Work-integrated learning programs bring innovation to education

Guest Contributor
January 18, 2023

By Jane Goodyer

Jane Goodyer is the Dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University.

Collaboration between universities and employers is becoming increasingly important in today’s competitive global economy.

A recent survey of Canadian businesses found that 62 percent reported having difficulty finding job candidates with the right technical skills, especially in technology-related fields.

To close the skills gap, employers are looking to universities to produce not just work-ready graduates, but highly qualified professionals who can anticipate ICT-sector needs and help shape their evolution. Organizations want access to the latest expertise, world-class research, and specialized resources that a university and its graduates provide.

Work-integrated learning (WIL) programs, which combine academic study with workplace experience, offer a way for students to make meaningful connections between their academic learning and work experiences, and also create closer relationships between higher education and employers.

WIL comes in many forms — including work experiences, internships and co-ops — and I’m pleased to see emergent, innovative models of WIL from around the globe that are transformative.

A new program at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering demonstrates how university faculties can work alongside the business community to create innovative WIL programs.

Next fall, the School will launch a new Bachelor of Applied Science in Digital Technologies (BASc) program. The first of its kind in Canada, the work-based degree program will allow students to study towards obtaining their degree over four years while working full time for the same employer and earning a salary.

We developed the program in partnership with senior technology experts from leading-edge private- and public-sector organizations in Canada. Their input on curriculum design and learning outcomes ensures that students will gain the portable knowledge, skills, and professionalism they need to be future leaders in software development, cyber security, data science, or related fields after graduation.

The program will operate on a full-calendar-year basis, with students earning 30 credits a year. Learners will spend approximately 20 percent of their work time focused on academic learning, delivered during an intensive five-day block period on campus every six to seven weeks. The remainder of their work hours will be dedicated to applying their theoretical knowledge in the workplace.  

The program will be offered through Markham Campus and in its first year will be delivered through York University’s Learning Space in IBM Canada’s headquarters in Markham.

Besides having access to the University student services, students will have an academic coach, a workplace coach, and a company mentor to support them. The experience and contacts that students will gain from working for the same employer throughout their degree will give them a solid base for success after they graduate.

UK provided model

We modelled the program on a similar one in place in most universities in the United Kingdom. To help ensure our program’s success, we are working closely with one of the UK’s leading providers of this type of program, Manchester Metropolitan University, which has enrolled more than 2,500 students in its fully work-integrated degree programs while working with 544 employers.

Like the programs in the UK, the format of our new WIL program offers a pathway to a university degree for non-traditional learners. By allowing students to earn a full-time salary while studying, the program also reduces financial barriers for those who could not otherwise afford a university degree. These design features will help to build a more equitable digital technologies workforce.

For employers, the program offers a pipeline to a highly skilled and diverse base of job candidates who bring fresh ideas and knowledge to the workplace, helping employers remain competitive.

The combination of study and hands-on experience means that students can apply their academic knowledge to their job immediately. This allows them to contribute meaningfully to the employer’s goals with a shorter learning curve.

The program will be offered to those looking to change careers, people already in the workforce who want to build on their skills, and students just graduating from high school.

Employers who support their employees, as they earn the degree, will benefit from having access to the latest expertise, knowledge, and resources from the University. Besides helping to close skills gaps in the workplace, the program can help employers attract and retain highly skilled employees in a competitive job market.

WIL programs like our Digital Technologies degree can transform the way universities deliver academic programming. By collaborating with employers to develop curricula that empowers students to think critically and creatively, universities can show how nimble, responsive, and innovative they can be in producing graduates who are not only ready for work — but ready for the future. 

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