The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a shift to on-line learning for many students, and this shift has been particularly challenging for educators who support students to gain workplace experiences (Work Integrated Learning or WIL).

While most WIL educators in Australia had to quickly pivot to on-line WIL, in the USA the Virtual Student Federal Service, led by the US Department of State, has been running since 2009, with over 10,000 students taking part so far. Funded by the NCSEHE, we collaborated with the Virtual Student Federal Service to learn more about how on-line WIL might work in Australia.

We were particularly interested in the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds, because we know that such students’ capacity to participate in in-person WIL can be compromised by time pressures, financial constraints, caring commitments, and geographical location.

We interviewed and surveyed over 300 students and educators across Australia and the USA who participated in on-line WIL. Our findings showed students benefited from on-line WIL through preparation for remote work, job opportunities, networking, mentoring, and the satisfaction of producing meaningful work. Overall, equity students reported a greater number of gains from on-line WIL than non-equity students, and appreciated the affordability of on-line WIL and its flexibility when coping with physical and mental health issues.

Several students saw that their diverse skills and experiences, such as fluency in a language other than English, were of value during their on-line WIL experiences. Workplaces confirmed that the contributions of students from diverse backgrounds helped them to better meet the needs of diverse communities and clients.

Some students encountered challenges such as missing out on workplace interactions, patchy digital access, and not having a private space in which to work. While educators reported challenges in providing feedback and replicating aspects of in-person workplaces, they generally found supervising and mentoring online WIL students to be a rewarding experience.

We recommend that Australian universities continue to explore large-scale, well-supported online WIL opportunities, taking a strengths-based view of diversity.

Our full report is here

Associate Professor Amani Bell, Work Integrated Learning, Sydney School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney @AmaniBell


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