Virtual work-integrated learning: opportunities in a time of crisis

Ensuring that students have the opportunity to undertake authentic learning experiences with real-world organisations is an important function for those of us working in higher education. However, doing this at scale is challenging. It can be even more challenging when the capacity of our industry partners to take on students is reduced by a global crisis. So how can we ensure that students continue to get the experiential learning opportunities they need to learn, develop, and (hopefully) find a meaningful career for themselves following graduation?

Situation

When it comes to placement programs (i.e. internships), a great deal of work is required at the ‘back-end’ to source and secure industry partners that can host students. One of the main challenges we face is that there is a finite number of local organisations able to take on and supervise interns regularly.  This is a particular challenge at institutions such as the University of Sydney Business School where we receive around 800 applications per year for students to undertake a placement with industry partners in our flagship Industry Placement Program (IPP). Due to the limited number of opportunities, administrative/legal requirements, and student requirements, we are only able to place around 35% of applicants each year.

To help solve this challenge, the University of Sydney Business School’s Self-Sourced Placement Program was launched last year. This program is distinct from IPP in that students source and secure placements themselves with the support of the Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) Hub team. This for-credit program allows students an exceptional degree of flexibility in how, when, where, and with whom they do their placement. This structure helps to remove the administrative bottle-neck that is our capacity to source and secure placement hosts, while simultaneously giving students the chance to find niche opportunities that fit their interests precisely.

Students are given the opportunity to create their own goals for the program and design their own plans to achieve these goals with guidance from an experienced placement team. Students undertake coursework as a part of the program that focusses on helping them through the process. Each student not only receives guidance from academic and career experts, but also an approved supervisor at their host organisation. Taken together, this means that each student can undertake an opportunity that is tailored to their needs and goals, whatever those may be.

Complication

Small business closing during COVID-19 pandemic. Source: Unsplash.

One of the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic when it came to student placements was the immediate pivot to working from home. While this was a necessary and important shift to slow the spread of the disease, it also meant that most organisations had reduced capacity to host and supervise students. What’s more, many organisations stopped accepting interns entirely as they needed to focus their energies on helping their employees adapt to new ways of working.

The impact for our students was immediate as the number of internship opportunities became much more limited. However many of our students still wanted to get some understanding of what it’s like to undertake projects at work in real-world settings. As such, the WIL team set out to discover what opportunities we could help to engineer for our students.

Solution

In mid-2020 we began exploring ways for students to undertake some kind of online-placement experience. We were quickly drawn to The Forage (previously InsideSherpa), a company started by a couple of Australians who wanted to help students be better prepared for the day-to-day realities of the world of work.

The Forage offers virtual placements that are free to students and education providers. The placements are developed by The Forage’s team alongside partner organisations such as GE, Citi, and J.P. Morgan. The Forage placements are akin to mini-simulations where the students must do things like ‘take part’ in a meeting, write a report, or make a decision based on information presented to them. Each Forage placement takes around 5 hours to complete.

We implemented The Forage into the Self-Sourced Placement Program this year. In addition to coursework, students could choose to complete their required placement hours (40-210 hours) either via an in-person placement or via The Forage simulations. In Semester 1 of 2021, we had two students take this option, and this increased in Semester 2 to five students. So far, feedback has been really positive from those students who have chosen to undertake their placement hours via The Forage and we have already started drawing some important insights from this experience.

Strengths of simulation placements

  • The Forage’s placements are great in that each is a discrete module that takes 5 hours to complete. Students can do a module in one go, or in parts. This structure suits busy students who may otherwise find it difficult to commit to a whole day of work like they might with an in-person placement.
  • The simulations focus mostly on process-oriented tasks and practical skills which help students to engage in authentic activities. The modules often do include theoretical or technical knowledge, though the focus is more often around application.
  • We have found that most students start by doing placements that align with their area, however they soon start branching out and exploring areas they’re interested in but may not have studied formally.
  • Building on the above point, The Forage placements offer a rare and valuable ‘safe-to-fail’ space where students can try something new without worrying about it impacting either their grade at university or what others might think of them.
  • It offers students real insight into what activities and day-to-day work-life in a particular industry or even organisation can look like.

Drawbacks with simulation placements

  • Students don’t interact with other live humans within the The Forage modules. This means students don’t have the same opportunity to engage in incidental social interaction and develop interpersonal skills in the way they would at an in-person placement.
  • Similarly, students don’t have the opportunity to engage in networking with colleagues and key stakeholders on a personal level like they would at an in-person placement. However, it is worth mentioning that The Forage does have mechanisms to assist students in applying for graduate roles upon completion.
  • The Forage is a great tool in that it’s a free platform that students at any level can access. Because of this however, the ‘solutions’ to problems in the modules are solvable and knowable. As such, teachers would likely want to be careful about the way The Forage is integrated in summative assessments.

Conclusion

The Forage is an incredibly powerful platform and teaching resource. Virtual placements undertaken via The Forage have played an important role in the education of many students who may not have been able to undertake placements otherwise. The platform has its limitations, however all teaching tools do. Ultimately, I believe that simulation placements via The Forage can be another important tool for teachers whether we are teaching online or in-person.

Steven Hitchcock

Dr Steven Hitchcock is a Lecturer in Work-Integrated Learning at the University of Sydney Business School. Steven works across the design, development, and delivery of experiential programs in the Business School such as placements, practicums, and study tours.

Published by Steven Hitchcock

Dr Steven Hitchcock is a Lecturer in Work-Integrated Learning at the University of Sydney Business School. Steven works across the design, development, and delivery of experiential programs in the Business School such as placements, practicums, and study tours.

Leave a Reply