Work-based learning (work-integrated learning) in higher education: The shift towards real-world student engagement

November 6, 2023
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There's a growing sentiment echoing through the halls of higher education: the need for more real-world, work-based learning opportunities. 

While the importance of academic theories remains undisputed, there's an increasing acknowledgment that theoretical knowledge alone isn't sufficient for the holistic development of students. 

As the world accelerates with technological advancements and an ever-evolving job market, higher education must adapt to bridge the gap between the classroom and the dynamic professional realm.

If you’ve explored work-based learning and have wondered about taking on this type of approach, we’ll explore how you can adopt and scale this type of learning for your course or institution. 

Key takeaways

  • Work-based learning boosts knowledge retention rates to 75%, but higher education institutions face challenges in integration, including ensuring equitable access.
  • 81% of students desire real-world experiences in their curricula, and employers notice skill gaps in recent graduates, spurring collaborations to address these needs.
  • Platforms like Riipen are bridging the gap by connecting educational institutions with businesses, fostering collaborations that enhance real-world learning experiences in academia.

The pressing need for work-integrated learning in higher education

Every year, millions of students set foot on campuses hoping to acquire an education that not only enlightens but equips them for success in the ever-evolving workforce. While many anticipate and have prepared for the lectures they will attend, more and more students are asking for courses to include real-world, hands-on activities that connect course concepts to their future world of work. 

According to Wiley's State of the Student 2022 survey, an overwhelming 81% of students reported a desire for their colleges or universities to offer professional certification preparation and real-world company-led projects to keep them engaged in their coursework. 

These shouldn’t be offered as mere add-on options; they should be incorporated directly into the curriculum so that everything they learn in the classroom can be tied to real-world applications. And students aren't the only ones concerned about the need for practical applications offered. 

Employers have also sounded the alarm, noticing skill gaps in recent graduates that they believe hamper their overall productivity. Less than half of employers surveyed believe that colleges adequately prepare students for a career. 

This dissatisfaction has spurred action, causing many employers and organizations to seek to partner with higher ed institutions, with the goal of better understanding and providing insight into how curricula can be more aligned with skills and acumen required for success in the workforce..

The problem is that higher education institutions aren't always able to keep up with this growing demand. From logistical issues to finding enough industry partners, colleges and universities face an uphill battle when it comes to implementing these programs. 

In fact, only 30% of higher educational institutions currently provide such experiential learning opportunities. To keep up with this growing demand, colleges and universities are starting to reevaluate their strategic plans, forge stronger industry collaborations, and invest in infrastructure and faculty training tailored to experiential learning.

Beyond the four walls: The internship conundrum

The path to gaining real-world experience is not limited to coursework and certifications alone. Internships have long been heralded as a crucial bridge between academic learning and professional practice. 

Students today, however, face an ever-present conundrum regarding internships: there simply aren't enough to go around. A recent report revealed that a staggering 41.3% of students reported being unable to secure an internship simply due to the lack of available opportunities.

As a result, less than a quarter of undergraduates completed an internship during their academic journey, and that has continued to drop since the pandemic hit. This number is even lower for minorities, who statistically are not able to complete internships at the same rate

Beyond the sheer scarcity of opportunities, the nature of how internships are distributed also poses a challenge. It's not just about having the right qualifications or passion; in many instances, securing an internship is about having the 'right' connections. 

Students without a well-developed network of industry professionals or personal connections often find themselves at a disadvantage. For underserved minorities, this landscape becomes even more challenging, and the pool of opportunities is severely limited. In fact, 2/3s of graduates that enter the job force underemployed, will remain there for the majority of their career. 

But amidst these challenges, educators and employers are embracing innovative programs to offer inclusive and equitable opportunities. 

From micro-internships and "sprinternships" to integrating work-based learning projects into the curriculum, these short, intensive professional experiences target specific skills or industries.

Not only do these initiatives provide students with the training and skills they need to succeed in today's workforce but they also provide a gateway for those who may otherwise be overlooked in the conventional internship hunt.

Benefits of hands-on student experiences

Considering the clear demand for experiential learning, let's take a look at how these opportunities can impact students' personal growth and future careers.

Enhanced knowledge retention through practical application

One of the most significant advantages of real-world learning experiences is the enhancement of knowledge retention and mastery of subject matter, which is one of the leading stressors for students and educators alike

Studies have proven that the average rate of knowledge retention jumps to 75% when students are exposed to practical applications of their coursework versus a 5% retention rate from lecture-based models.

