Chapter 20: Stakeholders Voices – The Integration Gap: An evaluation of work-integrated learning in professional practice

Kevin Burns

Kevin Burns, Dundalk Institute of Technology

Abstract

Increasingly, programs in universities are being positioned as exemplars of ‘higher vocational education’, with expectations that graduates will enjoy smooth transitions into professional practice. Aligned with these expectations, is the need to provide authentic work-integrated learning (WIL) practice, and with these being effectively integrated into the higher education curriculum. While WIL attempts to address this issue, it is questionable how successful this really is if students are not adequately prepared prior to their placement. This chapter highlights the issues involved and explores them through a qualitative evaluation from the perspectives of key WIL stakeholders within a higher education hospitality department in Ireland. Findings revealed that both university and employers need to enhance curricula and pedagogic practices to ensure authentic experiences, integrative learning and alignment.

Introduction/Rationale

The fundamental purpose of quality higher education is to enhance the skills of students and ultimately to prepare them for employment after university (Harvey & Green, 1993). Today’s tertiary institutions, including universities, are in transition where greater emphasis is placed on systems with close industry partnerships. Increasingly both industry and government are seeing the purpose of universities as ensuring that graduates are “job-ready” when they graduate. Higher education institutions, in turn, must respond to demands for practical, real world education that is relevant, current, and translates theory to practice. To address this outcome, higher education institutions are embedding work-integrated learning (WIL), or practical placements into the curriculum to provide students with an authentic learning experience. WIL is acknowledged as developing generic or professional skills and improving the employability and work readiness of students (Patrick, Peach, Pocknee, Webb, Fletcher & Pretto, 2008), with the professional nature of Hospitality studies ideally suited to such practices (Smith, Clegg, Lawrence and Todd, 2007). While accepted as an important feature of many programmes, surprisingly little research has examined their effectiveness.

This chapter reports on a study that sought to evaluate how WIL ready students are for placement, identify the gaps that exist between current provision and stakeholders’ expectations, and ascertain and integrate key indicators for good practice to strengthen and improve work integrated learners’ employability. Its objectives are to identify gaps that exist between pedagogical provision and stakeholders’ expectations in preparing students for their placement. The study concentrates on the WIL programme at a hotel management school in Ireland, based in a progressive higher education institution. This Institute and Hotel School have offered work-integrated learning (WIL) programmes over the last 15 years. The chapter begins with an initial discussion on the concept of WIL, followed by a review of the components of WIL (cooperative education, design and evaluation). It outlines the triangulated research design and presents the findings. A review of these findings informs a discussion based on an integrated approach to evaluation and continuous improvement. The conclusion draws together the key findings and identifies future areas of research on this topic.

Literature Review

The inclusion of WIL into the undergraduate course curriculum is based on the premise that practical placements provide an opportunity for students to integrate theoretical knowledge with the informal knowledge gained through immersion in a professional context (Bates, 2008). Essential to successful WIL experiences is reciprocity or mutual benefits for the student, institution and the workplace host organisation (Fleming, McLachlan, & Pretti, 2018). Learning through experience takes many forms ranging from cooperative education and work-integrated learning with their focus on praxis (Habermas, 1973), to work readiness programmes (Watts, 2006), practicums, internships and practice clinics (McAlpine & Weston, 2000; McNamara & Field, 2007; Billett, 2009). These approaches were succinctly captured in the definition of work-integrated learning (WIL) offered through an Australian Learning and Teaching Council as:

An umbrella term for a range of approaches and strategies that integrate theory with the practice of work within a purposefully designed curriculum (Patrick et al., 2009, p. iv).

Learning through experience within a purposefully designed curriculum has a long history in higher education, with sandwich programs said to be offered in the United Kingdom as early as 1840 and cooperative education programs first offered in the United States in 1906 (Haddara & Skanes, 2007). Its popularity has grown in recent years as higher education institutes claim their graduates are ‘work-ready’ and employers expect universities to produce graduates who are fully employable (McIlveen et al., 2008).

