Case study: Academic WIL

Michael Whelan, School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University
Academic WIL was designed to reverse the WIL experience. Rather than a student taking the curriculum into the workplace, an academic uses a workplace experience to redevelop the curriculum. In this case study three spatial science units (subjects) were in need of renewal. Two, two-week, placements were used to test the curriculum and teaching methods in an environment new graduates may be employed. The focus was to align the curriculum of the three spatial science units with current industry practice.

  • Academic WIL was developed as a strategy to develop a teaching-industry nexus. Universities tend to focus on research when developing relationships with industry. However, developing strong relationships with industry via teaching activities has the potential to improve curriculum, assessment, teaching methods and, therefore, graduates.
  • The three units form part of an environmental science degree in the School of Environment, Science and Engineering.

Implementation process

  • Because this is a new concept there was not a “process” as such. The Regional Director of Agriculture had written to the school asking for closer collaboration between the Department of Primary Industries and Southern Cross University. Undertaking a two-week placement at the DPI was seen as a way to improve collaboration. The university had recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Byron Shire Council that facilitated the placement with the asset management team.

Enablers and challenges

  • The Head of School supported the initiative and the four weeks required to do the placements: “That sounds like a great idea. When are you going?” This was all the support that was needed.
  • The host organisations needed to be sure that insurance while on placement was not an issue. They also needed to be confident that the placement would be a benefit to them.
  • Care needs to be taken to collect evidence that the placement has improved the curriculum assessment and teaching methods. In addition, evidence of good performance while on placement needs to be collected.

Achievements and impact

  • A refereed article (Whelan, 2017) was published from the Academic WIL study. In addition, an article was published in The Conversation.
  • Academic WIL led to closer ties with industry. Students, as part of their assessment, solve spatial problems from industry partners. The problems proved difficult to solve and required the curriculum to be modified mid-semester. It has also led to greater confidence in the students’ abilities after they graduate and start working in industry. The classroom was more authentic and mimicked what happens in the workplace.
  • The Academic WIL article (Whelan, 2017) is the first to document the process and the benefits of academics returning to industry. Universities invest a great deal in cultivating industry engagement in terms of research and this initiative shows that industry-teaching nexus can also be a significant way to strengthen relationships with industry.
  • Within the institution there is no momentum to further develop Academic WIL but another placement is planned for 2019. While university, industry and students consider Academic WIL an innovative way to improve relationships with industry, it will take imitative from university leadership for it to be expanded.

Further information