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"Doing co-op" : student perceptions of learning and work Grosjean, Garnet

Abstract

This study investigates co-op education programs from the students' perspective. It details how their experience of co-op shapes students' perceptions of learning and work; and how, through these perceptions, they ultimately make meaning of their undergraduate experience. The study focuses on the unique set of social forces and relationships represented in coop education, and investigates them by means of a nested case study, utilizing a variety of data collection methods. The University of Victoria represents the first level of analysis; the co-op department the second level; four individual co-op programs comprise the third level; and co-op students the fourth level. In addition to consulting the historical and documentary record, I conducted a survey to collect data on co-op students' satisfaction with their programs, and interviewed co-op coordinators, faculty, students, and university administrators. The student interviews were 'in-depth,' exploring methods of recruitment, forms of regulation, effects of learning context, academic implications, and employment outcomes. My purpose was to understand how co-op students develop perceptions of learning and work, and how they use these perceptions to understand their experience. The study generated five key findings about co-op at UVic: (i) the co-op work term produces a 'co-op effect' that shapes students' perceptions of learning and professional work and profoundly impacts their experience of the co-op program; (ii) the power of the academic context, particularly through the setting and assessment of academic objectives, mediates co-op students' professional development; (iii) theories of cognition and situated learning indicate that learning is socially constructed in the co-op workplace, and individually constructed in the co-op classroom; (iv) learning and skill development are context-dependent and mediated by individual learning strategies; (v) perceptions formed by co-op students of what constitutes 'learning' and 'work', and of the university's role in the economy and society, can help determine whether universities are fulfilling their mandate of providing relevant higher education. Based on these findings six general conclusions about co-op can be drawn: 1) co-op education programs are a way that universities can address demands for relevant education; 2) the decision by students to participate in co-op is driven by a desire for specific employment and career outcomes; 3) the work term is a transformative experience around which students base their expectations of the co-op program; 4) participation in co-op enables students to construct meaningful learning through interpretive and experiential interactions with their social environment; 5) professional development of co-op students takes place in the workplace; and 6) co-op education is becoming an elite program. Recommendations for improvements to the development and delivery of co-op education, for policy and practice and for further research are offered.

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