A key aspect of WIL/cooperative education following on from Boud & Falchikov (2006) is the notion that it entails the integration of knowledge and skills gained in both the tertiary setting and in the workplace. It is the integration aspect of WIL that distinguishes it from workplace learning (Boud, 2000). Integration involves the student taking what he or she has learned in the workplace, and relating it to, or incorporating it into, the next phase of academic learning upon returning to the university. Conversely, theories learned in the classroom are integrated into practice during the student’s workplace experience (Van Gyn, Cutt, Loken & Ricks, 1997). Importantly, it involves far more than work. Instead, it is an educational process (Yorke & Knight, 2006) that is aligned with other learning outcomes (Kolb, 1984).

As a result, learning outcomes of the placement need to have academic merit to be of value to all stakeholders. This more comprehensive and inclusive approach to work-integrated learning reflects what Orrell (2004) describes as a ‘transformative stakeholder ethos’. Unlike the ‘value added ethos’ which emphasizes short-term returns for the organisation and instrumental training for the student, the ‘transformative stakeholder ethos’ emphasises learning and adopting a long-term view which seeks benefits for all parties (Orrell 2004). Potentially, this ethos exemplifies learning organisations and leads to authentic, on-going, transformative partnerships integrating work, curriculum and research (Orrell 2004). This observation highlights the importance of clarity of intentions and expectations of outcomes as an essential basis for curriculum design, assessment processes and evaluating regimes. Murphy and Calway (2008) suggest the purposes of WIL are to engender work readiness, dispose students to lifelong learning, promote of human and social potential, internationalise thinking, transfer knowledge and enable career development.

Despite the recognised benefits of work‐integrated learning programs, debate seems to emerge regarding the assessment of learning outcomes. Ideally, assessment tasks should engage students with their professional practice, and furthermore add to building graduate attributes required within the professional context (Boud & Falchikov, 2006). A frequently mentioned method of work-integrated learning assessment is engagement in reflective practice (Boud & Falchikov, 2006). The work of Schon (1987) has gained prominence in nursing education, for example, where reflective practice is a core element of all courses. Schon argues unless students reflect on their progress, they will not learn to correct their mistakes and feedback will become merely a systematic activity. Others suggest using a triangulated approach (Hay & O’Donoghue 2009), whereby students, placement co-ordinators, and organizational supervisors also reflect on the competencies gained. This cooperative approach requires a degree of planning and structure so that the curriculum is aligned correctly which, is an important role in creating the conditions for the student to learn (Biggs & Tang, 2007). Poorly aligned curricula have the consequences which may lead to weakly integrated (or not integrated) disciplinary and practical learning, unorganised experiences for students, and ill-prepared academic and workplace supervisors.

Method

The study reported in this chapter employed an informative qualitative framework involving an evaluation methodology. As Plewis and Mason (2005 as cited in Cohen & Manion, 2011) suggest, evaluation research is, at heart, applied research that uses the tools of research in the social sciences to provide answers to the effectiveness and effects of programmes. Focus groups and semi-structured interviews were to answer the key objectives of:

  • Evaluating how WIL ready students are for placement;
  • Identifying the gaps that exist between current provision and stakeholders’ expectations, and;
  • Ascertaining and integrating key indicators for good practice to strengthen and improve work integrated learners’ employability.

The author lectures in a hospitality department and was the academic coordinator for the WIL programme. His work involved, securing and facilitating work placements, providing support in the delivery of pre-placement workshops, building and maintaining relationships with the various stakeholders and offering career advice. The WIL placement consists of a six-month mandatory WIL period in Year Two of the programme, where students work with one organisation. All students have access to a series of pre-placement seminars and activities to develop their work-readiness skills. The topics covered here include curriculum vitae and cover letter preparation, understanding employers’ expectations regarding employability skills, developing interview skills with a mock interview for each student and a session on ethics, attire and code of conduct.

