Is Your Real-World Experience Real Enough?

Student pairs with professional mentor for real-world experience

As faculty teaching at a professional school, we frequently explain to our students that the activities and projects they have been assigned will give them the tools they need to operate in the real world. And we are not alone. There are many services that offer students opportunities to gain practical skills important to their lives after graduation. Evidence of this can be found through a quick scan of websites used by various educational providers and academic institutions that promote their offerings. For example:

  • CapSource, an educational startup that pairs institutions of higher education with organizations to help students “gain industry exposure,” defines their mission as “preparing students for the ‘real world’ while providing companies with free access to fresh ideas and talent.”
  • Le Wagon, a coding boot-camp, presents its courses as opportunities for students to “learn a new programming language very quickly, which is extremely important in the fast-paced environment of web development.”
  • Northeastern University’s program model is a combination of coursework and professional experience. Students attending the school are provided with skills to “learn from every experience” so they can “move more easily among lanes—coursework, jobs, tasks, cultures—and transfer skills to new challenges in today’s fast-paced world.”

Even our school, the NYU School of Professional Studies, endorses a real-world approach, stating that students “work in multidisciplinary teams solving actual business problems in an experiential, flipped-classroom format,” where “viable student solutions get implemented in the real-world.”

In our attempt to create a real-world learning experience in our course, we introduce students to a professional partner in need of a web presence for their business. Our students design a web site or application, and at the end of the course the partner assesses the work and offers feedback. Our goal was for the student’s output to be implemented by the partner, however, that has not yet happened, and so we have asked ourselves, ‘What could we do to foster projects where this goal is feasible?’

Defining “Real World”

To properly answer this question, we felt we needed a clear definition of what a real-world experience was and whether our expectations were realistic. With this in mind, we spoke to a few of our colleagues from the institutions mentioned above to get their take on the definition of “real world” and how real-world experiences can impact classroom learning. We learned that a definition was not easy to pin down and that achieving real-world fidelity is quite challenging. 

Jordan Levy, executive director of CapSource, said that for learning to be truly real-world, it needs to “generate reference-worthy experience by including real stakeholders, who have real challenges, that expect real outcomes, and are willing to provide real feedback along the way.”

Richard O’Grady, country manager of LeWagon, defined real-world learning as modeling a professional experience. O’Grady explained that LeWagon’s approach is one where “the teacher delivers the fundamental concepts within a brief lecture, and then the rest of the day is spent by the students on their own, where it is up to them to learn and push themselves. So, it’s not like the students submit code and then a teacher marks it and grades it, because the real-world isn’t like that. It’s not about whether it’s the right method in terms of how the teacher sees it, but it’s about getting to a solution, which obviously solves the problem. The students need to do that by themselves, with their peers, and using the internet, just like they would as a developer.”

Finally, David Merry, associate director for Experiential Integration at Northeastern University, explained real-world as such, “If I’m a student in a Calculus class, the end goal is that I learn Calculus. But, if I’m engaged in a project at NASA and I’m learning to use Calculus, then the ends go beyond academic knowledge.”

Strengthening Your Real-World Experience

These three thoughtful viewpoints have helped us better understand the real-world aspects of our own classroom. When we first started, we believed that we had many of the ingredients that made a learning experience real-world. However, we now see student work had almost no real-world stakes beyond that a professional would be assessing their work along with a faculty member, and whose final evaluation weighed more than the professional partner’s. So, what could we do to “raise the stakes,” so to speak? Here is where our thoughts currently lie:

1. Link the learner to the partner. The teacher should not mute the opportunity for the students and professional partner to work together. Dave Merry describes this relationship as a loop. “A student learns something in the classroom, maybe they go out on an internship or they go into the real world and engage in it. Then to close the loop, the student asks and reflects, ‘How did I learn this skill? How can I apply this skill in the future?'” The critical component, he suggests, is “reconnecting with an educator” as they can help students process what they have learned and prepare them for further partner engagement.

When the faculty member acts as a mentor for both parties, the relationship between the partner and student can become more empowering. The students should be engaging with the partner directly, asking questions, and sharing ideas to which the partner can offer feedback. 

2. Link the learners to the experience. The teacher should avoid prescribed activities and instead encourage learning through the challenges of the project. This allows the students to experience real-world problems and to solve them as they unfold. As O’Grady explained, “What we want is for someone to be able to think like a developer; someone who can solve problems by themselves. Students should not just be able to solve the problems that they know, but also be able to solve the problems that they don’t know.”

With this in mind, the teacher should allow the classroom to reflect the potential of the real world, embracing unpredictability and unforeseen challenges. The classroom should be seen as a reflective space where students can work together with the teacher to solve problems that develop during their work with the professional partner.

3. Link the experience to the professional partner. The professional partner is integral to the learning experience. Typically, partners expect to gain something in exchange for their time and access to their resources. They should, for example, be provided solutions for their business needs or have access to a tangible product. Jordan Levy suggests that to achieve this, faculty involvement is necessary. Levy said, “The companies will only be involved as long as they feel they’re getting value. On the other hand, for this to be a meaningful learning experience for the students, the companies need to be engaged.” To kindle this value exchange, the course curriculum should be flexible, allowing faculty to redesign content as a response to the demands that emerge. Situating the learning experience around the evolving requirements of the project can help focus the students’ efforts. The potential for contributing value is more likely when course outcomes respond to actual challenges that the partner is facing.

As we have discovered, even when students are wholly engaged in the real world, their efforts often have little effect on the problems they’re seeking to solve. We believe that to achieve this difficult aspect of real-world fidelity, faculty must guide the professional partners to be less like employers and more like, as Dave Merry described, “educators in the field.” What we hope to accomplish by starting this discussion is twofold. First, we hope to develop a framework for involving the professional partner in the learning experience; and second, we hope to come up with a tool to help faculty better define real-world experiences. We hope these efforts will lead to the development of a framework that will help us, and other educators, harness the power of the real world.


Dr. Paul Acquaro is a lecturer with FOM University of Applied Science for Economics and Management in Berlin and an adjunct assistant professor teaching online with New York University’s School of Professional Studies. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in database development, web technologies, IT management, business communication, and project development. Acquaro has over 20 years experience in information technology, communications, and curriculum development and teaching, and earned a doctorate in Education, focusing on instructional technology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Among his many interests is exploring how to combine the possibilities of online learning and the power of problem-based pedagogy.

Dr. Steven Goss is the dean of the School of Professional Studies at Manhattan College. He joined Manhattan College after serving as the vice provost of digital learning at Teachers College, Columbia University where he helped to facilitate the institutional mission for online education. Prior to Teachers College, Goss lead several successful online initiatives at Bank Street College of Education and New York University. He has received awards from The Association for the Advancement of Education in Computing (AACE) and Online Learning Consortium (OLC) for his research on learner-centered online education.