COVID-19 has upended many of the traditional learning, socializing and working contexts, leading to changes in the labour market and workplace opportunities. Less than one month into 2021, deep anxiety and economic chaos remain across many nations and sectors of our society. Amidst this uncertainty, experiential learning (EL) and work-integrated learning (WIL) are still valuable for achieving educational and career outcomes, though more complicated to offer.
In addition to developing skills and networks, EL and WIL offer this next generation of students agency and hope through the contributions, experiences and connections made during their placements. Students’ efforts and contributions can also provide back-office support to organizations at the frontlines of this pandemic and those scrambling to change their day-to-day operations. So, how can we continue to provide effective EL and WIL for our students despite COVID-19?
Providing clarity and setting goals while being light on everyone’s shoulder
Engaging in meaningful dialogue with students, hosts and stakeholders about goals, what’s possible and what’s pressing can model a culture of care and an acceptance of circumstance. During the stressful pandemic environment, providing milestone check-ins with clear timelines and options is helpful for the well-being of students and stakeholders during their EL or WIL experience. Co-ordinators and educators can lighten the load by joining communities and conferences, sharing and borrowing options, including those we offer below.
Predicting in the dark uncertainty
There is no longer the ‘usual option,’ even for placements and hosting relationships that are decades old. Ever-shifting restrictions challenge learners, supervisors and co-ordinators. When co-ordinating during uncertainty, it can be helpful to identify the current design factors at play. One of the key design factors, physical and social context, prompts questions about: What is the most likely physical location? What is possible for social interactions?
With the uncertainty, the most stable prediction for physical location is often home. For placements with the potential to be on site, consider planning a mix of home and on site, including identifying the starting (default) location, confirming that a supervisor will provide a clear indication and identifying needed training for when the student moves on site.
We can also think about the social context, including whom the student will interact with informally and formally. Without hallway conversations and tagging along to meetings, where are those places to learn the social dynamics of the organization and sector? Consider inviting students to sit in on related team meetings, join calls with supervisor’s colleagues and attend organizational events just to get a sense of the dynamics and social context is valuable. For placements or sectors where there are multiple students, consider a coffee hour initially structured on key opening topics (getting set up on the tech access, approaches to remembering all the names and files). Think of whom students would typically see if they were on site and consider options now.
Consider a mechanism for seeing how others complete tasks and how students will receive feedback now that tagalongs and quick checks take additional planning. Identify a couple of checkpoints in the timeline, and consider having students finishing placements develop training videos for the next round of students. Finally, go with what seems both feasible and useful for students, while recognizing conversations online and remotely can take more energy and intentional setup than just dropping by.
Setting key outcomes and possible tasks
With a communication plan and the initial assumption of starting remote, there is still value in identifying key outcomes for the students. Students can select and supervisors confirm feasible goals as a key cornerstone for building and pivoting plans in response to changing contexts and circumstances. Goals may span skills, application of training, building connections, organizational benefits and community benefits. This enables multiple components to be considered. When reality shifts, revisiting the plan with co-ordinators, supervisors and students can help determine which goals can still be met, while focusing effort on what’s relevant and feasible to each stakeholder.
“… go with what seems both feasible and useful for students, while recognizing conversations online and remotely can take more energy and intentional setup than just dropping by.”
As the usual task may not exist, investigate what other tasks are needed to learn, practise and achieve the outcomes across the lifespan of the placement. Lean into the options for remote and at home. For oral presentation, perhaps a presentation to the community is not possible, but a promotional or instructional video or developing a podcast-style update with area leaders for outreach could be. For technical skills, there are helpful tasks such as comparing specifications to make recommendations, supporting migrations, providing logistical support for frontline workers or walking clients through routine or initial at-home processes may be options. In addition, environmental scans for wise practices, new policies and new outreach examples offer safe, at-home ways for students to build connections and see trends in the field. For students likely able to mix home and on site, identify tasks that could be started at home and extended once on site offers a more scaffolded and seamless experience.
In short, experiential learning during a pandemic, while nowhere near the usual, may still offer students a sense of contribution and deep learning, and organizations the benefit of their energy and insight. For successful navigation that can be lighter on everyone’s shoulders, identify design factors including social and physical context, set milestone communication points, set clear goals, and identify alternative tasks for a great Plan A and even Plan B. And remember, no matter what happens, we still have Plan Z: “Review our goals and figure out options together.”