Learning on the Front Lines

In a borderless world, the hot new trend is expenential education

John Schofield November 15 1999

Learning on the Front Lines

In a borderless world, the hot new trend is expenential education

John Schofield November 15 1999

Learning on the Front Lines


John Schofield

In a borderless world, the hot new trend is expenential education

In the end, the deal came down to two shots of tequila on a cold Calgary afternoon. For hours, in the soft light of a posh downtown restaurant, a Mexican trade official and a Canadian developer dickered over the details of a multimillion-dollar housing project in the state of Guerrero, just south of Mexico City. Sitting in was Tulio Conejeros, a third-year University of Alberta business student on a coop placement with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., working as an export consultant. As the negotiations reached a climax, the

gregarious Mexican official ordered a bottle of tequila and invited his prospective partner to imbibe. Cultural confusion ensued: the straitlaced Canadian declined, the Mexican frowned, and for a few seconds the Spanishspeaking Conejeros worried that the whole project would die. Fearing the worst, he urged the Canadian to accept a drink and the deal was back on track. Not the sort of lesson typically taught in Business 101, but a valuable one just the same. “Co-op changes everything,” says Conejeros, 25. “That’s the biggest advantage—it gets you out there.”

And out there is where a growing number of Canadian students want to be. Primed for the Internet Age, they represent a new generation of front-line learners, struggling to succeed in an increasingly borderless world. The pressure to connect education to careers has never been greater. Students, weighed down by debt, are anxious about the future; corporations, buffeted by competition, are crying out for knowledgeable grads. As universities compete to offer a widening array of learning options, traditional classroom walls are crumbling. Call it valueadded education. From traditional co-op programs—mixing academic terms with work § placements—to internships and international I exchanges, experiential learning is the hot ticket I in academic enrichment. And the trend is exI panding now to include the integration of I community service work with classroom in-

struction. “We see experiential education as a critical component of the learning environment,” says Martha Piper, president of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It’s what we have to do to prepare students for the 21st century.” As the new millennium dawns on a shrinking planet, the international element is getting special emphasis. Besides offering opportunities abroad for Canadians, schools are also striving to create a more cosmopolitan atmosphere on campus by boosting their share of international students. Academic leaders believe the effort to internationalize is critical to Canada’s success in the global economy—and to the future of their own cash-strapped universities. All major industrialized countries are scrambling for a slice of the international education pie, one that experts estimate could be worth $50 billion by 2010. But there’s a strong academic argument for

internationalizing as well. Says David Turpin, vice-principal (academic) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.: “Canadian students come back totally transformed in their view of the world and how they can make a contribution to it.”

In Canada, the University of Waterloo pioneered experiential learning, developing the country’s first co-op program in 1957. Since then, the Ontario university has evolved into a global leader, with 80 co-op programs involving 10,000 students in 20 countries—about 60 per cent of its undergraduate student body. Today, 50 Canadian universities offer co-op programs, and more than 40,000 undergraduates are involved in work placements, according to the Toronto-based Canadian Association for Co-operative Education. Michael Bloom, principal research associate at the Conference Board of Canada, an Ottawabased think-tank, is a big fan of experiential learning. “Students gain both know-how and know-who,” says Bloom. “You don’t do that over the Internet.”

But the high cost of co-operative education has been a barrier for some schools. Waterloo, which maintains a staff of 35 field co-ordinators to work with employers, spends $23.5 million a year on co-operative education, and charges students up to $3,200 extra over the course of their studies to generate additional financing. To save money, many universities limit co-op enrolment, usually choosing candidates on the basis of marks and through interviews. Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo currendy restricts arts and science co-op programs to 10 per cent of the entire class, and

50 per cent for business. Still, the boom has prompted concerns that some schools may be using the co-op label without making the necessary curricular connection. “Students have to be very careful,” says Renald Mercier, director of cooperative education and career services at Quebec’s Université de Sherbrooke, which runs the second-largest co-op program in the country. “Everybody and his mother is saying that they’re doing co-op.”

To enrich the experience, universities are expanding the number of overseas placements. Waterloo, Memorial University in St. Johns, Nfld., and the University ofVictoria lead the pack in providing international work. Last year, roughly 400 Waterloo students worked in co-op jobs in other countries, compared with about 150 from Victoria. In 1999, Memorial expects that 100 of its 1,800 co-op students will

From co-ops and internships to international exchanges, learning is taking place beyond the classroom

be placed in positions outside Canada, including Sweden, Australia and Chile. Bruce Lumsden, director of co-operative education and career services at Waterloo, says that the engine of global business is helping to pave the way: “Most employers realize that business is global, and we should be part of that.” Axel Meisen, Memorial’s new president, is clear about where his priorities lie: “If we don’t educate our students for work in the global economy, we’re not doing our job.” Gillian Stone is ready for the world. Since last year, the 22-year-old St. John’s native has logged not one but two international placements as a co-op student in the ocean and naval architecture program. At Rockwater Ltd., an offshore oil-andgas services outfit based in Aberdeen, Scotland, she prepared a study to determine whether the firm should buy a deepwater construction vessel. This year, she landed a four-month stint at a shipyard in Poland. There, Stone used complex computer programs to gauge the structural strength of tankers and cargo ships. “An employer is going to look at me and say, ‘Wow, she worked for all these companies and got all this experience,’ ” says Stone, who hopes to design yachts. “No one in our class even

thinks they won’t get a job when they graduate.”