Focus groups and semi structured interviews were used with participants selected by purposive sampling. A total sample of 34 people participated. Current students were contacted through general class-wide email requesting participation. Graduates received individual emails outlining the research objectives. Staff and industry representatives also volunteered. All participants were informed of the overall purpose of the study, the focus group/interview’ design, outlining the content and structure, that participation was voluntary and that they had the possibility of withdrawing at any point in time. Prior to the proposed research being carried out ethical approval was sought from the University Ethics Committee, including the principles of informed consent, privacy and confidentiality.

The sample description is as follows:

  • 10 undergraduate students (UG) who discussed their experiences in terms of their teaching and learning experiences at both the university and in their work placements.
  • 12 recent graduates (RG) who graduated from one to three years previously and who discussed aspects regarding their teaching and learning experiences at the university and how it prepared them for employment;
  • Six (6) school practitioners (SP), comprising of academic, management and placement office staff who provided insights from their experiences of being directly and indirectly involved with student WIL placements.
  • Six (6) employers (E) to ascertain their views on WIL placements experience.

All focus groups and interviews were audio taped with the consent of all interviewees and focus group participants. The interviews were transcribed from the tape recordings and the responses were the object of an actual analysis with the purpose of acquiring general patterns in the responses. The data proved to be rich. Thematic analysis was used to summarise and clarify themes from the data. The researcher and moderators reviewed the transcripts and independently coded the data. Summary tables were established and cross referenced. Codings were then discussed, with differentiating concepts recorded and agreed upon. Finally, coding was cross referenced for validity and reliability. Subsequently, the material in each theme was concentrated. The analysis generated many and detailed findings on stakeholders’ experiences and understandings of WIL (Jones et al., 2009). For the purpose of this research emphasis is placed on those findings that held special relevance to matters of readiness for WIL. The results section reports the findings, and discusses main themes developed from the thematic analysis.

Findings

Three major themes emerged from the combined focus group discussions, semi-structured interviews, reflections and researcher notes. The findings were themed and categorised under the headings value, practice and critique. These findings are further enhanced through the use of key stakeholder quotes.

The value findings (Table 1) are similar to those found in a national scoping report in Australia (Patrick et al., 2009). Students were enthusiastic to assist a real business and better understand how it operates. The value from the educator perspective concurs with the work of Boud (2001), Cates & Jones (1999) and Patrick et al. (2009) where WIL opens up opportunities for employer involvement in curriculum development and a way of attracting new funds and enhancement of the reputation. Student realisation that their WIL placement was so beneficial, as illustrated by the following quotes:

I wasn’t expecting to be given so much responsibility and there was a lot of pressure involved. I never thought I would be so valued on work placement, they treated me like a member of the team, and it was great. (UG)

Being able to complete a project of international significance gave me a real sense of achievement, to see it televised was the icing on the cake…. (UG)

Moving to the United States for 8 months was a massive experience for me initially: working with a global corporation with so many different nationalities, working at events with 1000 attendees was an amazing experience, the WIL placement focused me. I am now working for another international corporation in the Event sales department. (RG)

From the employer/ educators’ perspective the benefits were:

I see it as growing future employees. In previous years, we have been able to employ students who have been on placement and it is a good way to get to know them…. (E)

I feel WIL is valued by the School, and all levels in the University. This application of theory to practice, students achieve a deeper learning as a result of collaborative involvement between the employer, the students and engaging in a real project… (SP)

Getting students experience in the workplace is often very motivating – especially for students who aren’t necessarily the highest achievers. That’s why we have seen more courses taking up WIL … as a mechanism to retain and let students see they are going somewhere… (SP)

Table 1. Summary of the value of WIL for the various stakeholders – students, employers and universities

