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Cooperative education (or co-operative education) is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience. A cooperative education experience, commonly known as a "co-op", provides academic credit for structured job experience. Cooperative education is taking on new importance in helping young people to make the school-to-work transition. Cooperative learning falls under the umbrella of work-integrated learning (alongside internships, service learning and clinical placements) but is distinct as it alternates a school term with a work term in a structured manner, involves a partnership between the academic institution and the employer, and generally is both paid and intended to advance the education of the student.
While at Lehigh University at the beginning of the 20th Century, Herman Schneider (1872–1939), engineer, architect, and educator, concluded that the traditional learning space or classroom was insufficient for technical students (Smollins 1999). Schneider observed that several of the more successful Lehigh graduates had worked to earn money before graduation. Gathering data through interviews of employers and graduates, he devised the framework for cooperative education (1901). About that time, Carnegie Technical Schools, now Carnegie Mellon University, opened and thereby minimized the need for Schneider's co-op plan in the region around Lehigh University. However, in 1903 the University of Cincinnati appointed Schneider to their faculty. In 1905 the UC Board of Trustees allowed Schneider to "try this cooperative idea of education for one year only, for the failure of which they would not be held responsible." The cooperative education program was launched in 1906, and became an immediate success. The University of Cincinnati returned to the matter in its September 2005 board meeting, declaring the 100-year trial period of one hundred years of Cooperative Education officially ended, for the success of which the Board resumed full responsibility.
Schneider, beginning from the rank of Assistant Professor, would rise through the rank of Dean of Engineering (1906–1928) to become Interim President (1929–32) of the University of Cincinnati, based largely upon the strength of the co-op program. Throughout his career, he was an advocate for the co-op framework. His thirty years of service to the University of Cincinnati are partly credited for that institution's worldwide fame. In 2006 the University of Cincinnati unveiled a statue of dean Schneider outside the window of his office in Baldwin Hall.
In 1965, The Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA) created "The Dean Herman Schneider Award" in honor of the contributions made by Dean Schneider in cooperative education. The award is given annually to an outstanding educator from faculty or administration. In 2006 The University of Cincinnati established the Cooperative Education Hall of Honor "to give a permanent place of honor to individuals and organizations that have made a significant qualitative difference in the advancement of Cooperative Education for the benefit of students".
In 1909, seeing the possibility of co-op education, Northeastern University began using co-op in their engineering program, becoming only the second institution to do so in this country. By 1921, Antioch College had adapted the co-op practices to their liberal arts curricula, for which reason many called co-op the "Antioch Plan." In 1919 the General Motors Institute (GMI) was opened following this model to train new General Motors hires. This school was later renamed Kettering University.
The Drexel University four-year co-op program launched in the College of Engineering in 1919 with the participation of just three academic majors. This stemmed from the University’s founder Anthony J. Drexel's belief that Drexel University should prepare its men and women for successful careers through an education that balanced classroom theory with real world practice. In 1925, the five-year co-op program took hold in the chemical engineering department, which would later become the foundation of Drexel's cooperative education program. Today, the cooperative education program supports students of more than 75 different disciplines, making it one of the largest programs in the nation.
In 1922, Northeastern University emphasized its commitment to co-op by extending it to the College of Business Administration. As new colleges opened at Northeastern, such as the College of Liberal Arts (1935) and College of Education (1953), they became co-op schools as well. By the 1980s, Northeastern was the acknowledged leader in co-op education across the world.(Smollins 1999)
In 1926, Dean Schneider invited those interested in forming an Association of Co-operative Colleges (ACC) to the University of Cincinnati for the first convention. The idea took hold, and was followed by three more annual conventions. In 1929, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, now called American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), formed the Division of Cooperative Engineering Education, incorporating the membership of the ACC (Auld 1972).
