President Worthen’s Inspiring Learning initiative two years later

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Savannah Hopkinson
BYU President Kevin J Worthen’s drive to increase inspired learning continues to affect BYU campus two years later. (Savannah Hopkinson)

President Kevin J. Worthen announced a push for inspired learning in August 2016, an initiative that would attempt to make the slogan “the world is our campus” a reality.

Two years later, the campus is still trying to live up to this charge. It’s succeeding in some ways, but there still seems to be some disconnect in other areas.

President Worthen’s initiative was first revealed in an address to faculty and staff at BYU’s University Conference. The purpose was to increase the amount of inspired and experiential learning taking place across campus.

The Office of Experiential Learning did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Tony Brown, a professor of German and Russian, said the idea behind President Worthen’s initiative is nothing new. 

“I’d like to think that departments were driving such efforts long before the university launched its own initiative,” Brown said.

Art Department Chair Gary Barton said experiential learning activities are something his department has facilitated since the early ’80s.

Music professor Luke Howard said “everything we do is experiential learning.” According to Howard, there has always been a focus on learning through experience in the School of Music.

“It’s nice to see that philosophy and that approach expanded across the campus,” Howard said.

Howard, who has directed multiple study abroad programs — including to the London Centre, Paris and Rome — said the main change he’s seen since the initiative’s launch is students’ levels of engagement.

Students participate in inspired learning initiatives in the London Centre, Paris and Rome study abroad programs. (Luke Howard)

“I found that the students were more eager to self-direct their education, and a lot more students were proactively looking for opportunities to improve their education on a study abroad,” Howard said. “Because this is now explicit because President Worthen has given us this charge to make it a focus of our experience at BYU, the students are more engaged and eager to pursue experiential opportunities.”

However, a rise in student excitement isn’t necessarily reflected in study abroad programs run out of the Kennedy Center. After a 31 percent increase in the number of students applying for study abroad programs in the 2016–2017 school year, numbers dropped this year by 33 percent, bringing the percentage lower than it was before President Worthen’s initiative.

“Initiatives launched at the level of the university or college speak to the metaphor of the tail wagging the dog,” Brown said. This approach “consistently contributes to programs that have a short shelf life.”

Brown suggested these types of initiatives should connect with departments.

“The university’s experiential learning initiative is only as strong as individual departments’ initiatives,” Brown said. “The message resonates with students to the degree to which it echoes the departmental message.”

Despite a decrease in students applying, both the number of programs provided by the Kennedy Center and the number of students accepted into those programs has risen since 2016.

“At least part of that (growth), if not most of it, is because of the push for experiential learning,” said Lynn Elliott, Director of International Study Programs (ISP) at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.

This may be because part of President Worthen’s initiative made securing funding for inspired learning opportunities “one of the top fundraising priorities for the university.”

Barton said one of the most significant changes he has witnessed is an increase in funding provided by the university.

“It’s allowed us to expand what we’re able to do and provide more opportunities for students, at less cost to them,” Barton said. He also stated that they’re able to be more creative with the opportunities they provide. One example of this is the Summer Intensive Program, which provides students with hands-on learning opportunities in Utah and Los Angles.

“We were able to do (the program) in large part due to the funding provided by the university and through kind donors,” Barton said.

The Department of Art is not the only unit on campus that has experienced an increase in funding. In a 2017 address, President Worthen said more than $1 million was given to colleges for inspiring learning projects. This funding was a result of a reallocation of funds from the university’s operating budget. Donors also contributed $6 million to the initiative.

Worthen said $1.2 million of that was immediately made available for student use, while the rest went toward the university’s goal of creating a $120 million endowment by the end of 2021.

However, the ability to provide more activities for students also has its downsides.

“It’s made my work more difficult,” Brown said. “University-wide or even college-wide initiatives inevitably contribute to increased bureaucracy and needless meddling.”

Barton says one of the challenges they’ve faced is the amount of administration required for experiential learning opportunities to take place. He says the decisions about how to manage those opportunities require an “ongoing discussion.”

For example, the art department has sought to increase and improve the number of opportunities students have to build relationships with faculty and work directly under faculty mentorship.

According to Barton, some of the most valuable experiences students have are those where they work alongside faculty members. The use of experiential learning funds to allow students to work on projects collaboratively or even in the role of assistant to faculty members is something Barton says may be adopted throughout campus.

As the 2017–2018 school year draws to a close, departments across BYU are evaluating how to improve the experiential learning opportunities they offer and how they allocate the funds they’ve been provided with.

“The nice thing about the phrase ‘experiential learning’ is that it can spin off in so many different directions and mean so many different things,” Howard said. “There are opportunities everywhere.”

For many, fulfilling this initiative has actually been an experiential learning experience in and of itself — one that seems unlikely to end anytime soon.

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