Students
  • Key themes identified: Real world learning, confidence building, career development and integration.
  • Academic benefits include improved: learning, problem solving, motivation to learn, retention, ability to earn money
  • Personal benefits include increased: autonomy (moving away from home), self-worth, sense of purpose, self-confidence, initiative, teamwork, cooperation, relationship building
  • Career benefits include aid with: identification and clarification of career options, career decision making and planning, employment opportunities
  • Skill development benefits include increased: competence, technical knowledge and skills
Employer
  • Cost effectiveness in hiring: hire motivated/ enthusiastic new employees, screen students for permanent employment, bring new knowledge into organisation, helps company meet affirmative action goals, co-op students hired usually remain with the company longer and progress faster than regular hires
  • Partnership: research and interactions with college/ university
  • The off-campus WIL experiences were considered the best place to improve behavioural skills that are also considered transferable skills
University
  • WIL programmes were viewed as useful marketing and recruitment tools and to enhance University reputation.
  • Some faculty saw wider ‘value’ in that work placement experiences can contribute “Links with local industry also brings feedback and perspective to what we are doing in our undergrad teaching.”
  • Producing more employable and work-ready graduates – Government agenda
  • Student recruitment and enrolment: improved academic performance, employer involvement in curriculum development and content, driving force in attracting new funds.

The findings of this study with reference to practice (Table 2) are consistent with those reported by Boud & Costley (2007) where WIL programmes generally require a different set of practices for learning facilitation and learner support than are appropriate to taught programmes or conventional degrees. The role of the academic coordinator often moves, on the one hand, from being a teacher to being both a facilitator and an expert resource to, on the other hand, from supervisor to advisor or academic consultant. Most students expressed positive opinions about the value of their work placement. They acknowledged that work placement entailed a steep learning curve, according to many. Of course, work placement was not a happy experience for everyone. Expressed difficulties related to mundane work tasks, absent supervisors, troubles with other staff and balancing placement commitments with other life demands. Some began to discount the value of university learning and were critical of how little it had prepared them for the realities of the workplace. The findings presented here are consistent with those identified by Coll & Zegwaard (2006) in that business employers rank ability and willingness to learn as the top desired competency for students.

Stakeholders’ evaluation of current practice as illustrated by the following quotes:

I don’t think there should be any course without placement, its fundamental and I believe it the University’s responsibility to ensure WIL is on every programme. More industry specific knowledge prior to placement would enhance the student experience… (E)

I feel my placement wasn’t really related to my course, when chatting with friends from my class I felt I was missing out on the experience of practising things more relevant to my course. The work was repetitive and at times boring… (UG)

The language to use when talking when in the workplace was a skill I felt in needed… (UG)

From memory, assessment was somewhat hazy, no specific goals or benchmarks; I feel the preparation by the university for placement needs to forge greater connection between the students’ professional competence and their abilities to be reflective practitioners… (RG)

From a WIL coordinator in a large Hotel Corporation, I deal with over 100 placement students. We want students to immerse themselves, embrace the entire experience. They need to show initiative and be proactive, and if they don’t understand, ask for help … I also believe students need help … Possibly from the school on their overall professional attitude … They need to learn how to ‘talk’ to different people … put themselves in the customer’s shoes, they need to leave the student persona at the door and see themselves as a member of staff, conduct and appearance etc… We host a full induction and we identify clear expectation on their behaviour before they undertake any work … (E)

It’s the ‘Ah-Ha’ moments in work that makes you connect theory with practice … I reflect back now and regret not engaging in my work placement more. (RG)

Table 2. Summary of the practice of WIL for the various stakeholders – students, employers and universities