In 1957, the first Canadian co-operative education program began at the University of Waterloo with an inaugural class of 75. This program was seen as a joke and was not expected to succeed, however it quickly became a model for other co-op programs across Canada. These programs were based on both the sandwich education model popularized in Britain and the new American co-op programs. Canadian co-op programs generally follow a four-month school system interspersed with four month work terms. This common system allows employers to hire students from multiple institutions with common timelines and training programs.
In 1961, the Ford and Edison Foundations commissioned a study of co-operative education, published as Work-study college programs; appraisal and report of the study of cooperative education, (James Warner Wilson and Edward H Lyons, New York: Harper). That study resulted in the formation of the National Commission for Cooperative Education (NCCE). NCCE remains today to promote and lobby for co-operative education in the United States. Its membership comprises sponsoring corporations and organizations (not individuals) from academia and business.
Within Canada, the need for connections between co-op programs became clear by 1973. The Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) began with 29 educators from 15 institutions. In its first form, it did not include any employers or industry representatives. The institutions felt that they should decide on an integrative plan for co-op education prior to admitting employers as members. In 1977, employers, HR representatives and recruiters began to join CAFCE.
By 1962, about 150 academic institutions used co-op education, in one form or another. Many were outside of engineering. The need for professional support of non-engineering programs became obvious, and the membership of ASEE, in 1963, began the Cooperative Education Association. To reflect its membership more accurately, it was eventually (sometime in the 1990s or early 2000s) named the Cooperative Education and Internship Association, it remains today as the professional association for co-operative education outside of ASEE.
Much of those early efforts of NCCE focused on lobbying and promotiing co-operative education. In 1965, the federal Higher Education Act provided support specifically for co-operative education. Funding continued from the federal government through 1992, when Congress ended its support of co-operative education. In all, a total of over $220 million was appropriated by the federal government toward co-operative education (Carlson 1999)
In Canada, regulation of co-operative education programs is overseen by CAFCE. Programs can apply for accreditation after the first class of co-op students has graduated. In order to be accredited, 30% of time spent in the program must be devoted to work experience, and each experience must last at least 12 weeks.
In 1979, educators from Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States (Northeastern's President, Kenneth Ryder), met to discuss work-related programs in their respective countries. In 1981 and 1982, this group, headed by President Ryder, convened an international conference on cooperative education. In 1983, several college and university presidents, educational specialists, and employers from around the world (including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the United States and the United Kingdom) formed the World Council and Assembly on Cooperative Education to foster co-operative education around the world. In 1991, it renamed itself the World Association for Cooperative Education (WACE). By 2005, that Association boasted a membership of over 1,000 individuals from 43 different countries.
Co-operative education is common in most Australian high schools, and has been integrated into many university courses as a part of making up final grades. Australian institutions often refer to co-operative education as Work Placement, VET or Prac. All of these involve students going out into their field of choice and joining that field of a set number of weeks in unpaid work. This unpaid work goes towards credits for graduation in both school and universities Australia wide. The Australian government have been funding this programme due to the success in highly regarded applicants that have come from doing the work placement. Many companies in Australia are more inclined to hire an individual who has had proper training within their specific field than those who have not, which has created many more successful applicants and jobs within Australia.
From its beginnings in Cincinnati in 1906, cooperative education has evolved into a program offered at the secondary and post-secondary levels in two predominant models (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995). In one model, students alternate a semester of academic coursework with an equal amount of time working, repeating this cycle several times until graduation. The parallel method splits the day between school and work, typically structured to accommodate the student's class schedule. Thus, like school-to-work (STW), the co-op model includes school-based and work-based learning and, in the best programs, "connecting activities" such as seminars and teacher-coordinator work site visits. These activities help students explicitly connect work and learning.
Other models, such as the sandwich model and the American-style semester model instead have students work a 40-hour work week for a set amount of time, typically between 12 weeks and six months. After this period is over, students return to the classroom for an academic semester after which they may have another work term. This cycle often repeats multiple times, adding a year or more to the students’ university career. In this model, students’ do not receive a summer break from school but instead are either working or in school for 12 months of the year. Before or during this work experience students may complete activities designed to maximize their learning on the job, such as online workplace conduct courses or reflective activities.
