By Marc Gurrisi

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a symposium hosted by the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE), the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD), and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). The theme of this event was work-integrated learning (WIL) in Ontario’s colleges and universities, with particular focus surrounding its educational impact, its role in developing transferable skills for students, and some best practices for implementing these types of programs.

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Many intriguing ideas were presented, as each panellist provided insights from their respective institutions and fielded questions from the large audience in attendance. One of the most significant discussions surrounded the notion that all students should have some form of WIL experience during their post-secondary education (as recommended by the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel earlier this year).

Specifically, many argued that these opportunities need to be relevant to the students’ respective fields of study, or at least provide students with the requisite transferable skills to prepare them for various jobs in the labour market. This is an important caveat because, as Martin Hicks of HEQCO pointed out, simply providing students with any type of work experience will not necessarily lead to substantial skills development in undergraduates. Ultimately, we need to uphold the quality of these opportunities. It was also rightly observed that institutions have always worked towards the mission of providing job-ready graduates. But what is the best way to achieve this in the contemporary context, wherein the labour market is oversaturated with diploma and degree holders?

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Sytem-wide considerations

WIL or experiential learning can take place in a variety of contexts, but it is typically conceptualized in one form: co-operative work placements or internships. While this would certainly be the ideal type of experience for every post-secondary student in the province, it is an incredibly unrealistic expectation to implement. Furthermore, if this path was pursued, we could anticipate that it would lead to many students suffering through unrewarding/irrelevant jobs.

We might also anticipate issues around the equitability factor of WIL opportunities once we account for field of study or even institutional reputation. For example, from a programmatic lens we can expect that STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math, etc.) will likely offer more direct pipelines to industry partners. This is for two reasons: 1) the industries are likely to covet the skills of these particular post-secondary students, and 2) these partnerships are already well-established in many regions/municipalities.

We can also expect that more prestigious institutions have greater capacity to provide students with these opportunities, both in terms of influence and financial resources. As such, institutions with lower resources and with greater specialization in non-STEM fields are less likely to be able to provide their students with paid positions relevant to all programs. This could create access inequities when it comes to the WIL landscape in the province.

MAESD could potentially counter-act this anticipated imbalance, though, by providing targeted funding for lower-resourced and non-STEM programs in colleges and universities. However, this does not necessitate that the quality of these opportunities will be high.

Another alternative worth considering is that perhaps field-specific placements are not the be-all-and-end-all of what an ideal WIL experience should entail. For instance, we know that employers are most critical of the transferable skillset that graduates need to succeed in the workplace, rather than discipline-specific knowledge. As such, is it really essential or even ideal to have students getting work experience in a position directly aligned with their program?

For an engineering or medical student, perhaps this answer is ‘yes’ since there are certain technical/ethical elements they need to practice in their professions. But for an arts student in philosophy, would it not be beneficial for them to get experience in fields like business or even public policy? These roles could encourage students to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to learning and increase the likelihood that they will graduate with a more well-rounded skillset. It could also help break down the silos that currently restrict hiring practices at some organizations/companies. By exposing students and employers to those who come from different backgrounds, it may expand the qualifications criteria that are currently put in job ads. In short, interdisciplinary WIL could be the answer to the lack of co-op/intern opportunities available to most arts students.

But as I said earlier, relying solely on co-op placements and internships is not the answer. If the province is genuinely intending to ensure that every post-secondary student will get a WIL experience during their studies, it is necessary for institutions to provide quality opportunities in diverse formats. A less obvious form of WIL can take the form of case studies, wherein students are tasked with completing tasks that are reflective of the type of work they would be doing in a workplace setting. These can take place as capstone projects, be given to a class on a monthly or weekly basis, or sometimes cover the entirety of a course. Another possibility can be through providing students with guest speakers who are professionals in relevant fields of study. These opportunities promote networking and mentoring options for students, as well as insider information on what some of the roles and responsibilities are for these professionals.

While including guest speakers and case studies in course design does not have the same level of appeal to most employers, they can still be incredibly beneficial to students when they are linked to specific learning outcomes. Ensuring that students both understand and can articulate the learning they receive from these diverse WIL formats should be the real goal of their inclusion. At the end of the day, it is not the length of work experience or wage received that determine a recent graduate’s employability, but rather their capacity to articulate the relevance of what they have learned to employers. This has, and always will be, the essence of what makes students employable.

As such, institutions should work to ensure that the WIL aspects of their programs and their respective learning outcomes are made explicit to all students. This would both fulfill the concerns shared by students, parents, employers, and the provincial government, as well as get institutions to embrace a more holistic approach to their learning outcomes frameworks across all disciplines.

Maintaining Open Dialogue

The most encouraging aspect of this symposium was seeing how many relevant stakeholders in Ontario’s post-secondary education sector have a genuine interest in WIL and experiential learning. This is incredibly encouraging for the province, as it suggests that the people who make and implement policy are communicating their experiences, sharing best practices, and establishing effective policies for Ontario’s college and university students.

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