Students
  • Pre-placement module relevance
  • Intimidating work environments
  • Confidence
  • Application of academic knowledge to the workplace.
  • Pre-placement – challenging and daunting
  • More concentration on skills development
  • Self-confidence in communicating with clients.
  • Stressful experience – abandonment
  • Learning from supervisors and work employees
  • Separating the on-campus and on-placement learning
  • WIL experiences “make a lot more sense”
  • ‘Ah-Ha’ moments
  • Lectures’ interest
  • Confused, puzzled and frustrated with level of contact with University and assessment strategies
  • Motivation
Employer
  • Not familiar with what pedagogies are used on campus.
  • Academic supervisor aided in getting a qualitative ‘feel’ of how placement was going for all stakeholders.
  • Learn how to talk
  • Industry knowledge weak.
  • Exposure to a wide range of tasks and activities
  • Facilitated learning.
  • Behavioural skills; such as self-confidence and communications skills, multi-tasking, prioritising and time management, along with an understanding of workplace culture.
University
  • Integrative learning– assessment, constructive alignment and cognitive authenticity
  • Hidden Curriculum
  • Duration
  • Reflection not embedded in the curricula.
  • University education at risk of being undervalued.
  • Lack or recognition of the Value of WIL with regards allocated resources.
  • WIL a window dressing activity – Government agenda.

The findings presented in Table 2 and the selected quotes from stakeholders presents an argument that student’s need a certain level of behavioural skills prior to starting their WIL placement. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that the development of such skills can be left entirely for the WIL component of the degree. The majority of participants who attended the focus group came from ‘Gen Y’. The key behavioural attributes that characterises Generation Y include their cynicism towards older generations among others. They also display different approaches to learning with a desire for immediacy (Nimon, 2007) and a strong preference for flexibility of learning options. This research reflects the lack of self-confidence in communicating with customers among this age group.

All stakeholders referred to the strategies and challenges of integrative /corporative learning in practice. The importance of authenticity is highlighted in the literature by Patrick et al. (2008) where the quality of work placements depends on students having ‘real-world’ work experiences. It is this authentic experience that needs to be aligned and integrated based on Biggs’ (1996) notion of the constructive alignment of learning objectives with teaching and learning activities (TLAs) and assessments. This alignment reflects the literature notably, Boud, Falchikov and Bates (2008) who state combination, assimilation or connection of theory and practice are the core intellectual activities for students on WIL placements. The issue of support is identified by all stakeholders involved in WIL practice. There is a clear need to measure and evaluate the integration of support services in WIL curricula, both at the university and within the workplace, which may help to alleviate the stress and/or improve the learning process as highlighted by Keogh et al. (2007).

Such findings point towards the need for better preparation of students for WIL, hence, the final theme ‘critique’ (Table 3) targeted what stakeholders expressed would better prepare students to be ‘WIL ready’ and graduates in turn to be ‘work ready’. The critique is greatly enriched with the views and reflections of the recent graduates. All focus groups prioritised five key actions for improvement to the process of preparing student for WIL placement.

Table 3. Summary of the critique of WIL for the various stakeholders – students, employers and universities

Students
  • Embed critical reflection into the programme.
  • Managing expectations – employer expectations.
  • Attitude/motivation, encourage student to gain relevant industry experience in year 1
  • More focus on personal development planning (PDP) in year one.
  • More focus on industry relevant modules – prior to placement
Employer
  • More defined learning contracts and realistic expectations.
  • Duration and timing – year long is ideal from industry perspective.
  • Greater emphasises on negotiated learning – one size does not fit all.
  • Reflective practice and general professionalism – looking at the bigger picture.
  • In-house training for WIL supervisor
University
  • Inviting staff and graduates from industry to talk about their experiences – PDP
  • Assessment and reporting – electronic portfolio and oral presentations
  • Embedding critical reflection and WIL into the curricula an integrated approach.
  • Pedagogical requirements – greater resourcing and recognition needed.
  • Make WIL more competitive – only the good go on International WIL placements.