Co-op's proponents identify benefits for students (including motivation, career clarity, enhanced employability, vocational maturity) and employers (labor force flexibility, recruitment/retention of trained workers, input into curricula) as well as educational institutions and society (ibid.). Beyond informal and anecdotal evidence, however, a familiar refrain in the literature is the lack of well-done research that empirically demonstrates these benefits (Barton 1996; Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler 1996). Barton (1996) identifies some of the research problems for secondary co-op as follows: federal data collection on high school co-op enrollments and completions ceased in the 1980s; some studies use data in which co-op was not isolated from other work experience programs. Ricks et al. (1993) describe other problems: due to lack of a clear or consistent definition of cooperative education, researchers cannot accurately identify variables and findings cannot be compared; theory is not well developed; theory, research, and practice are not integrated; and co-op research does not adhere to established standards.
Another set of problems involves perceptions of the field and its marginalization. Because of its "vocational" association, co-op is not regarded as academically legitimate; rather, it is viewed as taking time away from the classroom (Crow 1997). Experiential activities are necessarily rewarded in post-secondary promotion and tenure systems (except in certain extenuating situations), and co-op faculty may be isolated from other faculty (Crow 1997; Schaafsma 1996). Despite the current emphasis on contextual learning, work is not recognized as a vehicle for learning (Ricks et al. 1993). Schaafsma (1996) and Van Gyn (1996) agree that the field places too much emphasis on placements rather than learning. Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler (1996) also decry the focus on administration, logistics, placements, and procedures.
Some institutions are fully dedicated to the co-op ideal (such as Drexel University, Georgia Institute of Technology, RIT, Kettering University, LaGuardia Community College, and Purdue University). In others, the co-op program may be viewed as an add-on and therefore is vulnerable to cost cutting (Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler 1996). Even where co-op programs are strong they can be threatened, as at Cincinnati Technical College when it became a comprehensive community college (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995) or LaGuardia during a budget crisis (Grubb & Badway 1998). For students, costs and time to degree completion may be deterrents to co-op participation (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995). Other deterrents may include financial barriers, aversion to moving frequently due to family obligations or other pressures as well as difficulty managing the job search during a school semester.
Despite these problems, there is optimism about the future of co-op education; "Social, economic, and historic forces are making cooperative education more relevant than ever" (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995, p. 17), including emphasis on university-industry-government cooperation, a fluid and demanding workplace, new technology, the need for continuous on-the-job learning, globalization, and demands for accountability (John, Doherty & Nichols 1998). Federal investments in school-to-work and community service have resulted in a number of initiatives designed to provide "learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls" (Furco 1996, p. 9). Because this has always been a principle of co-op, the field is in a position to capitalize on its strengths and the ways it complements other experiential methods in the effort to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students. To do this, however, cooperative education must be redesigned.
For Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler (1996), a new vision involves conceiving, defining, and presenting co-op "as a curriculum model that links work and academics - a model that is based on sound learning theory" (p. 158). Ricks (1996) suggests affirming the work-based learning principles upon which co-op is based. These principles assert that cooperative education fosters self-directed learning, reflective practice, and transformative learning; and integrates school and work learning experiences that are grounded in adult learning theories.
Fleming (2013) suggests that a new practical and research focus should be on the relationship between educational institutions and employers - institutions should take more initiative when it comes to training supervisors to be effective mentors. This would maximize the success of the work term and the amount the student learns, while also increasing the quality and quantity of the students' work. Drewery and Pretti (2015) echo this as they call for greater attention on the relationship between the student and the supervisor, explaining that this relationship can greatly impact the students' satisfaction with the co-op term and the benefits they gain from it.
