A DVE Special Report: Work Integrated Learning (WIL) – getting it right from every angle.

Posted: 28/01/2022

For many decades placements have been the most common form of Work Integrated Learning (WIL) – in Australia. In disciplines such as teaching, nursing, medicine, and dentistry have long been considered an essential part of student learning.

However, the last ten years has seen an increase in the need for effective WIL in all disciplines, resulting in a rise in activity of all forms. The standard industry placement now sits alongside internships, online and real simulations, mock workplaces, workplace projects and a plethora of options.

Benefits of WIL:

There are many benefits to implementing a WIL strategy in your institution. It has long been recognised that the practical application of skills and knowledge learnt in the classroom can add an extra dimension to student learning. This practical application is increasingly delivered on-campus in simulated environments, and in many cases, these environments provide an even better learning experience than the real thing. Just think of how medical and nursing students can now learn from working with programmable SIMS without the fear of harming a real patient.

But the real value in WIL for most students, particularly undergraduate students, comes not just from the application of theory but from the workplace skills that cannot be easily acquired in a simulated environment. (I call them workplace skills, but they are often referred to as soft skills, employability skills, common skills, or core skills).

Working in a real-life business or industry environment allows students to develop an awareness of workplace culture, how to communicate effectively and how to collaborate with different people. It broadens perspectives, expands horizons, and helps students develop realistic career aspirations. There is also plenty of evidence that it is effective in increasing employability skills and helping students get jobs sooner after graduation.

What is the right team structure?

Providing students with a WIL experience seems a no-brainer. But how should it be managed in a university environment?

There is a tendency for WIL to develop organically in every discipline area, often at an individual course or subject level, meaning a lack of consistency, poor administration, lost opportunities for sharing best practice, and the potential for regulatory problems (see Risks below). A common placement system is a good start (see Digital Solutions below), but the question always arises: should WIL be run centrally? Critics will say that a one-size-fits-all approach to WIL will not deliver results as the needs in each discipline require a local approach. And in most cases, they would be right.

The answer is a “Hub & Spoke” model. The best result comes from dedicated staff who have dotted line reporting into the discipline but formal reporting to a central team. This allows the local person to develop relationships with faculty, employers, and students while being part of the central team that provides common processes, common reporting, consistency of policy application, and delivers regulatory compliance together with the ability to share best practice easily.

Developing and implementing a hub & spoke model takes some thought, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. A small restructure and clear definition of roles and responsibilities may be the solution to deliver the best outcome. Often the barriers are history, control, and ego. Getting external advice and support to facilitate bringing teams together can provide the catalyst for change and get the results you want. Sometimes we just need to hear it from someone outside the organisation.

What about the risks?

The benefits are clear. However, there is less understanding of the potential risks. Cameron et al. (2019) provides a comprehensive overview of five common risks in WIL programs in their cross-institutional collaborative research paper:

  1. assignation of students’ Intellectual Property (IP) rights
  2. disclosure of a student’s disability or medical condition
  3. poor supervision at a host organisation
  4. availability of a placement, and
  5. provider staff not having sufficient awareness of the requirements within policy and/or lack of legal literacy

Of course, there are many other significant risks associated with WIL, such as health and safety (physical and psychological), exploitation, malalignment with the course of study, and a poor student learning experience. Yet, given the scale of WIL-related activities across the sector and the likelihood of incidents occurring, it is surprising how uncommon it is for providers to have a risk management framework for WIL.

What is TEQSA doing?

Perhaps this is why the sector regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), takes a keen interest in how providers manage and mitigate risks associated with WIL. There are many relevant Standards in TEQSA’s Higher Education Standards Framework (2021) that are intended to guide a provider’s risk mitigation approach to WIL.

These extend across Learning Outcomes and Assessment (including learning outcomes for employment), Course Design, Staffing, Learning Resources and Education Support, Well-being and Safety of Students, and Course Approval and Monitoring processes.

In general, TEQSA has the same expectation of providers that offer WIL as it does for any other form of student activity. The provider is expected to ‘quality assure’ WIL to safeguard the quality of the student experience and outcomes. TEQSA will expect to see a well-founded (evidenced-based) approach to WIL, and an effective quality assurance system that will ensure all placements meet the requirements of the Standards.

Digital Transformation can be the connector between Academic, Placement and Student:

The world has changed. And with that has come opportunity borne out of forced digital experimentation. Melbourne has just spent the longest time locked down of anywhere in the world and seen first-hand what online learning and teaching looks like. Students have spent a large part of the year completing digital integrated learning, and teachers have been delivering digital integrated teaching.

Both instances are the beginning of formalising Digital Technology as the connector to delivering measurable learning outcomes in workplace settings. Tools like Seesaw, Mural and Padlet can act as remote digital interfaces for assessment of student on the job work.

Real-time feedback from academics and adjustments to how workplace activities are organised can occur on the fly. Integrating these as part of a process that leverages a learning management system can mean that the work placement, educator, and student can be aligned in outcome throughout the placement period. More importantly, properly choreographed digital interfaces act as recordings of learnings that both the workplace and the institution can review.

Management and Reporting Systems:

As WIL becomes more common, there is a need to track and report and learn from the plethora of new learning activities. Visibility of learning activities is essential. To do this, an effective placement system that is integrated to your SMS is a critical factor in delivering success.

Next Steps:

Start early and get it right:

  • Review how you will manage WIL in your institution
  • Review whether your current structure and teams will deliver the best result – do the right people have the right level of responsibility?
  • Develop and share a Risk Management Framework
  • Check your Policies and Procedures – do they align with the Framework and your WIL practices?
  • Develop and share a WIL Reporting Framework – WIL might look different in each discipline, but you need to develop common reporting standards.
  • Check that all your practices align with the relevant TEQSA standards
  • Implement an effective management system to monitor all your WIL activity

DVE applauds the powerful impact that WIL can have not only on the host organisation but also on the student’s career aspirations and employability. Yet, we also understand the processes, systems, and risks involved and what this can mean for compliance with the Standards and impact on provider re-registration with TEQSA.

If you would like to understand more about WIL systems, WIL procedures and WIL compliance and risk management, please contact us at DVE Business Solutions.

Ian Thomson / Katrina Quinn / Joe Barrins