Skip navigation
In my opinion

How to adapt experiential learning activities in the time of COVID-19

We searched the literature and consulted our colleagues from across the country for innovative approaches and resources.


COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on higher education. Experiential learning (EL) programs – which allow students to gain experience, engage with the community, develop technical and interpersonal skills, and build career readiness and professional networks – have been particularly hard hit. A survey conducted by Cooperative Education & Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada investigating the effects of COVID-19 on work-integrated learning (WIL) programs at Canadian universities and colleges revealed that, as of May 8, over 6,700 student work placements had been cancelled for summer 2020.

Similarly, recent data collected by Statistics Canada from a crowdsourcing survey of over 100,000  postsecondary students, which measured the impact of COVID-19 on the academic life of postsecondary students, revealed that 35 percent of participants have had their WIL opportunities cancelled or paused as a result of the pandemic.

Much uncertainty remains about the 2020-2021 academic year, along with questions of how to ensure quality EL and WIL for students. Whether your school is planning for a primarily online fall semester or a hybrid of in-person and online courses, it is highly likely that there will be challenges to securing WIL placements and that some or all EL programming will need to be offered using alternatives to in-person delivery.

Yet, with these challenges come unique opportunities to creatively examine courses and programs and consider alternative ways to meet learning goals. Our team has searched the literature and consulted with colleagues for innovative approaches to EL being implemented across Canada, and we’ve compiled the following resources and suggestions to aid with your planning.

Partnering apart

Non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses are facing massive disruptions as a result of COVID-19, and their capacity and willingness to host students varies widely. This means that educators may need to rethink their course design and outreach strategies and consider alternatives to traditional in-person placements, especially for offerings such as community engaged learning courses that depend on external partnerships. Some alternatives may include:

  • Conducting research remotely for partner organizations, creating marketing content, building websites, digitizing resources or archiving material, or developing virtual programming for cultural institutions looking for alternative ways to engage with the public.
  • Taking advantage of your campus as a potential partner. For example, in the past the University of Toronto has tasked first-year engineering students with finding a way to prevent condensation forming in the walls of the rare book library.
  • Collaborating on partnerships so that one partner project can be shared across many courses, providing an external organization access to the expertise of students across a variety of academic disciplines.
  • Engaging students in activities assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the community. Topics such as bias and discrimination, mental health, housing and food security, environment, economic impact, etc., can be explored from multiple disciplinary perspectives.
  • Partnering with Indigenous knowledge holders in your community to create a “First Story” virtual tour of your campus, allowing students to explore the Indigenous history of the land on which they study.
  • Arranging to have your students connect with their counterparts at an institution outside of Canada to address a global problem, broadening students’ perspectives.
  • Pairing students remotely with individuals who need support, like seniors struggling with self-isolation or newcomers developing their language skills.
  • Taking advantage of platforms like Riipen to identify industry partners for micro-projects that can be completed remotely.
  • Partnering with your local chamber of commerce to identify small businesses needing help. For example, 50 students from York University are supporting the City of Toronto’s ShopHERE program, helping 3,000 businesses and retailers build e-commerce sites by August.

Paid work placements, including co-op and internship programs

While the initial focus of co-op and internship programs in response to the COVID crisis was on ensuring student safety, helping them adapt to working from home, and scrambling to find alternatives for those whose work terms were cancelled, they are now looking ahead to the fall.

  • CEWIL Canada and provincial WIL organizations such as ACE-BC, EWO and CEWIL Atlantic have been integral to bringing the WIL community together at this time to troubleshoot issues and share best practices. Many resources for practitioners can be found on their websites and in town hall sessions.
  • The federal government has modified the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) to make it quicker for employers to access wage subsidies and to allow postsecondary institutions to apply for SWPP funds to hire their own students. For example, the University of Waterloo has used SWPP funding to hire 300 of its own co-op students this summer to help transition courses online.
  • Many institutions are removing rank/match processes for the upcoming cycle, allowing flexibility on work term length, providing support with conducting virtual interviews, experimenting with virtual company information sessions, and providing employers with tips for supervising students working remotely in order to reduce potential obstacles to hiring.

