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The eWBL Synthesis Report is Published and Available for Download!
The synthesis report summarises the findings of a large-scale study undertaken as part of the eWBL (online work-based learning) project. The study aimed to document the experiences of HEls, companies and students who participated in online or hybrid work-based learning program. The idea was to explore the organisational, technological, and pedagogical aspects of transitioning from conventional work-based learning to a hybrid or fully online work-based learning (eWBL).
We started by analysing the Work-Based Learning (WBL) context in Europe, and we noticed a wide range of modalities in which WBL was arranged in Europe, i.e., traditional internships, placement programmes, project-based learning projects, on-the-job training, etc. Although the modalities and duration were different, having to comply with specific national rules and education systems, it clearly emerged that WBL was mainly promoted by University Career Services and accredited training/job centres to help students and recent graduates develop soft and professional skills for the labour market. One of its striking features is that it essentially used to take place in physical mode at corporate partners’ headquarters. It is worth mentioning that before Covid-19, there were few cases of hybrid or remote internships, and no recognition was agreed upon, often due to prejudice and mistrust by faculty and/or company staff and to technological barriers.
When the pandemic broke out, HEIs and companies were obliged to move from WBL to eWBL without much strategic planning: the most urgent need was to re-arrange internships from remote (in terms of activities, monitoring and accessibility to IT tools) and, at the same time, to persuade faculty and company staff that the new virtual modality deserved credit recognition and validation as the physical one.
With the stabilization of the eWBL processes, HEIs implemented a range of services to support students/alumni and companies to plan and carry out the internships more effectively. Among the developed solutions, it is worth mentioning the creation of dedicated info desks, online training courses to increase IT skills, virtual recruiting events with corporate partners, etc.
At the same time, companies had to adapt themselves to eWBL: the impact of this change fundamentally depended on their level of digitalization in terms of equipment and staff digital literacy. Additionally, the supervisors had to dedicate more time to follow-up meetings and better planning the placement tasks and schedule, which was perceived simultaneously as a pro (the better you plan, the more productive and efficient you are) and as an obstacle (time-consuming and onerous) in implementing eWBL.
What clearly emerged from the interviews is a strong need to define the internship’s tasks and aims well in advance, a clear monitoring plan with the company supervisor and establish effective communication channels.
Regarding skills development, as we all know, remote internships increased problem-solving, time management, self-regulation, flexibility and concentration. Interns pointed out a better work-life balance, which allowed them to be productive at work and keep pace with the lectures. This aspect was also positively perceived by company staff, as it helped to optimize agendas, mental energy and work performance.
Since eWBL implied a massive use of digital tools and software, IT skills and literacy significantly spread among trainees and company staff, creating a stronger synergy between tech-born interns and senior professionals.
To fully understand eWBL, it is also important to reflect on the negative aspects, namely the lack of real social interaction. Although company supervisors regularly monitored their trainees using videoconferencing tools, the interviewees generally claimed that they hindered true teamwork, creativity and ideation development. Informal situations (coffee breaks, lunches, etc.) were drastically reduced and, even if some companies organized virtual ice-breaking meetings and activities, trainees found it often hard to completely interact with other colleagues.
The lack of networking possibilities also hindered the interns from absorbing the corporate culture and from observing people’s behaviour and non-verbal communication. Undeniably, these aspects are easily perceived in a physical environment. On the contrary, online meetings can only partially help capture the company’s level of formality, language and communication style.
Another critical aspect some interns stressed was an insufficient home office structure (regarding internet connectivity, ergonomic conditions and privacy): a barrier mainly reported by those with weaker social and economic backgrounds.
From all this, it follows that special attention to this category of interns is absolutely fundamental for eWBL adoption to be inclusive.
The overall picture shows that eWBL brings about a series of challenges for all the stakeholders involved. On the one hand, it has strengthened digital skills, independence, and flexibility, bringing a better work-life balance and headquarters cost-savings, and has knocked down geographical barriers thanks to videoconferencing systems.
On the other hand, eWBL can only be positively implemented if HEIs and companies negotiate a tailor-made training programme for each participant, agree on monitoring arrangements, and ensure skill validation and placement recognition.
Finally, it is given that hybrid-working models are spreading worldwide. Therefore, HEIs, corporate partners and students/alumni have to be trained and equipped to become workplace ready and tackle the international labour market successfully.
The complete report can be downloaded on here.