As a co-op student, you are embarking on an exciting educational process that reaps many benefits. You will "test the waters" of your profession in actual workplace situations to gain a better understanding of career opportunities while earning income to help pay for your education. You will also develop contacts to enhance your options for permanent employment when you graduate.
These may be some of the benefits you will realize, but do they in themselves measure the quality of the knowledge you have gained outside of the classroom? How is co-operative education different than other types of programs that offer practical training? What are you learning on the job and how is the learning assessed? What assurance do you have that you are achieving outcomes that are meeting the expectations of your educational institution and the employers?
To address these types of questions and issues, the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) established the Accreditation Council in 1979. The purpose was to regulate the quality of post-secondary co-op programs in Canada and to accredit those programs which meet specific criteria.
The Council is composed of representatives from accredited co-operative education programs across Canada as well as employer appointed representatives. They meet regularly each year to consider and approve applications for accreditation. To ensure that the accreditation criteria remain current, the Council also continually reviews the standards and adjusts them as the needs of society, employers and students evolve.
Bruce Lumsden, Director of Co-operative Education and Career Services at the University of Waterloo, explains the importance of accreditation. "Education is a major public policy system, both provincially and federally. Co-operative education is a unique model in the Canadian educational fabric which brings together three partners --- students, employers and educational institutions. All three expect a "value added" experience to their involvement. The Accreditation Council has established guidelines which support and protect that value and ensure a high level quality for all three partners."
The first step in the quality assurance process of accreditation is to clearly define co-operative education.
CAFCE established the following definition: Co-operative Education Program means a program which formally integrates a student's academic studies with work experience in co-operative employer organizations. The usual plan is for the student to alternate periods of experience in appropriate fields of business, industry, government, social services and the professions according to the following criteria:
Each work situation is developed and/or approved by the co-operative educational institution as a suitable learning situation. You may have had past summer jobs or part-time positions that introduced you to the world of work and helped you earn some cash. If you were flipping burgers at the local fast food outlet and are now studying Computer Science, obviously this type of experience would not be suitable as a co-op position. The work must relate to your academic program and give you an opportunity to both integrate your studies and acquire additional knowledge. Each co-op term should allow for further educational growth and development; in other words, a co-op term which may be appropriate for a first or second level position may not necessarily be suitable for a fourth or fifth term.
The co-operative student is engaged in productive work rather than just observing. Co-operative education is not about job shadowing a permanent staff member. You will be hired as a term employee and will be expected to produce meaningful work to achieve the objectives of the organization. In many cases, especially for more senior students, you will have tasks and projects assigned for which you will be responsible to work under minimal supervision.
The co-operative student receives remuneration for the work performed. Here's one of the reasons why you're probably in co-operative education in the first place. Employers must pay co-op students a wage or salary which is competitive for the nature of the work and the type of organization.
The co-operative student's progress on the job is monitored by the co-operative educational institution. With traditional classroom teaching, your learning progress is typically monitored by means of assignments, labs and examinations. Outside the classroom, whether in an office setting or a field position, the educational institution must establish entirely different standards for co-operative education in order to monitor your progress and evaluate your learning. These traditional include a worksite visit, a return-to-campus session and a work term report.
The co-operative student's performance on the job is supervised and evaluated by the student's co-operative employer. Co-operative Education is sometimes referred to as a three-way partnership between the student, the educational institution and the employer. The employer is therefore an active participant in your education and development. A supervisor oversees your work, provides continual feedback and completes a written evaluation of your performance upon completion of your term.
The total co-operative work experience is normally fifty percent of the time spent in academic study, and in no circumstances less than thirty percent. For example, if you are in a program which has 9 academic terms, the desired number of co-op work terms would be in the range of four to five, with a lower limit of three.
By using this definition as a framework, the Council next developed measurable quality assurance standards in four main categories. The standards, which are too numerous and detailed for the purposes of this article, are summarized as follows.
The educational institution must demonstrate a commitment to co-operative education in the curriculum and in official publications and student records. There must also be the necessary staffing and resources dedicated to the effective administration of the co-operative education program.
Quality Program Delivery
Quality program delivery has three main components. The educational institution must show that standards are in place for 1) requirements for student acceptance into co-operative education, 2) preparation of students for co-op terms, and 3) a competitive job placement process which is fair and equitable.
Monitoring and Evaluation
Monitoring and evaluation are critical requirements in order for a co-op program to meet its educational objectives. Here the institution must have procedures which provide an assessment of the students' learning and progress on the job. This would include on-site visits, post-work term discussions and grading of a presentation such as a formal written report. The employer must also be an active partner in this evaluation process.
Under this category, the structure of a co-operative education program must be designed to optimize student learning and development. It means structuring a program to have the proper balance of academic and work terms and to provide the integration of studies in the workplace. The total amount of work experience must be as described earlier and the program should have a formalized starting and ending sequence. For most cases, there must also be opportunity for year-round work terms rather being restricted to the summer months.
You can see that there's much more to co-operative education than meets the eye at the job postings stage. Co-operative education professionals are involved with many other activities and are committed to helping you develop your potential and to make that successful transition to the workplace.
An old saying about quality suggests that "whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well". With an accredited co-operative education program, you can be assured that this is the goal of your institution. You can be justly proud to graduate from such a program and earn a co-operative education designation recognized nationally (and internationally) as the highest quality standard.
Reprinted from the "Practical Hints, Tips and Information for Co-operative Education Students", 2002