Virtual or remote labs and field courses

Labs and field courses are mandatory components of many undergraduate programs and replicating these highly interactive activities is a particular challenge.

  • There are a variety of open-source or fee-based sites that provide simulated activities, virtual labs and videos that can be adapted for EL purposes and may meet individual course goals. These include PHET Simulations, University of Toronto Open Modules Projects, Morpho Source, OER Commons, Jove, Labster and Concord Consortium, as well as an ongoing list on the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s KeepTeaching site. LEARNZ and Oxford University Press offer virtual field trips, and Brock University has updated its faculty guide to include an excellent list of resources for simulations and virtual field experiences.
  • Another alternative includes providing students with materials to run scaled-down versions of labs or field activities from home. This summer McMaster University is experimenting with mailing lab kits to physics and biology students to allow hands-on experimentation at home, while Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s culinary arts program is supplying students with the materials necessary to complete cooking projects from home.
  • In lieu of providing materials, students can also be encouraged to explore their immediate surroundings (public health guidelines allowing), take photographs, source material online, and discuss findings in online group discussions. Alternatively, activities can be simulated by recording videos or compiling existing field work footage, with students analyzing the data individually or in groups.

Supporting students and ensuring equitable access

When redesigning activities, it is essential to consider access as well as the mental and physical health of students. We encourage some additional steps, beyond your typical programming:

  • Confirming that partners are abiding by local public health guidelines and proper health and safety protocols, and that risk management strategies are in place.
  • Providing clear details to students of what is expected of them, so those who have health concerns or are caring for vulnerable people can assess risk before committing to the opportunity.
  • Creating student bursaries to ensure all students have access to the equipment needed to participate in remote EL opportunities, including access to laptops, software, etc.
  • Building a strong sense of community among students by setting up regular virtual video chats, forums, games and structured check-ins.
  • Offering supplementary training to students to outline their workplace rights and what constitutes a safe workplace in the current climate, and what steps to take should they feel unsafe.
  • Providing additional training for students on professionalism when working remotely.
  • Training teaching assistants on how to support students in a remote environment.
  • Ensuring access to on-campus mental health supports, regardless of a student’s physical location.

Focus on quality

While it will be challenging to replicate the full experience of in-person EL in the current climate, it is vital that we continue to provide students opportunities to connect theory with practice. We can continue to offer high-quality learning experiences by maintaining our focus on the core tenets: building structured experiences, active student engagement, authenticity of experience, critical analysis and reflection. Assessing student learning through written reflections, oral presentations, online discussions, journals, digital portfolios, etc., are still possible in a remote environment. For instructors moving courses online for the fall term, there a number of modules available under Creative Commons licensing that can be adapted and that focus on preparing students for EL opportunities and the design of quality experiences. York University and the University of Calgary have also built resources for faculty adapting EL.

COVID-19 has introduced many challenges to EL programming but is also pushing us to think differently about what is possible. There are inspiring examples across the country and the world of how educators have adapted. We have much to learn about remote forms of EL but a silver lining from the pandemic may be that it affords the rare opportunity to try something new, open up EL to students who might not otherwise have participated, and build new relationships with local and global communities.

Vicki Lowes (director), Ainsley Goldman (educational developer) and Colin McMahon (community outreach coordinator) work in the Experiential Learning and Outreach Support office in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto. Laurie Harrison and Christine Ovcaric, also at U of T, contributed to this article.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Heather Workman / June 9, 2020 at 01:47

    What a fantastic compilation of the numerous conversations taking place across the globe re adapting and enhancing WIL for students and the organizations they work with! Appreciate your comprehensive document and idea sharing!

Click to fill out a quick survey