As part of a response to COVID-19, two of the world’s largest work-integrated learning (WIL) programs shifted online and adjusted operations accordingly.

University of Waterloo and Australia’s RMIT University established enhanced communications, engaged industry-partners, and mobilized staff to help students transition to a digital landscape.

Waterloo’s WIL program retained 78 per cent of its students and RMIT retained 64 per cent during the beginning stages of COVID-19, according to preliminary estimates

Across Canada and Australia, thousands of WIL students either began working remotely or lost their positions.

A team of researchers, including Waterloo’s Norah McRae, highlight how the two institutions responded to the challenges of the transition. 

“As the COVID-19 global crisis disrupts our communities, quality work-integrated learning programs will help our students and industry partners navigate a complex and uncertain workforce,” said McRae, Associate Provost in Co-operative and Experiential Education at Waterloo. “By adjusting our programming and moving to a digital landscape, we enable ourselves and our stakeholders to adapt, innovate and develop talent to find creative solutions to our current and future challenges.”

Waterloo, which has more than 23,000 students in its co-op program, has a centralised structure in its WIL program. As a result, its response to the pandemic focused more on innovation.

Waterloo allowed flexibility for students’ co-op terms, conducted research on student remote working, partnered with the government, and provided program-based solutions to COVID-related problems.

An example of a program-based solution is the consideration of paid students contributing to contact tracing of the virus, a critical step in the government’s plan to reopen Canadian society.

Headquartered in Melbourne, RMIT employs a decentralised and distributed approach as part of its WIL program. As part of its response to COVID, RMIT developed enhanced communications and tools such as a mandatory student module for pandemic safety. Due to its WIL leadership model, RMIT needed more complex operational changes to manage a consistent co-ordinated approach.

“Implementation of innovative approaches to WIL has been greatly accelerated due to the COVID-19 crisis,” says Judie Kay, a researcher on the paper and director of employability and career education at RMIT University. “This has enabled a broader engagement with WIL partners, inclusion of entrepreneurial elements and opportunities for students to experience complex and often unpredictable work environments.”

RMIT, which is the largest tertiary institution in Australia, increased staff capabilities, provided flexible options for WIL students (deferrals, remote work) as well as streamlined and aligned WIL management and processes.

Waterloo and RMIT also identified some key strategies to reimagine the future of WIL:

  • Enhance data collection and analysis
  • Target strategic approach by using comprehensive data
  • Expand diversity and innovation in WIL
  • Plan proactive strategies for a future crisis

The research paper, “Two institutional responses to work-integrated learning in a time of COVID-19: Canada and Australia” is presented in the International Journal for Work-Integrated Learning.