Schaafsma (1996) also focuses on learning, seeing a need for a paradigm shift from content learning to greater understanding of learning processes, including reflection and critical thinking. Co-op is an experiential method, but learning from experience is not automatic. Therefore, Van Gyn (1996) recommends strengthening the reflective component that is already a part of some co-op models. "If co-op is only a vehicle for experience to gain information about the workplace and to link technical knowledge with workplace application, then its effectiveness is not fully developed" (Van Gyn 1996, p. 125). A Higher Education Council of Ontario paper reviewing the University of Waterloo's PD programs states that the reflective element of the program is one of the main strengths, as it encourages students to review their own experiences and learn from their work terms. Maureen Drysdale suggests in a 2012 paper that the reflective elements of co-op allow students to increase their career and personal clarity relative to non-co-op students.
The Bergen County Academies, a public magnet high school in New Jersey, utilizes co-op education in a program called Senior Experience. This program allows all 12th grade students to participate in cooperative education or an internship opportunity for the full business day each Wednesday. Students explore a wide range of career possibilities. This new approach was recognized as an educational best practice and has been adopted as a state educational initiative for 12th grade students.
Although there are many benefits to the co-operative education programme, there are some downsides. The negative implications do not fully compromise the number of students undertaking the study, but rather how the programme will affect the government's future funding for education. A huge burden that co-operative education brings to the education institution is financial struggles. The financial struggles come from the schools and universities who put pressure on the departments of education for funding to keep the programme going.
Implications directly to the students who participate in co-operative education is mainly based on direct learning at their institution, whether it is school or university. The co-operative education programme takes students away from school or university. As a student misses a consecutive number of school days, they can start to fall behind in school work and will eventually be unable to cope with their workload. For students who attend school and also participate in the co-operative education programme, commonly called Work Placement or VET courses, they are no longer eligible to be granted direct entry into university. This then gives the student an option of TAFE entry, a university certified bridging course or go on to full-time work after completion of graduation.
Integrating experiential methods
School-to-work and service learning have also been promoted as ways to link theory and practice through meaningful experiential learning experiences. Furco (1996) outlines the similarities between school-to-work and service learning. Although school-to-work, service learning, and co-op have different goals, each of his points also applies to cooperative education:
- Based on the philosophy that learners learn best through active engagement in meaningful activities
- View of students as active learners and producers of knowledge
- Use of such instructional strategies as contextual learning and application of knowledge to real situations
- Requirement for schools to establish formal partnerships with outside entities
- Concern for integrating school experiences and external experiences
The Community Service Scholarship Program at California State University-Fresno combines cooperative education with service learning. Students receive co-op/internship credit and scholarships for completing a placement at a community service site (Derousi & Sherwood 1997). As in traditional co-op work placements, students get real-world training, opportunities to explore career options, and enhanced employability skills such as communication, problem solving, and leadership as well as awareness of community and social problems. Combining co-op and service learning thus prepares students for roles as workers and citizens.
Research on highly successful co-op programs in Cincinnati (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995) and at LaGuardia Community College (Grubb & Badway 1998) shows that they share the basic philosophy and fundamental characteristics of the educational strategy of school-to-work. The reconceptualization of co-op should recognize and build upon this connection. At the same time, lessons from successful co-op programs can benefit the broader STW movement.
There is a need for broader definition of acceptable models for integrating work and learning. Barton (1996) and Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler (1996) identify a variety of work-based learning activities taking different names: co-op, internships, externships, apprenticeship, career academies, etc. Work-based learning programs should look for connections and develop collaborative relationships. The alternating and parallel co-op models may not meet the needs of returning adult students and dislocated workers needing retraining (Varty 1994). Alternatives such as extended-day programs emphasizing mentoring should be considered.
Connecting activities to integrate school- and work-based learning are an essential part of STW. At LaGuardia, the required co-op seminar helps students make connections by giving them a structure within which to reinforce employability skills, examine larger issues about work and society, and undertake the crucial activities of critical reflection (Grubb & Badway 1998).
