From education to employment

FE Research Centres and Experiential Learning – Lessons in Further Education from Canada

Olly Newton, Executive Director, The Edge Foundation
Nobody could deny that 2020 has been a big year for UK Further Education – managing the pandemic, of course, has been a key challenge. But there’s also been the launch of the Commission on the College of the Future and the government’s forthcoming FE White Paper will close off the year. To support the future of FE here in the UK, the Edge Foundation is always seeking international examples of what works elsewhere. With this in mind, we recently took a virtual study trip to Canada.

Evidence-based approaches at Mohawk College

Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, focuses on applied arts and technology. In 2017, as part of a government-funded programme, they launched the College Student Success Innovation Centre. This cutting-edge institution is Canada’s first college campus-based applied research centre, focusing entirely on student success. But how does it work?
In short, the Centre trials and evaluates new practice. They use rigorous research methodologies, including randomised control trials, to produce solid, evidence-based approaches that work. Rather than creating new interventions, Mohawk partners with universities and other research organisations to adapt existing techniques to a college context.
Illustrating this is Mohawk’s partnership with Dr Shannon Brady, who was at Stanford University at the inception of the project (now at Wake Forest). The university had previously studied the impact of psychologically-attuned communication on student engagement. Working with the researchers involved in the original study, Mohawk replicated the work at the college, transforming academic probation letters into proactive guidance support. Following trials, they found the new communication approach hugely successful at improving learning outcomes. With rigorous evidence to support the technique, Mohawk rolled it out across their communications.
Of course, most colleges don’t have the resources, time, or funding to conduct this kind of research on their own. But that’s exactly why the provincial government has funded Mohawk to develop this expertise. They now work with local college partners to share their work. For their proactive guidance intervention, for instance, Mohawk offers coaching and knowledge sharing toolkits to build partner capability.
While this is an impressive approach to research to support students, Mohawk attributes much of this to their focus on building partnerships. They engage with third-party firms to validate their work, before sharing data with local institutions, school boards and universities. Notably, they share their failures as well as their successes. After all, there’s much to discover when we face challenges too. Something UK FE can certainly relate to this year!

Experiential Learning at Humber College

Humber College, Toronto, has a unique approach focusing on rich employer engagement. By partnering with local industry, Humber students apply their skills on business-driven projects. This may not sound new to FE colleagues, but it’s Humber’s meticulous approach that sets it apart.
For decades, Humber has offered conventional apprenticeships and work placements. But in recent years, they’ve taken things up a notch, incorporating experiential learning directly into their strategic plan. The strategy also enshrines Humber’s non-academic learning outcomes – things like equity, diversity and inclusion, which they see as crucial qualities to develop in their students.
With over 33,000 students, executing their strategic plan is no mean task. Humber is the largest polytechnic in Canada. They have six academic faculties with subject matter expertise in over 180 subject areas. To ensure the curriculum stays relevant and up-to-date, all colleges in Ontario are required to have a Program Advisory Committee, which includes industry representatives. Annual reviews guarantee that students develop the relevant competencies and problem-solving skills they need for future employment.
What’s most impressive, though, is Humber’s work-integrated learning approach. The Experiential Learning Working Group (with cross-campus membership) provides oversight to the work-integrated learning approach. This ensures consistent, high-quality experiences for all students, regardless of discipline. And while Humber still offers conventional work experience, what stands out is their Centres of Innovation (COI) network.
Five COIs bring together multidisciplinary teams of faculty, students and industry to examine and solve real-world problems. ‘Study’ takes place in Humber’s dedicated innovation centre. However, this 93,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building doesn’t have a single classroom. Instead, industry partners (who part-fund the centre) provide equipment, working alongside students and staff on real-world projects. This symbiotic relationship is fruitful, too. 87% of Humber graduates are employed within six months of graduating.

Lessons for UK further education

One of Edge’s aims is to develop cutting edge FE approaches like these in the UK. One of our key partners, South East Regional College, is already doing great things with project-based learning. More UK colleges are set to follow, too. The Independent Commission on the College of the Future’s recent FE report recommends a much greater focus on employer engagement. And with the government’s hotly-anticipated FE White Paper upcoming, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. Evidence-based practice and work-integrated learning aren’t merely interesting outliers. They’re a taste of what’s to come.
Olly Newton, Executive Director, Edge Foundation.

The Edge Foundation is an independent education charity dedicated to making learning relevant. It works to transform the way young people develop the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century.

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