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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, service learning, and experiential learning initiatives. Cooperative education is also the use of active participation methods in which students learn how to work together to solve problems, this is normally founded on the principles of children's rights, equality, equity and participation in decision-making. Its methods include game playing, expressing opinions, democratic participation, sharing, ensuring students all have an equal opportunity to take part, and conflict resolution.
In Great Britain at the beginning of the 19th century, co-operative living and learning were promoted by early advocate of socialism Robert Owen. In 1817 he founded a school in his cotton mill community of New Lanark in Scotland. This was based on the principles of co-operation, that children should be at school and not labouring in the mills, that the rules of the playground should be to be happy and help others to be happy. He employed adults who loved children, not teachers, and saw children as naturally inquisitive. He saw geography and comparative religion as ways that children might learn that who they were to become was defined by the culture and religion they were brought-up in. He believed that we could create co-operative based communities through learning and reason. His work was so important that New Lanark is a UNESCO heritage site, and at the time people from around the world would visit it to see how it worked.
While at Lehigh University at the beginning of the 20th Century, Herman Schneider (1872–1939), engineer, architect, and educator, concluded that the traditional 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, CarnegiTechnical School, 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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).
The Bergen County Academies, a public magnet high school, 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.
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:
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.