The findings from the critique theme varied with each stakeholder. However, the findings also raise questions about the quality of the educational design of work placement. The pertinent opinions arising from the critique concentrated on educational design and implementation of WIL in the curricula. A brief summary of the recommendations are as follows:

  • Engagement is a crucial part of co-operative education and universities must actively engage employers as integral and equal partners. Universities must engage with employer in the design and particularly in aligning curriculum that has practical, experiential and ‘real world’ relevance for students.
  • University education is only the first step in career development. Learning is a lifelong process and WIL is only the beginning for many undergraduates.
  • Ensuring alignment of learning objectives, workplace activities and assessment should produce effective, relevant, meaningful and intended learning outcomes for all stakeholders, especially students.
  • Interpretation of and reflection on the experience of WIL and application of knowledge in context should be at the heart of the learning experience.
  • Effectively managing aspects of the curriculum that indirectly supports student learning.
  • Implement a Professional Development Program (the ‘PDP’) into the degree programme, designed to systematically develop students’ learning, employment and generic skills and which supplements their theoretical studies.

Conclusion and Implications

Drawing together the key aspects of this research, WIL education is a most effective tool when it comes to co-operative education. Obviously, this activity goes beyond completing a placement or earning some credits through a company project. Students expected to feel that they belonged and believed they could make a contribution to the way the team functioned. This chapter illuminated that traditional universities and higher education authorities have embraced WIL as an effective educational tool. Yet, the truth reveals that its success depends on the practice of integration. It is hoped that the findings from this study will be transferrable across a range of WIL programme in the University context, and may assist students, academic and employers in developing and enhancing the current WIL programme.

The triangulation of the research data findings across all key stakeholders emphasises the gap in practice of integration that exists, which refers not only to the support the student receives regarding the work-experience itself but even more so in how a student is taught the process of reflection, applying analytical skills to real life situations and subsequently being stimulated to enrich the classroom environment with their real life experience. The research reveals how assorted contexts met by various students, academics and employers give them different conditions for learning and opportunities for integration. Support and resourcing by academic institution is critical to WIL success. It identifies the need for structured, permanent dialogue between employers and educators. It is only through this type of successful engagement will result in our ability to redefine cooperative education as a lifelong, on-going process, where students never really leave the university. Fundamentally, the sharing and assessing of knowledge on WIL programmes is mutually beneficial to all key stakeholders. Academic credibility for university is imperative: therefore, universities and higher education providers should be as conscious of its credibility with regards employers. This holds very true in the international hospitality sector whereby employer credibility is of equal importance.

The comprehensive triangulated collection of data for this study considered different stakeholders. The findings capture the experience of all stakeholders involved in work placement. Programme teams need to map activities and assessments that currently take place throughout the degree prior to placement to ensure students are WIL-ready and graduates in turn are work ready. At the department level, more focus is required to enrich career/personal development planning (PDP). Here providers need to think globally and encourage international opportunities for students to reflect and experience global work opportunities in the real world. Greater fostering of lifelong learning and connection with graduates to return in various roles is also important. Graduation is only the moment when ‘work-integrated learning’ shifts its emphasis and becomes ‘learning-integrated work’.

The success of WIL, PDP and lifelong learning are all influenced by the hidden curriculum defined by Margolis et al. (2001, p. 6) “as the elements of socialisation that takes place in a school, but are not part of the formal curriculum content.” The hidden curriculum is very evident in hospitality departments/schools and faculties, where norms, values and beliefs systems are embedded into the curriculum, classrooms, imparted to students on a daily basis and social engagement of students with employers and academic stakeholders. Further areas for future research from the data: the exploration of relationships between aspects of the hidden curriculum ‘process’ and the resulting ‘products’ (i.e., the student learning outcomes and satisfaction): another area worth investigating: stakeholder views on employer credibility versus academic credibility. Figure 1 summarises all key terms identified in the research paper.

In summation, work-integrated learning will enhance Universities and graduates, and in turn the business community. The success of this integration will, to a large extent, be determined by the capacity of both stakeholders to co-create a dynamic and flexible strategy for engagement.

Figure 1 Conclusion summarised

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