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The Dutch National Report on Digital Work-based Learning (eWBL) is Out
Work-based learning (WBL) is a powerful pedagogy to foster graduate work readiness particularly because it is embedded in authentic work environments. However, recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new and digital form of WBL — what this project calls ‘eWBL’. Despite the increasing interest, there is currently little understanding and guidance on how to conduct high-quality eWBL. The Erasmus+ eWBL project addresses this gap by exploring how 25 WBL providers across Europe (Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Slovenia) have dealt with the pedagogical and technological challenges associated with the transition from WBL to eWBL during the COVID pandemic, and the solutions they have found. Each case considered the perspective of three key stakeholders: students, companies and HEIs. This National Report offers an overview of the five Dutch cases.
Regarding eWBL implementation, because it was driven by the COVID-19 pandemic it happened without a strategic plan from companies or HEIs. But despite the initial chaos, eWBL implementation followed a similar standard in all Dutch cases. The working week always started with a “kick-off” meeting to explain tasks and coordinate the calendars for the week. Intermediate meetings sometimes take place during the week to follow up on interns’ work and offer feedback. Interns had continuous access to their colleagues and supervisors through work-sharing platforms which included chat, e-mail, file sharing or video conferencing. While working hours remained within the 8h-17h, interns had the freedom to organise their work schedule according to their specific needs.
The WBL to eWBL transition had several implications for learning outcomes. The more independent, computer-oriented work fosters written communication, self-dependency and time management skills. However, skills that depend on social interaction were poorly developed. These include teamwork, networking, public speaking and persuasion. Next to soft skills, WBL’s main benefit includes the gaining of practical experience. Despite being at home, interns judged the placement as relevant and beneficial to their careers. They acquire the habit of performing regular work, assuming responsibilities and following a work schedule. However, this sentiment was more accentuated in analytical jobs with low social interaction. For jobs that demand higher social interaction, online placements provided only a partial portrayal of the reality of the profession. The lack of socialisation also reduces networking opportunities. Nevertheless, interns affirmed they can still build a network with people working closer to them such as other interns or direct supervisors.
Results from the case studies show that the main driver for eWBL is flexibility. This encompasses both the geographical (work in different cities or countries) and time management (adapting work schedule to one’s preferences) factors. Another driver is productivity. Eliminating the commuting time and the distractions that are typical of office life increased work output significantly. However, working from home also creates barriers. The most relevant is the lack of socialisation. Interns fill less motivated to work, the routine becomes too repetitive, opportunities for network and teamwork are reduced and they often miss the company culture.
Aware of the challenges of online work, companies and HEIs designed several alternatives to circumvent these issues. Two elements seem particularly relevant: creating open channels of communication between interns, companies and HEIs, and offering continuous feedback. Interestingly, data shows that a popular alternative to minimize the social distance issue – online socialisation activities like games and happy hours – bring reduced benefits.
As for the long-term implications, all indicate that we are moving towards a hybrid form of WBL. The productivity and flexibility gains of remote work are too relevant to be overlooked. Likewise, there is a well-recognised issue of socialisation that, at the present moment, cannot be circumvented with tools such as virtual coffee breaks. Therefore, some in-office time is indispensable. What remains open is the exact balance between online and face-to-face time.