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You are reading: Exploring benefits and challenges of online Work Integrated Learning for equity students

Amani Bell, Kathryn Bartimote, Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, Gulwanyang Moran, James Tognolini and Nora Dempsey

Executive summary

The Universities Australia audit of Work Integrated Learning (WIL) revealed alarming discrepancies in access to WIL for students from Regional and Remote areas, from Low and Middle socioeconomic status (SES), and Indigenous backgrounds: all are more than five percentage points below the average participation rate (Universities Australia, 2019). Students from these equity backgrounds reported that time pressures, financial responsibilities, caring commitments, and geographic location are barriers to their uptake of WIL (ibid). In this project, we investigated whether online WIL might be one way of overcoming these barriers.

Our project, building on previous and current NCSEHE research, explored the benefits and challenges of online WIL for students from equity groups in Australia and the US, as reported by students and educators. Our project includes perspectives via a collaboration with the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS), where students from across the US participate in “virtual internships” with US Government agencies. The program has offered over 5,000 such internships in the past ten years. These VSFS interns – or eInterns – work remotely from their university, home, or other locations, reporting by email, phone, or video chat to their workplace educators.

Our four research questions were:

  1. What are the benefits and challenges of online WIL as reported by students from equity groups?
  2. What are the benefits and challenges of online WIL as reported by educators?
  3. What are the commonalities and differences between online WIL in the US versus Australia?
  4. How might online WIL in Australia be enhanced and systematically supported to better meet the needs of equity students and educators?

We conducted a questionnaire for students who had participated in online WIL at any time over the past ten years (n=289) and interviewed students (n=32) and educators (n=15) who had participated in online WIL in Australia or the US.

The key findings from our analysis of the data are presented below under each research question, with the recommendations summarising our response to Research Question 4.

  1. What are the benefits and challenges of online WIL as reported by students from equity groups?
    • Benefits for students included employability skills, meaningful work, affordability, and flexibility when coping with physical and mental health issues.
    • Challenges for students included missing out on workplace interactions, digital access and finding a private space in which to work.
    • Overall, equity students reported a greater number of gains from online WIL than non-equity students, however it was not possible to detect any differences between equity groups.
  2. What are the benefits and challenges of online WIL as reported by educators?
    • Students from diverse backgrounds were viewed by educators as bringing positive contributions to the workplace.
    • Benefits for educators included better meeting the needs of diverse communities / clients, flexibility related to their own work schedules, and that it was a rewarding experience.
    • Challenges for educators included giving feedback and a high workload, and not being able to replicate some aspects of in-person work experiences.
  3. What are the commonalities and differences between online WIL in the US versus Australia?
    • Students in Australia reported receiving structured, interpersonal support while on placement more often than those in the US.
    • There were no between country differences in the gains reported by students. Rather, it was the type of support received that was consistently related to students’ perception of what they gain from placements.
    • In the US, educators were more likely to be aware of diversity issues and to view online WIL as one way of achieving workplace diversity.

Recommendations on how online WIL in Australia might be enhanced and systematically supported to better meet the needs of equity students and educators

It is recommended that:

  1. Australian universities continue to explore large scale, coordinated online WIL opportunities (noting several existing initiatives, including the IRU eWIL trial in collaboration with Government departments already underway).
  2. Universities and workplaces provide support to and recognition of educators and other staff involved in providing online WIL, recognising that it brings benefits to workplaces but is also time consuming.
  3. Professional development for educators provided by universities and workplaces should be updated to include online WIL, particularly equity issues related to online WIL. This could include taking a strengths-based view of diversity (e.g. making use of additional language skills, tapping into different cultural perspectives to improve the quality of work done) and providing guidance on how allowances for disability need to be adapted in the online context (e.g. for hearing loss, mental health issues etc.).
  4. Educators, students and other stakeholders co-design inclusive online WIL – inclusion needs to be systemic rather than tokenistic. Such co-design can occur at individual unit of study and / or degree program level.
  5. Universities Australia updates their policy/white paper on WIL to include more on online WIL in light of Covid, the IRU trial, these findings, and the potential for increased remote work in future.
  6. Similarly, that universities include online WIL explicitly as a potential form of WIL in their teaching and learning policies, wherever placements are mentioned.
  7. Educators draw on what is known about online learning and use that to improve/develop best practice design for online WIL. This could include the preparation of best practice guide/s on designing successful online WIL experiences focussing on structured interpersonal support. The guides could cover, for example, orienting students to the role, providing and supporting meaningful and high quality work, providing career transition opportunities, overcoming technical challenges, and building teams and relationships online.

Read the full report, Exploring benefits and challenges of online Work Integrated Learning for equity students