Issue 1 | Article 18
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on work practices in most business sectors and industries. This article provides an overview of the impact on the academic arena in Australia, focusing on the disruption to education delivery and the subsequent evolution of a new environment for Work-Integrated Learning. The author argues that the pandemic brought forward changes that would have occurred anyway, and concludes that in the future advanced learning may be embedded in the workplace rather than the traditional classroom
The case for Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) and the transition to an online platform for its delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to that for night following day – i.e., it was a fait accompli. The question before COVID-19 was not if and how the shift to a more digitalized approach would occur, but when would it happen. In essence, the pandemic has been the catalyst for a radical change in the teaching and learning of WIL, a change that has been reactive rather than proactive. As with many historical crises in the educational ecosystem, the COVID-19 pandemic invoked agility, transition, and adaptation among participants. What differs in this case was the timeframe in which the transition took place.
While the changes from the pandemic across the higher education sector in Australia are still playing out, some astute and agile independent and public providers have adapted quickly to the changing situation, providing supporting evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection and adaptation (Darwin 1859). For example, Universal Business School Sydney (UBSS) has introduced an academic theatre-style approach (lecture studios) to course delivery, provided on-line interaction with lecturers, used digital tracking cameras, and recorded sessions to provide students with quick and easy access for revision of key topics. These innovations are providing students with a TED-style interactive experience. The changes in the delivery mode have also allowed consultation with the lecturer in private breakout rooms, where individual teams can discuss the lecture material.
The concept of WIL had been firmly entrenched in the academia psyche and many course curricula prior to the pandemic. Several variations and hybrids of the theme had been developed, including:
a. Internships, both paid /unpaid.
b. Work-experience internships.
c. WIL with practical business-problem solutions.
d. Case study and scenario solutions.
e. Simulations, both on-line and face-to-face.
f. Industry mentors.
Of course, the above list is not exhaustive, and many other hybrids and combinations have been developed. It is important to note that the student interaction with industry or business players varies along an experiential continuum from a high degree of interaction (such as one-on-one mentorship) to minimal interaction (e.g., through case studies and class-based scenario involvement).
COVID-19 - The silent disruptor
As with all innovative breakthroughs and adaptations, there is normally a catalytic event that gives rise to a “eureka” moment. In this instance the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 was such an event. WIL had evolved over the years as a valuable adjunct to the curricula of many universities and private higher education providers, being incorporated as either core to the assessment process such as a capstone subject or as added credit to some studies, in particular MBA units. With many of the different forms of WIL, industry partners were engaged to weave the fibre of theory and class learning into the fabric of real business life.
The degree to which students are exposed to the skill-based component of business, and other elements of the business ecosystem such as culture, politics, and the logistical environment, impacts the efficacy of the WIL program being used (Moore, 1993). The author has labelled this element the enrichment factor. It varies according to the specific form adopted along the WIL continuum. It can be argued that this specific WIL element adds significantly to the depth of the acquired student awareness and enrichment of the student’s experience within the real or simulated business ecosystem. This factor has a significant bearing on the efficacy of the program from the student’s perspective. However, the advent of the pandemic significantly disrupted the capacity and ability of educational providers to conduct face-to-face interactions among students, industry representatives and individual mentors at one level, and the various internship hybrids developed by providers with industry partners at another.
As in Darwin’s theory of natural selection and adaptation (but without Darwin’s long timeframe), COVID-19 changed, significantly and rapidly, the nature and importantly the individual interactive component of WIL for many providers and students. Unsurprisingly, the vehicle of choice for evolutionary change and bridging the implementation gap was the ubiquitous internet. Combined with other forms of technologically enhanced interaction platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate, this quickly enabled not only the evolution of the virtual classroom but also the reach and enrichment factor of WIL programs.
It is important to note that, prior to the pandemic, many of these platforms were basic in their form and somewhat unrefined. However, this changed with the increased focus on, and heightened involvement in, the delivery mechanism not only in academia but also in the commercial office space. An incremental innovation tsunami for these platforms quickly ensued.
Business Simulation Game at UBSS
The Business Simulation Game (BSG) has been adopted by UBSS to further develop both the cognitive and analytical skills provided in all units of the School’s degree programs. It is a commercial strategy and decision-making based virtual company game, which requires competing teams of students to analyze a range of business information across key specific areas in a global manufacturing company assigned and registered to the teams. The students formulate business strategies and make decisions relating to their virtual company across several distinct departments such as production, human resources, marketing, and finance. Importantly the students are accountable for their respective areas of responsibility and also for decision making and interpretation of market conditions.
Competition in the virtual global market is provided by the other teams enrolled in the game, who may be in the same class or in another school, state or country. Given the global nature of the game there are sometimes as many 2,500 teams worldwide playing in a single game.Every team’s performance is assessed after each trading period or decision round (normally three rounds of operation). A series of computer-generated algorithms interpret the decisions and compare the output of each team allocated to the industry. This provides students with the opportunity to apply acquired theory and skills to business-decision making in a simulated but realistic environment. An extensive suite of operational and financial reports for each team is produced after each round of decision making. This information is then used by the students for analysis and interpretation as well as for preparation and presentation of reports to assessors (industry executives). This is the enrichment factor developed at UBSS, where the BSG is integrated into both the Capstone (undergraduate) and Strategic Business Simulation (MBA) subjects.
UNanswered future evolution
COVID-19 has accelerated the dynamics of change in the WIL environment. It can be argued that the changes since March 2020 represent only incremental innovative evlotionary steps, but this begs a number of questions about the possible future radical revolution in the WIL arena. These questions include:
How are the changes to the actual work enviroment post-Covid to be incoporated in the WIL programs? Some of these areas of evolutionary change relate not only to the changes in the WIL space, but also to the nature of the real business enviroment. Are changes to the way people interact in the new, on-line business world now the new norm? If so how can these be incorporated into the WIL arena?
Can the move to the new virtual world in business lead to the development and use of superior forms of experiential learning in the workplace?
While the future development of work-integrated learning platforms is unknown, what is clear is that COVID-19 has provided the catalysist to accelerate adaptation and evolution. It remains to be seen what these developments will provide in terms of student experiential learning and the degree of involvement and interaction with academic and work skill enrichment. The appropriate response to the COVID-induced increase in online learning is not to change the nature of WIL but to adapt the WIL delivery platform to optimise experiential enrichment for the student and enhance the employer’s workplace. It is also clear that there is the potential for a new industry outside the higher education arena to seize the opportunity of gamification of the executive learning delivery platform, potentially embeding higher education learning in the workplace itself rather than in the traditional classroom.
Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species. Amazon.
Moore, J. F. (1993). Predators and Prey: A New Ecology for Competition. Harvard Business Review.
Wayne Smithson is Associate Professor, Program Director for the Bachelor of Accounting degree, and Chair of the Academic Integrity Committee at UBSS. He is also Finance Director for a performing arts organisation. Formerly, Wayne was Regional Finance Director of the Asia-Pacific Region for a Swiss-based professional services organisation as well as owner and manager of a successful tax and accounting practice. He is also a qualified CPA, a graduate member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders.