The future of work-integrated learning

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Last updated July 19, 2021

Katelyn Chan wondered what it was like to be an entrepreneur and grow her own brand. So when the Western University Ivey Business School student got the chance to intern at a startup through an innovative work-integrated learning (WIL) program called Level UP, she dove right in.

Chan spent 80 hours over five weeks as a social media marketing intern at Riipen, where she created social media templates and an entire TikTok strategy. “That experience helped me a lot,” said Chan. “This past summer I launched a clothing business and learned to create a brand that I can grow strictly through social media.”

Learning in a classroom can be a rewarding experience, but integrating that learning within a workplace or practice setting can take it to a whole new level. After all, why settle for traditional learning when you can pair it with real-world experience too? Plus, leading Canadian academic institutions are now making these kinds of opportunities accessible to more and more students.

At University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC), co-operative education opportunities across programs have been available for decades. But now individual WIL initiatives are burgeoning too. Faculty and staff members interested in developing new WIL initiatives or sustaining continuing ones get support and guidance in determining the type of experiences most relevant to their courses—and in identifying the best partners for student placements. The university has also created an Experiential Learning Fund to support innovative WIL pilot projects and cover a variety of expenses.

Corinne Beauquis, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream and Special Advisor on Experiential Education for the Office of the Vice-President Academic and Dean at the University of Toronto, says WIL provides students with “transformative experiential, and holistic curricular learning opportunities.” It also prepares students for the world of work and the disruptions of the future. “WIL allows the university to consider students and community partners as transformative agents involved in the co-construction of new knowledge,” said Beauquis. “We ensure that the multiplicity of voices can be heard and valued.”

What’s work-integrated learning (WIL)?

Work-integrated learning typically consists of a partnership between an academic institution, host employer or organization, and a student. The learning formats can include:

  • Applied research projects where students are engaged in research or consulting projects in the community
  • Apprenticeships where an employer is willing to provide paid related practice experience to a person who wants to learn a skill (apprenticeships combine 80 per cent in the field experience with 20 per cent technical classroom training)
  • Co-operative education where the student alternates between academic terms and paid work terms
  • Entrepreneurship, which allows a student to leverage resources, space and funding to build a startup or to advance ideas that address real-world needs—all while gaining academic credit
  • Field placement, which gives students an intense, short-term placement in a setting relevant to their area of study
  • Internships where students get a practice placement that is supervised, with or without pay
  • Clinical placements, which involve work experience under the supervision of a preceptor (i.e., an experienced licensed or registered professional) in any field that requires practice-based work experience for professional certification
  • Service learning, which integrates community service with classroom instruction
  • Work experience, which integrates one or two work-terms related to the student’s field of study into an academic program

At the University of Toronto, one WIL course called Classical Plane Geometries and their Transformations allowed students to job shadow and interview people from six different organizations and then prepare presentations they delivered to partners ranging from a robotics company and engineering firm to an art gallery. The objective was to provide students with an understanding of how geometry is applied in different real-world work environments.

In another called “Introduction to Biological and Cognitive Psychology,” students prepare content for various organisations. The Ontario Government asked students to present material on online education, for example, while the Durham Flight Training School requested communication materials for trainee pilots.

Why the growing interest now?

While co-op programs have been around for decades, academic institutions are looking to incorporate other innovative WIL opportunities to help better prepare students for today’s rapidly changing work environments. It also reduces barriers for those students coming from underrepresented groups and communities.

“Our platform and approach to work-integrated learning is dedicated to accessibility and removing barriers of geography while enabling students from underrepresented groups to overcome hiring biases in the traditional recruitment system by demonstrating their skills instead of simply submitting a resume and participating in an interview,” said Riipen co-founder and CEO Dana Stephenson. “As many opportunities have moved into a virtual setting due to the pandemic, the geographical barrier of having to be in person to work with a company is also reduced.”

For employers, Stephenson said working with students is also a great way to garner fresh perspectives and new ideas, plus employers can give back to their industries by providing students with opportunities for career growth while supporting long-term innovation through skills development.  “WIL can also help remove friction in a business’ recruitment processes as they grow a pool of potential future hires that they’ve worked with and trained first-hand, while diversifying their pipelines,” he added.

While computer or business programs are what come to mind when thinking about experiential learning, Stephenson says there is incredible value in WIL for the humanities and arts too. “It’s all about taking a look at the skills students learn in class and applying it to a real-life situation, no matter what they’re studying,” he says. For example, a gender studies student can make recommendations on how to craft a more inclusive recruitment process, or a social work student can review a company’s website for accessibility.

In 2017, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) released their Guiding Principles for Experiential Learning, underlining their commitment to ensuring that “every student has at least one EL opportunity by the time they graduate from post-secondary education.”

In 2021, Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada, the lead organization for WIL, launched a grant competition for all new and innovative projects in colleges and universities. UTSC received funding for 18 projects designed to enhance the student experience. This past May, WIL practitioners also had an opportunity to share and reflect upon their initiatives at the World Association for Co-operative Education Conference 2021.

Chan says joining the Level UP program has been a valuable addition to her education process. “It definitely built my confidence and broadened my outlook on what I want to do,” she added. “This is something I wouldn’t have been able to get from a classroom.”

Rosalind Stefanac

Rosalind Stefanac is a writer and editor who is passionate about sharing Canadian healthcare stories and successes. A former editor of Pharmacy Practice + Business, an award-winning national journal for pharmacists, she now writes for a variety of healthcare magazines and websites geared to consumers and healthcare providers. She has also written for business publications such as Financial Post Magazine and the Report on Business.

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