For some advocates of experiential learning, employment is the ultimate payoff. The demand for engineering and business students with international experience is red hot, especially for those with more than one language. But international exposure of any kind makes students more marketable, regardless of their discipline. Co-op Japan, the only national program of its kind, links about 50 students a year with some of the biggest names in global business: Sony Corp., Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., to name a few.

Sponsored by universities, employers and the federal department of foreign affairs and international trade, the internships generally last from eight months to a year. The scheme traditionally caters to engineering and science students, but was thrown open this year to those from non-technical fields with an ability to speak Japanese.

University of Toronto sociology student Heather Graham is ample proof that those from various disciplines can benefit from international experience. The 27-year-old Toronto native studied in Grenoble, France, for eight months last year, thanks to an academic exchange agreement with the Université Pierre Mendès-France. Like most exchanges, the year abroad was affordable since it allowed Graham to pay her regular tuition fee and still apply for federal and provincial student loans. While the sojourn was rewarding, Graham says an academic culture clash persuaded her not to pursue graduate studies in France. Professors were distant and students were given little guidance. Then there was all that cigarette smoking. People, including the prof, typically puffed away throughout lectures. The biggest benefit overall? “I learned that I can take care of myself,” says Graham. “It makes you adaptable.”

At the undergraduate level alone, there are more than 1,600 similar exchange agreements connecting Canadian schools to universities in virtually every country around the globe. The problem is, universities have allowed too many to languish, says Patrick Borbey, director general of international cultural relations with the federal department of foreign affairs and international trade. “Institutions have to realize,” says Borbey, “that if you don’t have regular exchanges behind the fancy agreement, then what’s it really worth?”

But academic leaders say the greater sin lies in poor funding. According to the Ottawa-based Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the federal government spends the equivalent of 80 cents per capita annually on international scholarship and exchange programs, compared with $9 per capita spent in Australia, which has made international education a cornerstone of its economic development strategy. In June, British Prime Minister Tony Blair kicked off a $ 12-million, three-year campaign to increase Britain’s share of the world market for university students from its current 17 per cent to 25 per cent by 2005. Late last year, France initiated a similar effort, dubbed Edufrance.

Canada made modest inroads in 1995 when it launched the first of 15 Canadian Education Centres in Asia and Latin America, funded jointly by the federal government and a host of educational institutions, including 48 universities. But critics say that is not enough. To pick up the slack, Canadian schools have stepped up their own recruiting efforts abroad. Montreal’s McGill University currently boasts the largest

proportion of overseas scholars, at about 14 per cent of the undergraduate student body, and hopes to boost that to 25 per cent over the next decade. “Ten years ago, people were acting as if these students were a drain on our economy,” says Kenneth Ozmon, president of Saint Marys University in Halifax. “But there’s a very distinct gain in bringing them here.”

The benefits last long after students leave. Case in point: Ipung Kurnia, an Indonesian executive who graduated from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. As the president of Hero, Indonesia’s largest supermarket chain, Kurnia’s Canadian connection has a lot to do with why shoppers can find maple syrup and McCain’s pizza on his stores’ shelves. Kurnia says he was attracted by the quality of Canadian schools and their lower cost compared with the United States. And Canadian degrees are an even bigger bargain now, thanks to the weak dollar. “Canada,” says Kurnia, 36, “has a very good reputation as a place to go to school.”

University leaders say that, in turn, overseas experience should be more accessible to Canadian students. To that end, the AUCC has teamed up with five other national organizations to prod Ottawa to adopt a comprehensive plan.

At the heart of the scheme: a system of bursaries ranging from $3,000 to $4,000 apiece to eventually raise the proportion of postsecondary students participating in exchanges to 10 per cent per year. Fewer than one per cent of university students—or about 5,000 a year—currendy sign on for such programs. Says Karen McBride, AUCC’s director of international relations: “If we don’t give students the opportunity to function in an international environment, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.” Whether it’s an overseas exchange or a co-op work term, the hard realities of campus life have made the quest for realworld experience all the more compelling. In recent years, tuition has skyrocketed, and the average student debt, after

OPTING FOR EXPERIENCE Canadian university students enrolled in co-operative education, including international placements 1978-1979 10,252 1988-1989 25,502 1997-1998 40,366 Source: Canadian Association for Co-operative Education

a four-year degree, sits at $25,000. For many, finding a job immediately after graduation has become a simple matter of survival. Co-op improves those odds, and the wages from work placements help cushion the financial blow during university. In a five-year program involving three work terms, the pay can ring in at $20,000 plus. Emma Agg, a fourth-year co-op biology student at the University of Victoria, has had placements ranging from the ornithology department at the Royal British Columbia Museum to a children’s rehabilitation clinic in

Lima. “Besides the experience,” says Agg, “the biggest benefit is that it’s allowed me to pay for university. I haven’t had to go on student loans.”

