Is The Future of Cooperative Learning Virtual?

July 14, 2021

Traditional models of experiential learning, namely in-person cooperative placements and internships, were hit hard in the face of COVID-19. The pandemic resulted in many students scrambling to figure out their next move.

The sudden cancellation of placements and limited options only reaffirmed the importance of experiential learning and the demand for opportunity is higher than ever before. Robert Furtado, CEO of CourseCompare, agrees that work-integrated learning opportunities are the way to go for skills development and future proofing. 

“At an individual level, education is significantly enhanced when learners have a real world framework in which to apply ideas,” says Robert. “Gaining work experience while completing a college or university program can be a huge differentiator for students. We’re seeing that more than ever in technology, where the focus is shifting among recruiters from credentials to demonstrable skills.”

Robert believes that the half-life of knowledge is rapidly decreasing and creating a greater need for reskilling and upskilling. With in-person internships and cooperative placements being cancelled, employers and students alike searched for alternative opportunities for experiential learning. Placements moved to virtual and remote settings, some for the first time ever.

As the world begins to reopen, will placements stay virtual? What are the long term impacts of the pandemic and what does this mean for the future of cooperative learning?


The Future of Cooperative Learning

CourseCompare, an education marketplace with college and university partners across Canada, set out to answer that very question in a recent study. In March of 2021, a sample of 58 co-op programs from 23 Canadian post-secondary institutions were surveyed about what impacts the pandemic has had on work integrated learning experiences.

Some of the key insights include:

  • There was a 17.25% decrease in placements on average in fall 2020 compared to the previous year. 
  • Of the students that had secured placements, 50% saw no change in salary but 33% saw a decrease. 
  • It was also found that “information technology and media companies”, 67% of respondents, led the charge in hiring student talent through co-op positions.

One of the most telling findings for the future of cooperative learning was that 100% of respondents have plans to facilitate more remote cooperative learning placements in the future. This is a drastic change from 2019, pre-pandemic, where only a select few experiences were remote.

The pandemic seems to have brought a greater understanding and openness to remote placements. Though these experiences were new to many, it is clear that there is a place for virtual and remote learning experiences moving forward.

In order to adapt to this new model, we see the rise of tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Slack which have grown to be integral parts of the workplace. Employers are now also adapting the ways they train their managers working with remote students as well as how they monitor, track, and report on data from students about the quality of their learning experiences.

Robert believes that in the absence of a pandemic, traditional co-ops would have moved to adopt these changes anyways and we can expect to see more remote placements in the future. “This is a positive trend as work-integrated learning should reflect the real world,” says Robert. “Many companies are moving to being remote-first and early exposure to working in these environments is extremely valuable.”


Looking Forward

While the pandemic has brought with it a number of new challenges, it has also fast tracked change and it looks like virtual and remote options for experiential learning are here to stay.

This is great news for students because it further extends the reach of opportunities by removing geographical barriers. Without the need to physically be in an office, students can apply to positions regardless of location. This is especially important for students in remote or rural areas, living with dependents, or with a lack of reliable transportation as remote work placements may be their only option. 

Employers have also seen a positive impact as they are now able to work with students from anywhere in the world. These students bring with them a wealth of knowledge and unique perspectives to provide fresh insights to their teams. 

Outside of official cooperative programs, students are seeking out their own opportunities to develop their skills and using platforms such as CourseCompare and Riipen to connect with employers. Robert states that it is not unheard of for students already pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree to come to CourseCompare to find additional work-integrated learning opportunities. Some of their most popular subjects include digital marketing courses, data science courses, web development courses, and even coding bootcamps.

We see the eagerness of students yet again through Riipen’s Level UP program, an innovative work-integrated learning program offering short-term 80-hour projects for students to work on with a real industry partner. The program launched in January of 2020 and within the first 6 months has already committed all 6,125 student placements until the end of the program in March 2022.

Students are demanding experience and the pandemic has brought with it the opportunity to grow cooperative programs and re-evaluate programming to reflect this new digital world. We have an opportunity to reach further than ever before and open the doors of opportunity for more learners everywhere.


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About The Author

Michelle Wong is a Toronto-based marketing and communications professional leading content marketing efforts at Riipen. She is a technology, social media, and marketing enthusiast with a passion for making connections and building community. She is an advocate for personal development and can often be found searching for new music, binge watching K-Dramas, or reading a good book.