Postsecondary cooperative (or co-op) education is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience, providing academic credit for structured job experience. Co-op education now takes on new importance in helping young people to make the school-to-work transition and build experiential learning initiatives. Canada and Ontario, more specifically, are commonly regarded as the world leader of offering co-op education at the postsecondary level with Ontario known as a “hot bed” of co-op education, with 24% of Ontarians with postsecondary education reporting participation in co-op (compared to 17% nationally) and 37 colleges and universities (out of a total of 47) in Ontario offering co-op programs. However, over the years, the Ontarian experience is not adequately and explicitly reflected in the relevant scholarly literature. This project seeks to position Ontario in a national and international context, and explore the cultural, environmental and institutional factors that support the phenomenal co-op education in Ontario, investigate what new “work-integrated learning” ideas and approaches can help improve such experiential education, and how co-op education can be steered to better meet the needs of an increasingly knowledge-based economy in the 21st century. Specifically, it aims to address the following research questions:
- Because of its "vocational" association, co-op education has often been regarded as less academically legitimate in universities. What, then, are the reasons behind the widespread co-op education programs in Ontario universities (e.g., government policy, socioeconomic demand)? Apart from explicit policies, research has found that the value of co-op education is embedded in the culture of the institution and the region. In a culture supportive of co-op education, there appear to be clearly understood long-term expectations on all sides (institutions, employers, students). This "informal culture of expectations around work-based learning may be more powerful in the long run than a complex set of regulations and bureaucratic requirements" (Grubb and Villeneuve, 1995, p. 27). However, the same research also found it difficult to sustain co-op culture over time. As such, what characterizes a co-op-friendly culture, and how does it relate to Ontario? How can it be sustained and improved in Ontario?
- Co-op education is believed to provide benefits for students (including motivation, career clarity, enhanced employability, vocational maturity) and employers (labor force flexibility, recruitment/retention of trained workers, and input into curricula) as well as educational institutions and society. How would such benefits be empirically and accurately assessed in Ontario? More importantly, how can assessment of co-op education programs be used for their continuous improvement?
- New theories and pedagogical approaches of “work-integrated learning” (WIL) have inevitably been impacting on co-op education in Ontario and elsewhere. What do new WIL conceptual frameworks that facilitate combining workplace-based experiential learning and classroom-based cognitive learning offer in terms of promising instructional alternatives in co-op programs designed to deliver the knowledge and skills much needed in a knowledge-based economy? Furthermore, co-op education is more recently observed employing active participation methods based on the principles of equality, equity and participation in decision-making in which students learn how to work together and solve problems. This new model provides students with a structure within which they can reinforce employability skills, examine larger issues about work and society, and undertake the crucial activities of critical reflection. How can this model of co-op education be developed in Ontario to prepare students for both their roles as future workers and engaged citizens in the 21st century?
In short, this study examines explores the characteristics and the strength of Ontario’s postsecondary co-op education in the national and the global contexts through the lens of research literature (via a bibliometric analysis or a knowledge map analysis—to be precise) and three case studies. The outcomes are expected to help clarify the opportunities in and objectives of encouraging co-op education and ensuring its quality amid the growth of Ontario’s postsecondary education system over next 10-20 years.