Grubb & Badway (1998) and Grubb & Villeneuve (1995) found that the value of cooperative education is embedded in the culture of the institution (LaGuardia) and the region (Cincinnati). In this supportive culture, employer support does not have to be repeatedly obtained and there are clearly understood long-term expectations on all sides (schools, employers, students). This "informal culture of expectations around work-based learning may be more powerful in the long run than a complex set of regulations and bureaucratic requirements" (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995, p. 27).
However, even LaGuardia has found it difficult to sustain co-op culture over time (Grubb & Badway 1998). "The only way in which STW programs can find a permanent place in schools and colleges is for the work-based component to become so central to the educational purposes of the institutions that it becomes as unthinkable to give it up as it would be to abandon math, English, or science" (Grubb & Badway 1998, p. 28).
Finn (1997) believes that the answer lies in going beyond reconceiving co-op as an "educational strategy, pedagogy, model, methodology, or curriculum" (Finn 1997, p. 41). She asserts that it is time for cooperative education to develop and define its body of knowledge, investigate its unique phenomena-e.g., the concept of learning from experience, and clarify and strengthen the qualifications of co-op practitioners. For Ricks (1996), cooperative education is inherently committed to improving the economy, people's working lives, and lifelong learning abilities. It can thus position itself to serve the experiential learning needs of students into the 21st century.
Cates and Cedercreutz (2008) demonstrate that the assessment of student work performance as pursued by co-op employers, can be used for continuous improvement of curricula. The methodology, funded by the Fund for Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) has been developed to a level allowing institutionalization. The methodology could, when implemented over a larger front, provide a substantial competitive advantage for the entire field.
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- Work-study (federally subsidized campus employment) in the later twentieth century became a formal and major component of Student financial aid in the United States.
- The University of Waterloo has a co-operative education program with more than 19,000 students enrolled in co-op programs and more than 5,200 active co-op employers. Their five-year co-op program includes twenty four months of work experience. Enrolling in the a co-op program at the University of Waterloo does not guarantee co-op employment. The school requires students to have a minimum of sixteen to twenty months of valid work experience (depending on the program of study) to successfully complete their academic program. Despite a high percentage of employment via the coop program, many students obtain employment by other methods, including a student's personal networks and unpaid full-time volunteering positions.
- Since its inception in 1975, the co-operative education program at Simon Fraser University (SFU) has grown to more than 8,400 students seeking paid work experiences across the globe. SFU's co-op programs span the faculties of Applied Sciences, Arts & Social Sciences, Business, Communication, Art & Technology, Education, Environment, Health Sciences, and Science. The University has worked with over 6,000 employers worldwide. An SFU student has won the Canada-wide title "Co-op Student of the Year" four times.
- Wilfrid Laurier University and the Laurier School of Business & Economics provide a co-op business program with a competitive entry limited to about one-third of the students who start the BBA program in their first-year. It offers three four-month work terms. Additionally, the school offers a co-op MBA program for high calibre students with less than two years of work experience.
- The University of British Columbia's co-operative education program includes over three thousand students from the faculties of Arts, Commerce, Engineering, Forestry, Kinesiology, and Science.
- All Antioch College students participate in the college's Co-Op Program as part of their academic requirements for graduation. Under the program, students spend a total of four twelve-week terms, distributed throughout their undergraduate years, working as paid, full-time employees in local, national, or international settings. The program at Antioch, which is located in Yellow Springs, Ohio, began in 1921.
- The University of New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney provides an industry linked Co-op Scholarship. Students receive a scholarship of A$17,000 per annum for each year of their degree and current offerings span twenty four areas in business, engineering, science, and the built environment. Along with industry experience, the Co-op Program incorporates leadership and professional development in addition to networking and mentoring opportunities.
- The Florida Institute of Technology has a condensed cooperative education program allowing students to graduate in four years with three-semester work terms. This program is only followed by engineering students and requires students to take online coursework while they are working full-time as a cooperative education student.
- Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s oldest, largest, and best-known cooperative education programs. 91% of undergraduate students in over 75 majors participate in the co-op program. During their time at Drexel, students experience up to three different co-ops and gain up to 18 months of working experience. With over 1,700 employers in its network, Drexel’s cooperative education program connects students with industry leaders across 35 states and 45 countries. Drexel’s cooperative education program allows students to not only explore future careers, but also bring their cooperative education experiences back to the classroom. As a result of cooperative education, Drexel students graduate having already built a professional network, and they typically receive higher starting salaries than their counterparts from other schools. Students may also elect to participate in a Research Co-op to prepare them for a career in research or graduate school or an Entrepreneurship Co-op that will, in collaboration with the Close School of Entrepreneurship, assist them in establishing their own ongoing business. Specialized co-op experiences are also offered at the graduate level.
- Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts has a co-operative education program started in 1909. The program places about five thousand students annually with more than 2,500 co-op employers in Boston, across the United States, and around the globe. A student graduating from Northeastern with a five-year bachelor's degree has a total of eighteen months of internship experience with up to three different companies.
- Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) began cooperative education in 1912.
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) started cooperative education in 1912.
- Kettering University in Flint, Michigan enrolls students in co-operative education from their first year on campus, specializing in engineering, science, and management degree programs.
- Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) (Germany) has a co-operative education program with more than 34,000 students (2016) enrolled and more than 9,000 co-op employers. The three-year co-op undergraduate programs include one and a half year of compulsory internships. DHBW offers job integrated learning (JIL) programs only. In JIL, every DHBW student has to be employed by a single company during the complete duration of the study program. Lectures and compulsory internships are geared to maximize applied learning. Founded on March 1, 2009, DHBW traces its roots back to the Berufsakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg (founded 1974).
- Steinbeis Center of Management and Technology of Steinbeis University Berlin offers an international masters program (Master of Business Engineering) for graduates and young professionals which integrates practical and theoretical learning, along with on the job training by managing projects for a sponsoring company.
- Wentworth Institute of Technology has a two-semester co-operative education program with an optional third semester in the sophomore summer. Every student in the Institute is required to do two co-ops. Co-operative education has been active since 1975 with over one thousand students in a co-op each year.
- EPUSP - Escola Politecnica da Universidade de São Paulo offers cooperative education in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
- TOBB University of Economics and Technology offers cooperative education in Ankara, Turkey.
- Purdue University has a top ten-ranked cooperative education program that was established in 1964. Originally exclusive to students in the College of Engineering, the co-op program is now available to students in 48 different disciplines in 8 of the academic colleges on campus. Purdue offers 5-session and 3-session co-op programs but differs from most universities in that students spend all 5 or 3 work sessions with the same employer, earning raises and gaining progressive responsibilities for each subsequent work rotation, for a total of 12–16 months of work experience. Both programs are 5-year academic programs, though students only pay tuition while studying on campus and pay a small administrative fee during each co-op work rotation. As of July 2014, there were over 600 students enrolled in co-op programs and over 500 qualified employers with locations around the nation and across the globe.
- To complete a bachelor of education at any Australian university, the individual must complete a minimum of 36 weeks of Practirum in a school faced environment doing work placement in their desired field, which includes helping the teacher to teaching a fully planned out class.
- For Australian high school students who are not completing ATAR courses, work placement is highly encouraged to gain necessary credits to complete graduation 
Specialized academic journals
- Asian-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education
- Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships
- Journal of Workplace Learning
- Cooperative learning
- Dual education system
- Practice-based professional learning
- Work college
- Work experience
- Practicum (Work placement)
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- Association for Co-operative Education, BC / Yukon (ACE)
- Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE)
- World Association for Co-operative Education (WACE)
- Cooperative Education
- Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA)
- National Commission for Cooperative Education (NCCE)
- Cooperative Education Division (CED) of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)
- New England Association for Cooperative Education and Field Experience
- New York State Cooperative and Experiential Education Association (NYSCEEA)