How to Adapt Experiential Learning Activities in the Era of COVID-19


We searched the literature and consulted our colleagues across the country for innovative approaches and resources.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on higher education. Experiential Learning (EL) programs – which allow students to gain experience, engage in the community, develop technical and interpersonal skills and prepare for careers and networks professionals – were particularly affected. A survey by Cooperative Education & Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada is investigating the effects of COVID-19 on work-integrated learning (WIL) programs at Canadian universities and colleges found that as of May 8, more of 6,700 student internships had been canceled for the summer of 2020.

Likewise, recent data collected by Statistics Canada from a crowdsourcing survey of more than 100,000 post-secondary students, which measured the impact of COVID-19 on the academic lives of post-secondary students, found that 35 per One hundred of participants had their WIA opportunities canceled or suspended as a result of the pandemic.

Many uncertainties remain about the 2020-2021 academic year, as well as questions on how to ensure the quality of EL and AIT for students. Whether your school is planning a fall semester primarily online or a hybrid of in-person and online courses, chances are that there will be challenges in securing AIT internships and some or all EL programs will need to be be offered using alternatives to in-person delivery.

Yet with these challenges come unique opportunities to creatively examine courses and programs and consider other ways to achieve learning goals. Our team searched the literature and consulted colleagues to find innovative approaches to LE implemented across Canada, and we have compiled the following resources and suggestions to help you with your planning.

Separate partnership

Nonprofits and for-profit businesses are facing massive disruption due to COVID-19, and their ability and willingness to host students varies widely. This means educators may need to rethink their course design and outreach strategies and consider alternatives to traditional in-person placements, especially for offerings such as community learning courses that rely on external partnerships. Some alternatives may include:

  • Perform remote research for partner organizations, create marketing content, create websites, digitize archival resources or documents, or develop virtual programming for cultural institutions looking for other ways to interact with the public.
  • Take advantage of your campus as a potential partner. For example, in the past, the University of Toronto tasked first-year engineering students to find a way to prevent condensation from forming in the walls of the rare book library.
  • Collaborate on partnerships so that a partner project can be shared across many courses, providing an external organization with access to student expertise in a variety of academic disciplines.
  • Engage students in activities that assess the impact of COVID-19 on the community. Topics such as prejudice and discrimination, mental health, housing and food security, environment, economic impact, etc. can be explored from several disciplinary perspectives.
  • Partner with indigenous knowledge holders in your community to create a “First History” virtual tour of your campus, allowing students to explore the indigenous history of the land on which they are studying.
  • Arrange for your students to connect with their counterparts at an institution outside of Canada to solve a global problem, thereby broadening student perspectives.
  • Match distance students with people who need support, such as seniors struggling with self-isolation or newcomers developing their language skills.
  • Take advantage of platforms like Riipen to identify industrial partners for micro-projects that can be carried out remotely.
  • Partner with your local chamber of commerce to identify small businesses in need of assistance. For example, 50 York University students are supporting the City of Toronto’s ShopHERE program, helping 3,000 businesses and retailers build e-commerce sites by August.

Paid internships, including co-op and internship programs

While the original goal of co-op and internship programs in response to the COVID crisis was to keep students safe, help them adjust to working from home, and scramble to find alternatives for those with internships were canceled, they are now considering the fall.

  • CEWIL Canada and provincial AIT organizations such as ACE-BC, EWO and CEWIL Atlantic have been instrumental in bringing the AIT community together at this time to resolve issues and share best practices. Many resources for practitioners can be found on their websites and in town hall sessions.
  • The federal government changed the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) to allow employers faster access to wage subsidies and to allow post-secondary institutions to apply for SWPP funds to hire their own students. For example, the University of Waterloo used SWPP funding to hire 300 of its own co-op students this summer to help with the transition from online courses.
  • Many institutions are eliminating grading / matching processes for the upcoming cycle, allowing flexibility over the duration of the internship, providing support for conducting virtual interviews, experimenting with virtual company briefings and providing employers advice to supervise students working remotely to reduce potential barriers to hiring.

Virtual or remote labs and field courses

Labs and field courses are mandatory components of many undergraduate programs, and replicating these highly interactive activities is a particular challenge.

  • There are a variety of open source or paid sites that offer simulated activities, virtual labs, and videos that can be tailored for EL purposes and can meet individual course goals. These include the PHET simulations, the University of Toronto open module projects, Morpho Source, OER Commons, Jove, Labster and Concord Consortium, as well as an ongoing list on the KeepTeaching site of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. LEARNZ and Oxford University Press offer virtual field trips, and Brock University has updated its educational guide to include an excellent list of resources for simulations and virtual field experiments.
  • Another alternative is to provide students with materials to perform scaled-down versions of labs or field activities at home. This summer, McMaster University is experimenting with sending lab kits to physics and biology students to allow hands-on experiences at home, while Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Culinary Arts program is providing students with the materials needed to carry out home cooking projects.
  • Instead of providing materials, students can also be encouraged to explore their immediate surroundings (public health guidelines allow this), take photos, search for materials online, and discuss the results in group discussions. line. Alternatively, activities can be simulated by recording videos or compiling existing fieldwork sequences, with students analyzing the data individually or in groups.

Support students and ensure equitable access

When redesigning activities, it is essential to consider access as well as the mental and physical health of the students. We encourage a few more steps, beyond your typical programming:

  • Confirm that partners adhere to local public health guidelines and appropriate health and safety protocols, and that risk management strategies are in place.
  • Provide students with clear details of what is expected of them, so that those with health issues or caring for vulnerable people can assess the risks before taking the opportunity.
  • Create scholarships to ensure that all students have access to the equipment needed to participate in EL opportunities remotely, including access to laptops, software, etc.
  • Build a strong sense of community among students by setting up regular virtual video chats, forums, games and structured recordings.
  • Provide additional training for students to describe their rights at work and what constitutes a safe workplace in today’s climate, and what action to take if they feel unsafe.
  • Offer additional training to students on professionalism in teleworking.
  • Train teaching assistants on how to support students in a remote environment.
  • Ensure access to mental health supports on campus, regardless of the student’s physical location.

Focus on quality

While it is difficult to replicate the full EL experience in person in today’s climate, it is essential that we continue to provide opportunities for students to connect theory to practice. We can continue to deliver high quality learning experiences by maintaining our focus on the fundamentals: building structured experiences, active student engagement, authenticity of experience, critical analysis and reflection. Assessing student learning through written reflections, oral presentations, online discussions, journals, digital portfolios, etc., is always possible in a remote environment. For instructors offering online courses for the fall term, there are a number of modules available under a Creative Commons license that can be adapted and focus on preparing students for EL opportunities and designing experiences. quality. York University and the University of Calgary have also created resources for faculty who adapt EL.

COVID-19 has introduced many challenges for EL programming, but also causes us to think differently about what is possible. There are inspiring examples across the country and the world of how educators have adapted. We have a lot to learn about distant forms of EL, but perhaps a silver lining in the pandemic is that it offers the rare opportunity to try something new, to open EL to others. students who might not have participated otherwise and to forge new relationships with local and global players. communities.

Vicki Lowes (Principal), Ainsley Goldman (Instructional Developer) and Colin McMahon (Community Outreach Coordinator) work in the Experiential Learning and Outreach Support Office in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Toronto . Laurie Harrison and Christine Ovcaric, also at the University of Toronto, contributed to this article.

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