Increased engagement and student satisfaction

One of the primary aspirations for educational institutions is maximizing student engagement and satisfaction. Real-world learning experiences play a pivotal role in this endeavor. 

When courses incorporate authentic, real-world projects into their curriculum, students get to see firsthand how the theoretical concepts they learn in the classroom apply to current industry problems and challenges. This creates a surge in interest, enthusiasm, and overall satisfaction.

Experiential learning and improved career outcomes

Today's employers are calling upon colleges to improve the workforce preparedness of their graduates. This pressing demand reinforces the need to implement work-based learning initiatives, as there's a clear link between experiential learning and the success graduates enjoy in the job market

As students undertake real-world projects and activities, they don't just acquire knowledge; they develop critical skills and attributes that employers prioritize, making graduates more marketable and job-ready. 

Clarity in career direction through direct exposure

The decision of choosing a career path weighs heavily on students, especially given that many get only one shot at their education. Having direct exposure to professional environments and integrated work-related projects (especially early on their academic journey) offers students invaluable insight into potential career paths. 

By experiencing the day-to-day realities and expectations of certain professions firsthand, students can maximize their educational journey, ensuring that their academic pursuits align with their long-term professional goals.

The challenges higher education faces in implementing work-integrated learning

When trying to implement work-based learning initiatives into traditional teaching structures, higher ed institutions adapt to overcome the following challenges:

Making adjustments to the curriculum 

The addition of work-based learning components often necessitates the reevaluation of course objectives, learning outcomes, and assessment methods. This process can be met with resistance from administrators and faculty who have grown accustomed to longstanding, traditional curriculums. 

The faculty might fear losing academic rigor, while administrators might fear the logistical challenges and the potential resource constraints associated with such changes. 

Administrative barriers

Implementing work-based learning in higher education doesn't simply involve academic changes; it also requires a shift in administrative processes. From obtaining necessary approvals to fostering industry partnerships and managing logistical elements, colleges and universities face significant hurdles. 

Coordination between academic departments, industry partners, and institutional administration can prove time-consuming and cumbersome, leading to delays or even the abandonment of potentially beneficial programs.

Scarcity of industry partners

A successful work-based learning model requires a steady stream of willing industry partners who can provide students with real-world projects, internships, or other hands-on opportunities. 

Securing and maintaining these relationships demands a considerable investment in time and resources, and institutions may struggle to identify businesses that align with their academic goals. 

Ensuring equitable access

As institutions push to provide more hands-on experiences, they must also prioritize equitable access. This means that these work-based learning experiences need to be directly integrated into the curriculum, not just offered as an add-on.

That way, all students, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds or other factors, can have equitable access to benefit from these initiatives. 

Making the shift: The path forward for higher education

As the demands of the modern workforce evolve, higher ed institutions feel the pressure to incorporate work-based learning experiences into their curricula overnight—but it's not an all-or-nothing approach.

These initiatives are multi-faceted and can't just be whisked into the curriculum during a faculty meeting. They require time, patience, and effective planning. Taking gradual steps is the key. 

Start with analyzing your current student landscape, identifying courses where the integration of hands-on tasks would be beneficial, and gradually introducing these activities. 

You'll also need to find ways to strengthen and expand partnerships with local, regional, and global businesses, organizations, and the community. This can be done through outreach or through the use of specialized platforms. The more relationships you have with industry partners the easier it is to scale your work-based learning offerings. 

For institutions eager to expedite this evolution without compromising on quality, platforms like Riipen emerge as invaluable assets. They act as bridges, connecting institutions with a dynamic array of businesses and organizations, fostering collaborations that enrich the academic landscape. 

Riipen's approach to work-integrated learning

The desire for more authentic work-based learning opportunities has been voiced loud and clear by students and employers alike. In response to this demand, platforms like Riipen are setting a new standard for industry-academia collaborations, ensuring every student has equitable access to these projects. 

Rizza Tongco, a student at Red River College, completed a work-based learning project through her school and shared this about her personal experience: "With this experience, I gained more confidence that I'll be able to do well in a real workplace because we already performed well in our Riipen project working with a real business."

With its vast global network of over 31,000 businesses and organizations, higher ed institutions have the ability to find the right projects or industry partners to complement their courses. 

And if educators can find what they're looking for, they can create their own project using Riipen's pre-built templates. This makes it easy to set clear expectations and provide industry partners with comprehensive details about the deliverables they can expect from students. 

If you're ready to elevate your institution's educational approach and bring experiential learning front and center, don't hesitate. Schedule a demo with Riipen today.

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