COVID-19 (coronavirus) has brought many challenges to Career Technical Education (CTE) over the past few months. One of the most persistent challenges has been providing work-based learning experiences – which offers an opportunity to reinforce and deepen classroom learning in a real-world setting – to learners amidst a health pandemic that has shut down much of the nation’s economy. With their doors closed, many businesses have had to cancel or indefinitely postpone any work-based learning programs.
Amid these challenges, the response by schools, colleges, employers and work-based learning intermediaries has been largely ad-hoc. In some cases, employers have been able to maintain their summer internship commitments by onboarding and supporting interns remotely, just as if they were part of their staff who are already working from home. Certain industry engagement opportunities can be sustained virtually through video conferencing platforms. However, such piecemeal solutions can exacerbate inequities and further contribute to learning loss.
As states address work to ramp up work-based learning and scale remote opportunities, they should consider the following principles: Quality, Equity, Mentorship and Breadth. These principles should help establish a clear statewide vision for what work-based learning can look like in times of continuous disruption with a set of common expectations and resources for those managing work-based learning experiences on the ground.
Reaffirm Quality: Learners should continue to be engaged in real work experiences that are aligned to their program of study and have opportunities to interact with colleagues and learn from professionals in the field. States can leverage intermediaries and build their capacity to support this principle. To ensure work-based learning experiences remain high-quality, states should maintain the high expectations they set for work-based learning experiences and:
- Ensure that all work-based learning experiences require a strong training plan that focuses on technical and employability skill development. The learner, their instructor and employer should have clear expectations of what that training plan is.
- Encourage strategies for building relationships such as:
- Assigning projects that can be completed remotely
- Creating opportunities for regular check-in calls
- Setting up opportunities for regular feedback. Feedback should not only support learner technical competency development but also employability skills- communication, teamwork, etc.
- Arranging virtual networking opportunities
- Develop and/or maintain a systems- and student-level approach to assessing equitable access, student participation and learning, and the overall quality of remote work-based learning programs. This includes assessing and disaggregating student and industry participation, student learning and attainment of knowledge and skills. Given the challenge of staying engaged in a distant environment, it may also be important to consider additional measurements such as tracking the number of engagements an employer has with the learner.
Equity: Technology is the most obvious way to offer remote experiences along the work-based learning continuum. However, technology is not easily applicable to most career pathways and not all students have reliable access to broadband connections. Also, technology may not always be adaptable for students with special needs. States can promote equity by:
- Examining demographic data to see which learners are getting access to remote internship and youth apprenticeship opportunities
- Encouraging work that can be done remotely, without internet access.
- Regularly checking in with local districts to help build capacity, if necessary (with an intentional focus on rural and urban districts)
- Encouraging employers to continue offering paid internship and youth apprenticeship experiences or ensuring learners can earn academic credit as compensation for their work. To encourage compensation and relieve financial pressures put on employers to hire and compensate learners, states could:
- Maintain employer incentives for offering work-based learning opportunities through tax credits or related policy levers.
- Align existing summer youth employment programs with work-based learning activities.
Mentorship: Building relationships and networking is one of the most valuable experiences of any work-based learning opportunity. For economically disadvantaged learners, these relationships help build invaluable social capital that they can leverage throughout their careers. As best as possible, states should promote these in-person networking experiences that a learner might receive in a traditional setting by:
- Developing guidelines and templates for remote mentorship, including mentor agreements that define the roles of the student, mentor and instructor
- Identifying and making available technology that allows for virtual networking
- Partnering with the state workforce agency, chambers of commerce and other industry associations to build remote micro-industry engagement opportunities such as virtual lunches and staff meet and greets at scale
Breadth: Some CTE programs of study, such as those in the Information Technology Career ClusterⓇ, are easier than others to transition to remote or virtual learning. While attending to all programs of study, states should address work-based learning experiences in the industry sectors that are more difficult to deliver in a remote or virtual environment. Intentional collaboration with industry experts, local businesses and chambers of commerce representing these priority CTE programs of study is one way to address this gap. Some approaches to expanding remote or virtual work-based learning opportunities to other Career Clusters include:
- Investing in simulated work-based learning. West Virginia’s simulated workplace program has demonstrated strong outcomes, and many programs have weathered the transition to remote learning through creative solutions.
- Investing in virtual reality equipment or at-home laboratories to provide students with hands-on experiences.
These principles are intended to guide states in setting a vision for what work-based learning can look like in light of continuous economic and academic disruption. Given that these challenges are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, states have to rethink the way they deliver work-based learning. There must be intentionality behind providing remote work-based learning programs that maintain the same high standards as a traditional experience and extend opportunity to all students across geography or socioeconomic status. These principles are proposed to be the floor, not the ceiling, to what is possible during these novel times. States can build on these principles to create a policy environment that supports the needs of industry and puts learners to work.
Brian Robinson, Policy Associate
Check out this resource from Advance CTE, Connecting Classrooms to Careers: A Comprehensive Guide to the State’s Role in Work-Based Learning, to learn more about setting a statewide vision for work-based learning in your state!