When the news of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown broke in March, post-secondary school students relying on co-op and work placements to graduate were left scrambling.
Derek Stockley, principal of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus and dean of the faculty of social and community services, said: “Suddenly, we had up to 4,000 students who were in a placement who no longer were, and still needed it to meet learning outcomes in order to graduate.”
The faculty’s solution? For many, it meant virtual and work-from-home placements.
Students were able to work with industry professionals to identify projects to tackle that responded to community needs, similar to the work they might have been doing in a regular work placement.
“The project response was a great way to be able to keep students moving forward towards the finish line,” says Corina Ivory, manager of placements and partnerships for the faculty.
At Toronto's Seneca College, meanwhile, their school of nursing partnered with Oxford Medical Simulations in the U.K. to provide nursing students with a virtual-reality screen-based training program to replicate some of their on-site work experiences.
Post-secondary schools looking to alternative virtual approaches for placements
Some schools have made changes to program requirements as well.
Gail Derrington, manager of career projects and operations at Centennial College, says the college decreased the number of mandatory work hours per semester to make it easier for employers to hire students, resulting in shorter work terms of around eight weeks.
“We’ve also had to delay the start date to give enough time for employers to plan for onboarding and other transition requirements,” she says.
Derrington says Centennial has emphasized reaching out to small- and medium-sized businesses for partnerships.
Virtual placements offer new opportunities for accessibility
Dario Guescini, director of work-integrated learning at George Brown College in Toronto, says virtual placements have opened up new opportunities for students that weren’t previously possible.
On average, he says George Brown sends 400 to 500 students abroad each year for work experience. While students couldn’t travel this year, Guescini says the school leveraged the partnerships they already had in place with international groups to offer opportunities “for those students that normally don’t have the opportunity to go abroad.”
He says the school concentrated its efforts on students with disabilities, Black, and Indigenous students and low-income students.
“We need to ensure that students are set up for success, and from an international perspective, we need to give them some training on intercultural competencies.”
Toronto's Humber College has also adapted its placements to work with global partners. Ivory notes that without the virtual options some projects and collaborations would have been much more complicated.
One collaboration involved students working with three different city organizations on a community project. “There’s so much planning involved, but now that it’s virtual, the partners are still going to be able to connect with those students all together virtually and the students are going to be able to attend planning meetings from the city. They’re going to be able to engage in community planning and town hall meetings all virtually,” she says. “I think it just opens up and takes down so many barriers.”
Stockley says it’s been “fascinating” to see how their faculty has had to adapt to the pandemic. He says it has been a discussion for years as to whether child and youth care, social work, and other programs could be taught online.
“We’ve been having a debate for a very long time about the pros and cons of teaching these vocations online. And then one day, every single one of these organizations had to wake up and figure out how to do it,” he says.
Virtual placements not always a replacement for in-person experience
He says there are new barriers that come with virtual learning, as some students have struggled with internet access, access to technology and trying to work and learn with family members in the background.
Daryll Wilson, a masters of arts and psychological science student at Ryerson University, had to sort out where and how he would be doing his 120-hour practicum after the pandemic struck. He says a virtual placement wouldn’t have given him what he wanted to get out of his experience.
Wilson found a researcher he was interested in working with at Dalhousie University, but the virtual options for work were limited.
“She offered me two things; I could write up the lab manual, or I could watch several hours of these mouse videos to score this behaviour and help with some of the data analysis that way,” he says.
When he checked in with his program supervisor and asked whether it would be at all possible for him to work with the researcher in person, he says it took a bit of navigating to coordinate, but ultimately they were able to figure out travel arrangements and logistics.
“I wasn’t really looking forward to the prospect of just another 120 hours in front of a computer screen doing whatever, so that was a concern of mine for sure,” he says.
“A master’s program is only two years long, and so if [my practicum] didn’t happen this year, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate this academic year,” he says.
Preparing students for a post-pandemic workforce
Ivory says the shift to virtual and alternative work-integrated learning will also be echoed post-pandemic in the fields students eventually pursue.
“All of the tech stuff that maybe would have not been part of the social service worker or addictions and mental health work, we now see that being able to communicate online and being able to find ways to facilitate exchanges is part and parcel of supporting your clients,” she says.
Looking toward a post-pandemic workforce, Derrington says being adaptable will be key qualities employers will be looking for, now more than ever. She says that placements that combine different types of virtual and work-from-home experiences are essential work experience for students to prepare for a more adaptable workforce once they graduate.