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Work-based learning (work-integrated learning) strategies for an evolving academic landscape

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December 6, 2023
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For years, higher education institutions have recognized the immense value of blending academics with real-life experience. But as students strive for tangible skills and employers seek adaptable, industry-ready graduates, the demand for these experiences has never been greater. 

A work-based learning model stands at this intersection, promising a future where learning isn't just theoretical but practical, impactful, and directly aligned with the needs of our ever-changing world.

In this article, we'll explore its significance in the evolving landscape of higher education.

Key takeaways

  • The gap between academic learning and real-world experience is growing, highlighting the need for more hands-on learning.
  • Successful work-based learning experiences rely on clear agreements between students, institutions, and employers.
  • Platforms like Riipen offer a bridge between institutions and a vast network of potential employers.

The growing importance of work-integrated learning

Between the job market's ever-evolving dynamics and students' desire for more company-led projects in their coursework, the emphasis on incorporating hands-on experiences into the curricula has never been greater. 

According to the College-to-Jobs Playbook report, 40% of students found themselves underemployed after obtaining their college degree. But perhaps even more concerning is that those students who find themselves underemployed are more likely to remain underemployed for the majority of their careers

The implication is clear: there's room for greater alignment between academic offerings and labor market demands. And work-based learning (WBL) offers a way forward because students can apply theoretical knowledge in real-world situations or projects. With WBL, students gain first-hand experience, making them more prepared for life outside the classroom.

Many colleges and universities have already recognized the benefits of WBL and have started implementing WBL projects into their curriculum. 

For example, Arizona State University introduced over 100 experiential programs into their coursework. They quickly discovered that 85% of participants enhanced or developed crucial soft skills that are sought after in the workforce

Additionally, 82% stated that their hands-on experiences enriched their professional networks and fostered stronger connections with potential employers. 

Embracing this shift towards work-based learning is not just about altering the curriculum; it's about leveraging the right tools to facilitate these experiences. Platforms like Riipen are at the forefront of this movement, acting as catalysts in integrating company-led projects into academic coursework.

The complex nature of integrating WBL strategies

It is not always easy to incorporate WBL strategies into academic curricula (even with the right tools). And with industries, technologies, and job roles evolving rapidly, the task of merging academic theory with real-world relevance becomes more demanding. This constant evolution means a continuous journey of learning and adapting. 

Educators are tasked with melding academic theory with real-world applicability. This is no small feat, and it speaks to their dedication and commitment that many courses do manage to stay current.

Institutions also grapple with broader concerns. Today's students, driven by evolving educational expectations, desire a blend of traditional classroom wisdom and tangible, industry-relevant experiences. 

This places institutions in a challenging position: how to attract and retain students in an educational environment where the boundaries between theory and practice can create a rich learning environment to engage students. This is not about questioning the quality of traditional education but about enhancing it to meet contemporary needs.

Achieving a seamless WBL integration hinges on a united front from educators and institutions, anchored by mutual understanding, adaptability, and a steadfast commitment to student achievement.

The missing link: Bridging institutions with employers

Even if educators and institutions are on the same page, trying to find industry partners presents its own challenge. Institutions and employers have traditionally operated somewhat independently, with limited collaboration. 

When institutions and employers don't have strong ties, both students and employers miss out on the chance to work together on real-world projects.

For instance, internships are extremely valuable in offering hands-on experience, networking, and industry insight. Yet, 41.3% of students couldn't secure internships simply due to a scarcity of opportunities. This separation has led to a gap in students' learning experiences and preparation for the real world. 

On the flip side, employers miss out on early interactions with emerging talent, which can help streamline the recruitment process. Collaborative projects allow them to gauge student potential, adaptability, and innovative thinking. 

However, many higher ed institutions find it difficult to expand their network (especially outside of their local area) for a variety of reasons. Online platforms, like Riipen, can provide a cost-effective and convenient way for institutions to connect with potential employers around the world—effectively tapping into an inexhaustible network that they can utilize for their courses.

Practical steps for effective work-based learning integration

A deliberate and structured approach to integrating WBL can significantly enhance student outcomes and bolster their employability. Here are some actionable steps that academic administrators and faculty can undertake to make this a reality.

1. Recognize the diverse faces of WBL

Work-based learning isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. It presents itself in numerous forms, each catering to unique learner needs and institutional goals. Some common types of WBL include:

  • Project-based learning: Comprehensive projects integrated directly into the curriculum that simulate real-world challenges and scenarios. Tools like Riipen are typically used to achieve this. 
  • Internships: Offer students hands-on experience in a professional setting, allowing them to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world contexts.
  • Co-ops: Extended periods of work experience integrated into academic programs, usually alternating between academic study and full-time employment.
  • Job shadowing: Allows students to observe professionals in their desired field, offering a real-time glimpse into day-to-day operations.

Each form has its unique benefits, and understanding these can help institutions decide which ones align best with their objectives. For a more comprehensive look, refer to this article.

2. Craft effective learning partnerships

The foundation of a successful WBL experience lies in clear and mutually beneficial agreements between students, institutions, and employers. Such learning agreements delineate roles, set clear expectations, and outline desired outcomes. They serve as a roadmap, ensuring all parties are aligned in their objectives and facilitating a smoother collaboration.

3. Harness the power of mentorship

Behind every successful work-based learner is often a mentor who offers invaluable industry insights. These industry mentors, equipped with years of experience and domain expertise, provide students with a realistic, hands-on perspective of their chosen field. 

Institutions should actively promote and facilitate structured mentorship programs, ensuring students have the necessary support to navigate real-world challenges.

4. Continuously evaluate and refine approaches

As with any educational strategy, it's crucial to ensure WBL approaches remain effective and relevant. This requires consistent feedback mechanisms. Institutions should solicit feedback from both students and industry partners, refining the integration process based on this invaluable input. 

Effective evaluation tools, surveys, and regular feedback loops can ensure the WBL approach meets the evolving needs of both the industry and the student community.

Riipen: Paving the way for streamlined work-integrated learning programs

When hands-on learning and academic curriculum need to intersect, Riipen emerges as a beacon. As the market leader in the online work-based learning domain, Riipen has redefined the way institutions interact with the corporate world.

Riipen's platform excels in bridging the gap, connecting higher ed institutions with a vast global network of over 31,000 employers and projects across every industry. 

From startups to multinational corporations, Riipen ensures that students have access to varied, relevant, and impactful real-world projects. This not only elevates the learning experience but also provides students with invaluable insights into their future professions.

Dr. Nidhi Shah of the University of California, Riverside Extension, had this to say about her experience, “Work-based learning is a win-win for everyone involved. It brings maximum value to students, the university, the educator, and the company." 

Riipen's multifaceted features are designed to cater to the diverse needs of educators, students, and employers. Here are just a few that stand out:

  • User-friendly interface that ensures seamless collaboration.
  • Tailored project matching to help match projects with employers or vice versa.
  • Extensive support and resources to ensure the successful implementation of work-based learning in their courses.
  • A collaborative environment where educators, students, and employers can set clear expectations and provide feedback.

Discover how Riipen's WBL capabilities can help you deliver WBL at scale here.

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