A friend who recently graduated with her Bachelor’s degree asked me, “Finally…I’m done! So, what’s next?” Great question. What happens after the degree or certificate has been earned? Do we let our busy lives take over, and relax the learning muscles honed by textbooks, professors, and term papers? Far too often, that is the reality of what happens. But our deep pursuit of learning shouldn’t stop once we’ve fulfilled a set of requirements set by an institution or instructor.

Socrates was supposed to have said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” As an Instructional Designer of online courses, I am inspired by this statement, and I often think about how learning experiences can be designed to “kindle the flame”.

As instructional designers, we should not only design online courses so that learners absorb knowledge from the content, we should help to create a lingering feeling of curiosity after the course ends; it means we’ve created an appetite that will propel them on the path towards lifelong learning (an article by NPR talks about how curiosity helps us stimulate our minds to learn more). But we can do more than inspire curiosity. We can also design courses to help learners reach another important learning milestone: applying what they’ve learned in the course to their own setting or work. This can best be achieved through designing project-based learning experiences.

Many of NovoEd’s courses encourage project-based learning in which students engage in experiential learning and learn by doing. In courses from +Acumen, learners are encouraged to continue applying their design thinking projects in their own community. For example, senior engineering students at Oral Roberts University are using the project-based courses to evolve their project from an idea, to make cashew processing safer, to a solution that can be used by villagers in the eastern coast of Brazil. Three months after the course, and after many prototypes, their project is still evolving. (You can learn more about +Acumen’s impact stories at their blog, http://plusacumen.org/blog/)

We should also encourage learners to engage with each other socially online, not just through discussion boards, but by joining a team or finding a mentor to guide them through their journey. These social connections can increase felt accountability, which helps people persevere in a course, and can also provide a support network even after the course is over. As many of us can attest to, many people learn more from interacting with other learners than they do from the instructor. Creating a robust social community with sharing, profiles, likes/favorites, trending items, etc. will maximize the chances of this occurring in an online environment.

As I reflect upon my own learning experiences, I’ve realized that learning opportunities become even more meaningful after a formal learning experience, when I am inspired to explore the topic further or want to apply it in a new situation. This was an important insight for me: If I’m still feeling curious after a course ends, it doesn’t mean that my learning goals were not met. It means that I’ve kindled my flame that will guide me further down the path towards lifelong learning.

To my friend who recently graduated from college, I advised her that with any company or profession she joins, she should look for opportunities which allow her to continue to learn and grow. Our generation will probably need to learn many times more than any prior generation. So companies that understand this, and provide meaningful learning experiences that fan the flames of lifelong curiosity, will be coveted by thoughtful employees.