Working (and Learning) Online: Improving Remote Work-integrated Learning Experiences for Students and Employers

Working (and Learning) Online: Improving Remote Work-integrated Learning Experiences for Students and Employers was written by Ken Chatoor, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Participating remotely in work-integrated learning offers flexibility, but professional development challenges need to be addressed.

Work-integrated learning (WIL) blends formal education with practical learning in a relevant workplace setting. There are many benefits to WIL programs but for them to be most effective, they must adapt to new technologies and evolving labour market needs — including the increase of remote work arrangements. A new report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) shares lessons from student, employer and institutional experiences with remote WIL during the 2020-21 academic year.

HEQCO developed separate surveys for students, employers and institutions to learn more about their experiences with remote WIL. Respondents were asked about challenges they faced as well as lessons or best practices that emerged. HEQCO was also interested in comparing the experiences of students who participated in the three different types of WIL: remote, in-person and hybrid (a combination of remote and in-person).

Remote WIL offered a range of benefits to all groups surveyed, particularly flexibility. Students who participated in remote WIL appreciated that they were not limited by travel cost or distance to placements. Employers and administrators noted that remote and hybrid WIL options meant they could recruit from a larger group of students from a wider geographic area, and that technological platforms helped streamline the hiring process.

Students and employers in remote and hybrid WIL reported challenges related to professional development. For students, “remote networking and making connections” was the most significant challenge while employers cited difficulty with communication and connection, particularly related to mentorship and training.

A key goal of WIL is to provide students with meaningful, relevant work experience that facilitates skill development and supports the individual’s transition to the labour market. This is only possible when the WIL is of high quality as specified in Ontario’s guiding principles for experiential learning. To ensure that remote and hybrid WIL experiences help students develop essential skills and competencies, HEQCO offers the following recommendations to employers, institutions and students:

  • Employers should expand their onboarding activities for WIL students and encourage the development of professional and interpersonal skills through mentorship and/or routine performance check-ins.
  • Institutions can build upon existing orientation materials to ensure WIL students are prepared to be successful.
  • Students should work with WIL employers to set learning goals for themselves, monitor progress and take advantage of networking and mentorship opportunities in order to maximize the benefit of their WIL experiences.

The benefits of WIL are shared by all parties — institutions, employers and students — so it is incumbent upon all of them to ensure that the system is best positioned to adapt to changing work environments and serve all students equally, regardless of how they participate.