What does it mean to ‘learn how to learn’? Northeastern fireside chat explores the role of technology, virtuality in experiential learning

Three people sitting underneath a projector screen having a panel conversation
Senior Vice Chancellor of Educational Innovation, Connie Yowell moderates a conversation between speakers Leanne Chukoskie and Nick Burbules as part of the Global Perspectives on Experiential Education series in the Egan Research Center in Boston. Speakers discuss the benefits of experience-based learning for motivation, knowledge application, retention, and the social nature of learning. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

What does it mean to “learn how to learn,” and how does one go about it? The ability to learn is a core part of what it means to be a human being. But precisely how educators go about fostering learning environments amid the rapid pace of technological change is a question continuously being asked. 

In keeping with tradition, it was the subject of a fireside chat at Northeastern on Monday that brought together experts from Northeastern and elsewhere for a robust roundtable discussion. The chat, “Technology-infused Experiential Learning,” was part of Northeastern’s Global Perspectives on Experiential Education series, which examines the role technology plays in experiential learning settings.   

The conversation, which was moderated by Connie Yowell, senior vice chancellor of educational innovation within Northeastern’s Office of the Chancellor, veered between high-level theory about different academic approaches to learning, and one expert’s commentary, for example, on the rise in augmented or virtual reality tools in the classroom—in particular, how educators are harnessing developments in the gaming space to shape learning methods. 

“There’s been a lot of use of technology in the, ‘Oh, wow, this is cool’ sense, but not as much in really thinking about” how to address specific problems, says Leanne Chukoskie, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Science in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “That said, I think games are very powerful and engaging” teaching tools. 

Chukoskie, who is also an associate professor in the Games Program in the College of Arts, Media, and Design, emphasized how experiential learning—the cornerstone of a Northeastern education—is best fostered by bringing together students of different skill sets, and maintaining a “human” element as learning becomes increasingly virtual. 

Indeed, the rise of “online learning,” accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, poses new questions about the future of higher education, including how to best meet the many needs of an increasingly diverse student population.   

“I like teaching through learning to build something, like a game,” Chukoskie says. “I’ve done a lot of that over the last six years of my career. Watching students work together with different skill sets to build these kinds of things is very much how I’d like to see technology-enabled learning” in practice.  

Chukoskie runs a lab that develops “sensor-enabled experiences” geared in particular toward individuals with developmental differences. Trained as a neuroscientist, Chukoskie says her first introduction into thinking about and researching “how we learn” was at the Science of Learning Research Center at the University of California San Diego. 

“I was really looking for new models of experiential learning,” Chukoskie said. “One of the things that I found was the social aspect—was learning to work together in teams, particularly in cross-disciplinary teams.”

That process—having students work together while they were learning new skills—is key, she says, in producing tangible results. This is why Chukoskie believes in learning based on “real-world projects,” where students “get out of their comfort zones” to learn new skills while collaborating on a given problem. 

It’s an approach central to why she decided to work at Northeastern. 

“When I had the opportunity to apply here, and seeing the amazing interdisciplinary and now global opportunities that exist at Northeastern, I was super excited with their experiential focus to come here and take that next step as a research scientist and a professor all in one place,” she said. 

Nick Burbules, the Gutgsell Professor of Education, Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, also took part in the discussion. He likened the process of experiential learning to the philosophical writings of the American Pragmatist John Dewey, and educational theorist David Kolb.

Experience, he says, is something like a “transaction between a person and a situation or a set of circumstances”—according to Dewey—“in which there is an active dynamic between the two sides of the relationship.”

“Think of experience not as a noun, but as a verb,” Burbules says. “Experience isn’t something that you have—although we tend to say that: ‘I had an experience’—[it] is something that you do.” 

Connecting aspects of Dewey’s approach to today’s more scientific approaches to learning, Burbules suggested that there are many lessons educators can take from early thinkers, like Dewey. 

“What Dewey wants us to do is take that inquiry orientation and generalize it to all kinds of learning—not just in the sciences but other fields as well,” Burbules says. “And I think you’re right that project-based learning … is ideal for that driver, where you’re confronted with a question or a challenge or an opportunity and think, ‘What am I going to do about this?’ That stimulates a different kind of learning.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter@tstening90.