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Making Use of Experience in Learning

While it sounds far-fetched, the idea of having white-collar criminals lecture colleges students on business ethics is not really a huge stretch for higher education.

"Experiential education," while still often derided as a nonempirical approach to learning, is gaining ground in higher education, says Garry Hesser, a professor of sociology and urban studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. A past president of the National Society for Experiential Education, he says the organization's ranks now include dozens of university professors. It represents, he says, a return to the ideas of educator John Dewey, who espoused learning through experience.

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One bandwagon in higher education today is cooperative learning in which students take jobs as interns in business or volunteer organizations for college credit. Even smaller slices of life, inserted into the curriculum can be valuable, Mr. Hesser says. But he offers caveats.

"As professors, we have to determine what kind of experiences will be educative as opposed to mis-educative," he says. "You might have the most articulate guy who may be the ultimate con artist. So instead of making people avoid it, he convinces people they can get by with it." If a speaker, say an alcoholic, is brought in to tell his story just for the "shock value, then that's pretty dumb and irresponsible," Hesser says.

Richard Davis, a Susquehanna University professor who brought in white-collar criminals, agrees. "When these men get up there, they're the ones that did these things," he says. "It's a powerful message."

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