For a precious few, experiential learning has provided even richer rewards. Andrew Jones, a co-op engineering science student who recently graduated from Simon Fraser University, hit the jackpot this year when HotHaus Technologies Ltd., the Vancouver high-tech firm he worked for in 1996, was swallowed by a U.S. firm for $417 million. During his placement, Jones convinced founder Ross Mitchell to let him in on a new employee stock option plan. He invested several thousand dollars and watched it balloon to six figures this year. Says Jones, 23, who has returned to the company as a full-time employee: “It was a unique combination

of luck and a tiny bit of foresight.” Co-op is not for everyone. Some students find the frequent moves are a financial drain, or too disruptive socially. Placements are not always suited to the student’s area of study. Sometimes, the experience only confirms which career direction to avoid. But being proactive can make a difference. “A lot of the time, it’s up to the student,” says Aaron Leiba of Toronto, a 22-year-old co-op computer engineering student at Waterloo who has worked for Reuters Group PLC, Nor-

tel Networks Corp. and Nuvation Labs Corp., a Silicon Valley hardware and software design firm. “You have to define for them what you’re capable of doing.”

It’s that sort of savvy that scores points with employers. And one reason why co-op is particularly attractive to companies in brutally competitive sectors such as high technology, where it is critical to spot top-notch talent early. “Basically, it’s a four-month interview,” says Michael Worry, a Waterloo alumnus and co-founder of Nuvation Labs. “It s a recruitment strategy.” But increasingly, companies are opting for 12to 16-month paid internships over four-mo nth co-

In many cases, co-op can be seen as a four-month interview—a corporate recruitment strategy

op placements—especially in the high-tech sector, where training takes more time. Celestica Inc., the Toronto-based electronic-parts manufacturer, dropped co-op students entirely in 1996 because their placements were too short. It now takes about 110 interns a year from eight universities, including York, Dalhousie and Queens. At the end of their terms, up to 70 per cent receive full-time job offers. “The longer they’re there, the more responsibility you can give them,” says Wayne Phillips, a human-resources manager at Celestica. “It’s like having a mini-career.”

Once the exclusive preserve of technical programs such as engineering, business and computer science, internships and co-op programs are increasingly expanding into arts and pure science. Before co-op came into her life, UBC English student Laura Francis-Lamb worked a steady diet of cashier’s jobs. Now, her resume boasts four months as a communications officer with the B.C. Forest Practices Board, and her current job as an assistant policy analyst in Ottawa with Western Economic Diversification, a federal economic development agency. “Once you know what skills are needed in the workplace,” says Francis-Lamb, 20, “you can angle your studies to be more useful. I think it really gives us an edge.”

But the overriding emphasis on jobs disturbs some academics. In his 1997 book The Betrayal of Intellect in Higher Education, author Mohammed Mujeeb Rahman contends that universities have sold out to the vocational and technical demands of industry. As a result, argues the retired psychology professor from the University of Prince Edward Island, intellectual literacy is being undervalued. A 1995 study of co-op programs by Statistics Canada may bear this out. Fewer co-op students reported that their programs improved their writing and speaking skills than did non-co-op students. It is “diffr-

cult,” writes Rahman, “to find a favourable reception for liberal education in a technical society.” Fred Gilbert, president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., believes that universities fail if they simply set out to prepare students for the job market. “Still,” he argues, “I think anything we can do to enhance the opportunities for personal growth are positive.”

But experiential education is not all about business and work. Schools such as UBC and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., are delving into so-called service learning, which integrates community service projects into the curriculum. In the United States, service learning has eclipsed co-op as the fastest-growing form of experiential learning. At St. Francis Xavier, students can participate in Third World development projects as part of their course of study. At UBC, volunteer work focused on Vancouver’s depressed Downtown Eastside will eventually be incorporated into the curriculum. “We need to educate future citizens not only to be knowledge workers,” says UBC’s Martha Piper, “but knowledge servers.”

There is no doubt that experiential learning is revitalizing university instmction. But no one has to remind the Chileanborn Conejeros what it’s worth. Earlier this year, his supervisors at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. made him an extraordinary offer. What, they asked, would it take to keep him onboard? Conejeros reminded his co-op bosses that he had another year left at the University of Alberta. Their response: CMHC is opening an office in Edmonton this January so that Conejeros can finish his degree while continuing in their employ. Call it a win-win situation for all concerned.

Warren Caragata