In 2006, the University of Waterloo Professional Development Program (WatPD) began offering skills development courses online for students on co-operative education work terms. The courses focused on what are called soft skills, such as communications and teamwork, responding to what employers describe as essential skills in the workplace. Students in the Faculties of Mathematics, Science, Arts, Environment, and Applied Health Sciences take the courses to earn academic credit for their work terms. Engineering students take specially designed WatPD courses as well.
The course offerings have been expanded and updated to respond to changes in the workplace and are developed with the broader goal of providing the basis of skills to enhance employability and productivity that can be assessed and improved throughout an entire work life.
Rather than trying to teach soft skills completely online, the Waterloo courses are structured so that the lectures, theory, and best practices are provided online, while the active learning is through practice, participation, and reflection in the workplace. Each course is designed to enhance student knowledge and awareness, to support their consideration of workplace challenges, and to give them strategies to adopt and adapt in their everyday experiences.
Each course is divided into modules offered over ten weeks and takes 20 to 25 hours to complete. All the resources are available through LEARN, the learning management system. The modules feature lectures with voice-over slides, videos, case studies, readings, and are becoming increasingly media-rich. Mobile versions of lectures are available, along with print versions of the slides and lectures.
The courses are designed by faculty or a subject matter expert from industry working with an Instructional Support Coordinator from WatPD, and the media is created by the Centre for Extended Learning. (The CEL is also included in the Pockets of Innovation series.)
Co-op students are hired to be the first tier of student support, responding to questions concerning assignments and the grading system. Content questions are directed to the instructor. The Instructional Support Co-ordinator for each course hires these students, as well as part-time markers, and provides ongoing quality assurance.
The first required course, Co-Op Fundamentals, taken while the students are at the university prior to their first work placement, incorporates resume writing and skills for interviews, networking, and job success. The second required course, Critical Reflection and Report Writing, seeks to develop critical analysis and reflection skills, as it guides then through the writing of a formal report. It is completed during the first work term.
Depending on the program in which they are enrolled, students then take two or three of the optional courses during subsequent work terms. The electives include:
- Communication – looking at communication quality regardless of format – e-mails, letters, voicemail, conversation, and small and large meetings.
- Teamwork – including decision-making, conflict resolution, and leadership.
- Project Management – an introduction to basic project management techniques and processes, with a focus on the human side of managing projects.
- Problem-solving – using a problem-solving model developed for co-op students addressing common problems they face.
- Conflict Resolution – including sources of conflict and dealing with the aftermath, using examples and role-play demonstrations.
- Intercultural Skills – knowledge and skills for working effectively in linguistically and culturally diverse workplaces.
Specific required courses have been designed for Engineering students on Developing Reasoned Conclusions and Developing Effective Plans. A course in Professionalism and Ethics in Engineering Practice is also available and open to all students.
The courses have online pre-tests that reinforce the importance of academic integrity, ensure that the students understand the rules and timelines for the courses, and assess prior knowledge. These must be completed before getting access to the materials.
Online assignments are built into each module, including quizzes, short answer questions, and others requiring more lengthy consideration and writing. Many are based on hypothetical situations common to workplaces and that co-op students find themselves in. Through numerous formative assignments, students are encouraged to assess themselves and their values and the implications of these for working with colleagues.
Outcomes and Benefits
In 2012, there were more than 16,000 student registrations in the WatPD courses. The pass rates for the various WatPD courses in the last few years have ranged from 82% to 100%, with average marks in the 70s for most courses. Over 60% of students in 2010 and 2011 rated the courses as good or very good. Waterloo uses the Kirkpatrick model of evaluation and has an extensive program evaluation data which can be viewed on their web site. An upcoming report will include behavioural level results.
Challenges and Enhancements
Anne Fannon, the Director of WatPD affirms that the challenge of convincing the students about the importance of soft skills is ongoing – many think the courses are good for other students but their own skills are fine. Students often do not appreciate that they will be honing their soft skills for the rest of lives and that these skills become increasingly important as careers progress.
As with all behaviour, there is often a disconnect between students knowing something and doing it. The challenge for WatPD is getting students to assess their own behaviour, determine where there is need for improvement, and then use the course content to support their behavioural change.
The courses need to be engaging and provide value for the time spent, with content that can be linked to the students’ daily experiences and challenges. They also have to help the student understand how the course content can be put into action.
To achieve this, the courses are drawing more on professional development models than traditional academic approaches by having assessments in which students practice the skills and behaviours discussed in the courses rather than describe them.
An example of this adjustment is a feature available on course home page called Put It into Action, which provides students with best-practice strategies or behaviours they can incorporate immediately in their workplaces to increase efficiency, productivity, and relationships. The challenge in preparing these is that students are in workplaces around the world, making the provision of widely-applicable advice difficult.
Students are working full-time on their work placements with various schedules and time zone locations, making any synchronous online work very difficult. They can post to a discussion board for each course to share learning, questions, and experiences.
Revisions of the original courses are underway over a period of three to five years. About ten employers who work with the co-op students contributed to the latest revisions of the Communication course. The use of this collaborative model benefits the workplace applicability of the content – and it is hoped the employers will help convince the students of the necessity of soft skills for workplace success.
Soft skills are growing in recognition and importance in post-secondary education and Waterloo developed an effective model for offering them to students with direct application to the world of work.
For Further Information
Professional Development Program (WatPD)
University of Waterloo
University of Waterloo Professional Development Program - WatPD