‘Work-integrated learning’ can improve work-readiness of graduates

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The higher education sector must move toward incorporating work-integrated learning in all curricula, to ensure that graduates are better able to make the transition from lecture hall to office, education experts say.

“Employers and higher education institutions share a vested interest in the production of graduates equipped to meet the needs of a dynamic, demanding and expanding workplace,” says Peter Kriel, Head of the Business Faculty at The Independent Institute of Education (IIE).

“Yet there is often a gap between graduate skills and attributes and employer expectations,” he says.

He says The IIE has recognised the discrepancy and has implemented significant interventions to ensure qualifications have a strong career focus.

“A sound education has all three elements of a relevant and modern curriculum: opportunities to apply and test the knowledge in practical situations and an opportunity to build the skills and experience that makes one work ready,” he says.

“The environment has changed in that students can no longer wait until they are in the workplace to start building work-specific skills,” he says.

“Work-integrated learning must be incorporated into curricula, through opportunities to integrate theory and its application in contexts that will be encountered in the world of work.”

Kriel says that one of the additional benefits of work-integrated learning, is that students develop a “portfolio of evidence” which enables them to show what they have done, and what they have learned from what they have done.

“Not only are such portfolios effective ways to structure learning, they also provide students with evidence of their work readiness to show potential employers.”

Ways of how this can be achieved are, for example, to expect from students studying towards a Diploma in Business Management, to compile a portfolio of evidence that includes the compilation and presentation (simulated) of a proposal to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or other business, detailing a business plan for an event that the NGO or business would consider undertaking.

Nola Payne, Head of Faculty of Information Technology at The IIE, says that students studying toward an IT qualification, for instance, could be required to integrate all the learning achieved over the duration of the qualification into one large project for an external stakeholder.
“This could be an NGO, an entrepreneur that requires an IT system to run their business or for a larger organisation,” she says.

For this task, students would work in teams (simulating the structure of the working environment) and source, plan, design, document and implement a system’s software solution. The system would comprise of at least a PC solution, a mobile application and a website to support their project.

“Employers prefer to employ graduates who have some experience. For some disciplines it is possible to place students in the workplace for their integrated learning, but this is not always practical nor necessarily the best way to ensure that students integrate and apply theory, competence and knowledge,” says Payne.

“Deep learning – which includes improved ability to solve new problems in unknown situations – is not acquired just by doing something. Practical experiences need to ensure students reflect on and analyse what they are doing. Simulated work environments and projects can be more effective than work based placements in this regard,” she says.

Kriel and Payne say that one way students can gain experience, should their courses or institutions of higher education not yet have work-integrated learning components, would be for them to get involved as volunteers in the community throughout their period of study.

“This is an important exposure to values of citizenship and it gives students experience to add to their portfolios without them needing to have had a job. It will further help to ensure that these graduates emerge as more employable,” says Payne.

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