stress as a team, or through role playing activities like negotiation situations,” says Maurizio Floris, Director of the MBAX online programs at AGSM.

While fun to deliver, these experiences are logistically trickier to manage. But that extra effort is worthwhile when it comes to the quality of the overall learning experience, Floris insists.

“Experiential activities resonate in a different way than just if you just engage in conceptual learning or lectures,” he explains. 

“What this means is that down the track when students need to draw on their knowledge and experience in real situations, it is often these memories of very practical activities that they recall most easily and can draw most effectively.”

Lastly, Floris says a lot of these activities are done as a group. “This also helps deepen and extend the personal connection between students and strengthen the network that they’re trying to build as part of an MBA.”

The greatest challenge that participants face? Time scarcity, according to Hente at Kenan-Flagler. “MBA@UNC students are working professionals with vibrant personal lives, so scheduling times to be able to participate can be complicated.” But for most, it’s well worth the effort. 

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