Work-integrated learning (WIL) and experiential education (EE) are hot topics. This focus has been amplified by recent recommendations from the Business Council of Canada and the Ontario Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel, as well as reinforced by comments from the Premier, that 100% of postsecondary students should have at least one WIL or EE experience by the time they complete their postsecondary education.
We at HEQCO are long-standing fans of WIL and EE. Past HEQCO contributions have included published work on the views of faculty, employers and students on WIL; development of a typology of WIL activities that the Ontario government has adopted, and a WIL handbook for practitioners. In the fall we will publish a paper from Osgoode Hall on the legal implications of WIL for both employers and institutions.
What is concerning about the current discussion of WIL and EE, however, is that the conversation is largely centered on the idea of this 100% target, which is focusing people on the issue of how to count WIL and EE experiences. Questions like: should a 12-month internship count for twice as much as a six-month co-op? Do laboratories, which are traditional elements of science courses, count as experiential learning? Does it count as a WIL or EE experience if an enterprising student finds an unpaid internship on their own? We have been brought into many discussions like this recently and, frankly, the meetings are beginning to resemble discussions of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Let’s face it, we are not really sure how to classify or count WIL and EE experiences and we may never be able to come up with some counting scheme that satisfies everyone. As long as we are focused on counting (and we will be if incremental funding for WIL and EE is dependent on an increase in participation in these programs) the motivation will be to adopt the most liberal definitions of these experiences.
Our strong suggestion is that we need to refocus the WIL and EE conversation from counting to the far more fundamental question of why we are promoting these experiences in the first place. Let’s acknowledge that a dominant reason driving this interest in WIL and EE is the view that they will foster and develop the skills students need to succeed in today’s jobs and labour markets. Given this motivation (notwithstanding the validity of the claim that students are inadequately prepared), the dominant question should not be the number of students having these experiences but rather whether these experiences are actually resulting in the development of the desired skills.
To ensure that the WIL and EE programs funded achieve the desired goal of fostering job-related skills and competencies, we recommend that any recipient of project funds from government be required to:
- Articulate the skills and competencies that the WIL/EE experience is intended to develop.
- Identify the instrument or procedure that will be used to measure these skills or competencies.
- Use this instrument to evaluate whether the WIL/EE experience has led to improvement in the desired skills and competencies.
- Publicly disclose the results of these evaluations to ensure dissemination of best practice.
We believe it is reasonable to set aside 5% of program funds for these obligatory evaluations.
Based on the available evidence, it is reasonable to suggest that WIL and EE will help students develop some skills and competencies that will be useful to them in their careers. But, there will be a myriad of programs and initiatives that will be mounted to meet this call for more WIL and EE. Some will be more successful than others. Some will be failures. A requirement for a rigorous evaluation regime around these programs will allow us to identify which are which and thereby optimize their effectiveness.
Governments are expected to be responsible stewards of public funds. An evaluation regime of the type proposed allows governments to discharge this responsibility without intruding on institutional autonomy.
Thanks for reading.
Harvey P. Weingarten