Reporting on the connections between education and work

ASU goes big with work-based learning ‘marketplace’

The ‘mega-university’ makes a similar-sized push into work-based learning. It’s a national test case for whether work can be integrated into the curriculum at scale.
Students outside the honors college on ASU’s Tempe Campus in 2018. (Arizona State University)

Arizona State University is about to go big on work-based learning—expanding a pilot program to offer at least one million hours of experiential learning projects this year.

ASU piloted its approach, using the online Riipen platform, with 50 courses last year. More than 3,300 students logged almost 400,000 hours of experience. If the ratio of participants to project hours is similar this upcoming year, the program could reach more than 8,000 ASU students. And the university expects it to continue to grow. 

“We believe every student should have the opportunity to participate in experiential learning opportunities, regardless of their personal situation,” said Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement.

The big idea: Internship programs are common, but only a smattering of institutions have long histories of integrating work experience into the academic curriculum. There are the nationally-known co-op programs at places like Northeastern University and the University of Cincinnati, and federally recognized “work colleges” like Paul Quinn and Berea Colleges. But an increasing number of other institutions, like ASU, are going beyond traditional internships and building up their work-integrated learning options for students.

They’re responding to both student demand around career preparation, and shifting employer  requirements about the experience needed for even entry-level professional roles. And as more institutions think about how to measure students’ competency, employer-based projects also offer a way to assess what students have learned and whether they can apply it in a real-world environment.

Kemi Jona, assistant vice chancellor for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern, has witnessed the thinking in higher education shift around work-based learning. “Families and students see higher education as a pathway to a good job,” he said. “So [colleges] want to maximize the opportunities for their students to land a good job.”

A ‘test case’ for scale

The current play: The online platform Riipen was created eight years ago to connect students to real-world industry projects. It is one of a few platforms in the broader career product market, including Practera, that goes beyond facilitating employer projects and internships, and focuses on embedding those projects in the academic curriculum. Faculty members play a lead role in these short-term work experiences, which typically are part of credit-bearing courses in bachelor’s and sometimes associate degree programs.

For Riipen, ASU’s move will serve as a “test case” for pushing work-based learning at a large scale into fields where it has been less common, said Dave Savory, co-founder and director of experiential learning at the platform. In the past, such opportunities have been concentrated in fields like business, digital marketing, information technology, and cyber security, but Riipen and ASU are looking to push into new areas like public health and the arts and humanities.

The details: Half of the colleges the Canada-based Riipen works with are in the United States, and ASU has been working with the platform for almost three years. Over that time, Riipen has been actively working with employers to grow a community that appreciates the idea of flexible, shorter-term projects, Savory said. Companies can post projects to Riipen’s marketplace that faculty then select from and embed in their curriculum. Or the match can happen the other way around, with faculty posting about the skills a particular course teaches and what the students might offer to a company.

At ASU, that matchmaking function has made it much easier for faculty to integrate employer projects into their courses. Otherwise, Jhaj said, not enough would have the connections or capacity to bring in partners on their own.

Early results: While it’s too early to know whether the program has boosted the hiring of ASU students, Jhaj said that faculty and students have given the university’s approach to work-based learning positive reviews. That’s part of why the university is expanding it.

He said faculty are especially pleased with the geographic reach of the platform and that more students are getting a chance to apply textbook concepts to real work. Already students have completed projects such as creating promotional videos for an animal sanctuary, and developing a social media plan for a non-profit.

“A top benefit communicated by our faculty is the ability to connect students with opportunities around the world and the invaluable experience of learning skills from different companies in different locations,” Jhaj said.

Expanding opportunities at other colleges

Moving forward: As Riipen and ASU grow work-based learning, so too are other institutions and platforms—like Practera, for embedded projects, Forage, for short experiential courses sponsored by employers, and Parker Dewey, for micro internships. The more integrated those experiences are with the academic experience, the better, said Jona of Northeastern.

Work-based learning experiences should be designed to build and measure skills, like creativity, leadership, and teamwork, that employers want but that all too often don’t make it onto a syllabus, he said. And when well-integrated, co-ops, internships, and projects can help inform students’ choices about courses and entire majors. It’s not just about the resume.

Jona said that, additionally, colleges and universities need to apply the equity and access lens to work-based learning programs to “make sure every student has the opportunity to participate.”

Parting thought: That, Savory said, may often require colleges to build experiences that don’t require in-person participation or the time commitment of a full internship or co-op.  Those longer experiences, he said, are “not realistic for every student.”