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Core Curriculum director receives national award for experiential learning

Jeffrey Coker, associate professor of biology and the director of the Core Curriculum since 2011, was honored Sept. 27 by the National Society of Experiential Education. 

Jeffrey Coker, whose six-year tenure heading the Core Curriculum has helped make Elon a national leader in experiential education, has been honored for his work to better integrate practical experience into higher education. 

Jeffrey Coker, associate professor of biology and director of the Elon Core Curriculum

Coker was presented the Outstanding Leader in Experiential Education Award by the National Society of Experiential Education on Sept. 27 during the society's 45th annual conference in San Antonio, Texas. The award recognizes the work that Coker has done to help make experiential education a more integral part of the experience at Elon along with his scholarship and consulting work to encourage this critical component of higher education to be implemented more broadly in the field. 

An associate professor of biology at Elon, Coker said his interest in experiential education began growing before he arrived at Elon in 2004. "I've been a practitioner and researcher of experiential learning for about 16 years," Coker said. "Unlike most people getting a PhD, I was doing educational research while I was getting a PhD in plant biology. In graduate school, I was doing research on undergraduate research, among other things."

During his undergraduate years at Davidson College, Coker studied classical civilizations abroad and spent a semester at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort on the coast of North Carolina. "As I look back at college, the things that really had the biggest impact on my education were experiential in nature," he said. When experiential learning and intellectual stimulation mix together, he said, "it's really powerful."

Starting his tenure as director of the Elon Core Curriculum six years ago, the university was exploring deepening its experiential learning requirement (ELR), which was well within Coker's wheelhouse. The university wasn't exactly sure what to do with its ELR, but everyone realized that the experience needed to be deepened, Coker said. "The trick is, and all the work centered on, figuring out how to do that in a constructive and progressive way, and how to do it so it works."

At Elon, that ELR has since doubled, with the Class of 2017 to become the first to graduate under the new experiential learning requirement framework. The challenge was in defining what a "unit" of experiential learning was in a way that gives it meaning, and then maintaining quality standards across the university, Coker said. At Elon, those units of experiential learning can include study abroad or the Study USA program, undergraduate research, internships, service-learning opportunities, approved leadership experiences and other more customized experiences. 

Other college and universities are increasingly incorporating experiential learning into their curricula, and turning to Elon's model and to Coker for guidance. When Coker started immersing himself in experiential learning research, there were probably half a dozen colleges and universities with ELRs in place. Now there are probably two dozen, with as many as three dozen working to put that framework into place, Coker said. 

"A lot of schools see what Elon is doing," Coker said. "I get calls every few weeks from schools wanting information about how we do things."

Looking forward, Coker said Elon needs to continue to focus on how to integrate experiential learning across the curriculum so that all students achieve both experiential breadth and depth. Both are important for students' long-term success, according to Coker's recent research. 

"What we're aspiring to is for this be central to every college student's experience, and to me that's revolutionary," Coker said. "There are only a handful of schools in the history of American higher education who have really aspired to that. I think it's a noble thing to be doing."

Owen Covington,
9/30/2016 10:10 AM