New co-op programs blur the lines between academics and industry

Before introducing a landmark experiential education program for his undergraduates, the director of Carleton’s computer science department had to convince his professors that the initiative did not threaten their curriculum.

Under the program, 11 students would spend multiple work terms at Shopify, the Ottawa tech juggernaut, which had agreed to cover the cost of their tuition for four years. But while the program was billed as integrating classroom theory with workplace practice, professors were troubled by who would draw the lines between academia and industry.

“The main problem was reassuring everybody that this was not going to be an industry-driven change in our curriculum,” Dr. Douglas Howe said. “We made it very clear that Carleton is in control of the curriculum and it is Carleton’s faculty alone that makes decisions about course evaluations.”

So far, the experiment is paying off. While it’s not unusual for 30 per cent of first year students in computer science programs to drop out, everyone in the inaugural class continued to second year. Still, there have been hiccups.

Dr. Howe noticed, for example, that students were stressed out by being thrown into development teams right away. So Shopify added a training program that teaches students about expectations and software tools. It also brought in a web technologies co-ordinator to explicitly help students link academic and practical material.

Difficult as they may be, such collaborations between universities and corporate partners are likely to grow in the coming years. Across Canada, governments are prodding the two sectors to work together. Just this past week, the federal government announced that it will provide $73-million in wage subsidies to employers in order to create 10,000 work placements over four years for postsecondary students in fields like aerospace, IT, environmental science and biotechnology. The money follows other grants for 10,000 experiential spots a year for graduates with advanced degrees, and $1-billion to teams of industry, non-profits and postsecondary institutions to commercialize research and train young researchers.

The goal is to end years of mutual finger-pointing over graduates who lack desired skills and companies that don’t invest in training. Instead, these programs aim to spur innovative thinking, create better jobs for young people, and in turn redress Canada’s lagging productivity rankings.

“From employers, we are hearing that there are new grads in their field, but they are coming out without the new skillset that they are looking for,” said Patty Hajdu, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week.

Using co-op education to bridge that gap between university and the workplace is not a new idea. For decades, dozens of postsecondary institutions have included work placements as part of a degree program. But most university programs are optional, asking students to find their own internships. Few are structured to be “curriculum-aligned,” as Carleton bills its program, to ensure that the classroom and the workplace reflect each other.

Colleges, on the other hand, have long worked with businesses. While one in four college students participated in a co-op program in 2010 (the last year Statistics Canada analyzed), only 12 per cent of university students did so by the time they graduated. Even in fields such as engineering and architecture the degree to which academic and work experiences are integrated can vary widely.

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