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The contribution of VET student placement to innovation in host organisations

By Steven Hodge, Raymond Smith, Jenny Field, Matthew Flynn Research report 29 June 2017 978-1-925173-85-7

Description

The vocational education and training sector has an important role to play in the National Innovation and Science Agenda, particularly through the development of skills. This research explores the idea of whether the student placement process — where an individual is placed in a workplace to hone their new skills — can contribute to innovation in the host organisation. The research found that, while students were generally not able to contribute to innovation per se, there were examples of knowledge diffusion (students bringing new and updated knowledge into their host organisations) and of students making small-scale local improvements in the workplace.

Summary

About the research

Vocational education and training (VET) has an important role to play in the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda. One of the obvious mechanisms for this contribution is through the development of skills. However, the authors of this report ask whether the student-placement process — whereby VET students are placed in a host organisation to practise their newly acquired skills — can also contribute to innovation in the workplace.

Through four case studies (in early childhood education, nursing, hospitality and community services), this research considers the role of the student, the host organisation and the registered training organisation (RTO) in the likelihood of innovation arising through the student-placement process.

Key messages

  • The case studies did not provide unequivocal evidence of individual students contributing to innovation in the workplace, where innovation is defined, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the development or introduction of new or significantly improved goods, services, processes or methods. While this might be reflective of the types of industries represented in the case studies, most participants in the research (including students, employers and trainers) believed it was not possible for learners to contribute to innovation due to their lack of experience.
  • However, if the definition of innovation is expanded to include ‘practice innovation’, whereby improvements are made by introducing new ways of doing things that are integral to everyday work in an organisation, then there is evidence that the student-placement process may play a role.
  • It was recognised that the new knowledge and skills learned by students in their formal studies may be more contemporary than those of staff in the workplace. The case studies revealed examples of knowledge diffusion, and students made small scale improvements to work practice at a local level, thus by default contributing to an increase in workplace innovation.
  • There are opportunities to optimise VET-student placement as a knowledge diffusion mechanism to enhance workplace innovation but there needs to be a shift in the way in which all participants view and value the contribution of the VET-student.
  • A suggestion emerging from this research is that host organisations and training providers could work together to capitalise on the student-placement process by identifying ways to encourage knowledge diffusion and practice improvements by students. This needs a changed mindset from ‘the student is here to learn from the business’ to ‘the student whilst learning from the business can be encouraged to express their own knowledge and ideas’.

Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

With innovation seen as critical to Australia’s economy (Commonwealth of Australia 2015), it is worthwhile to ask about the contribution of the Australian vocational education and training (VET) system to innovation. Previous research has highlighted a number of ways VET can contribute to innovation, including through knowledge diffusion (Dalitz, Toner & Turpin 2011), skills development and networks (Curtin & Stanwick 2011), and training provider—business partnerships (Callan & Ashworth 2004). One way by which VET interacts with Australian businesses and organisations is through student work placements. This process involves students based in registered training organisations (RTOs) spending periods of time in host organisations for work experience, allowing them to apply and hone their new skills and knowledge and acquire skills and dispositions that can only be developed in authentic settings. The student-placement process contrasts with apprenticeships and traineeships, whereby students are employed in the workplace while they complete their studies.

To date, there has been no research into the possible contribution of VET student placement to innovation in host organisations. The research described in this report represents an initial exploration of this question. The research adopted the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS; 2016) definition of innovation: the development or introduction of new or significantly improved goods, services, processes or methods. The research, which was based in south-east Queensland, used a mixed methods approach, which involved interviews with placement students and host organisation and RTO staff. The report presents an exploratory study and four case studies in the industries of early childhood education, nursing, hospitality and community services. Training in these industries often requires students being placed in host organisations for work experience to complement their provider-based learning.

The research did not find unequivocal examples of the development or introduction of new or significantly improved goods, services, processes or methods that could be attributed to the activity of VET placement students or the placement process generally. Many participants — students and host and provider staff alike — believed that it was not possible for a learner to contribute to innovation due to their comparative lack of expertise. Some also considered it inappropriate for VET students to make suggestions for improvement in host organisations. However, examples were identified in which the VET student-placement process — as an integrated, strategic focus in an organisation — contributed to organisational agility, and some students were even found to introduce improvements at the local level.

If the focus shifts to innovation systems and VET’s role in Australian innovation systems as a mechanism of ‘knowledge diffusion’, then there is evidence that the student-placement process does make a contribution. There was evidence that the new knowledge and skills acquired by students in their formal studies were sometimes more up to date than those possessed by staff, and in such cases the student-placement process contributed to knowledge diffusion and, therefore, indirectly to innovation.

The data also suggest that if the definition of innovation is expanded to include ‘practice innovation’ (Ellström 2010), VET student placement can indeed contribute to innovation. The data contained numerous examples of VET placement students undertaking tasks in ways that were new and effective from the point of view of host organisation staff. A number of staff acknowledged that their practice had been altered through their encounters with VET placement students. On the basis of this evidence we propose that the VET student-placement process contributes in a clear way to practice innovation through improvements at the local level.

On the basis of these indications, the researchers make the following suggestions for making fuller use of VET student placement as a knowledge-diffusion mechanism and a driver of practice innovation:

  • Stereotypes about VET placement students should be challenged. Stereotypes, including the idea that learners do not possess the knowledge or skills to contribute to improvements and that it is inappropriate for students to make suggestions, serve to block the diffusion of knowledge and practice innovation. These stereotypes can be found among VET students, provider staff and host organisation staff.
  • Providers should encourage students to make suggestions in appropriate ways if the students see potential for improvement during their placements. Providers often share the assumption that learners are best limited to observing and absorbing information and practices while on placement. Assessment task projects that involve the introduction of new ideas, processes and practices in host organisations can be a way of realising the potential of student placement as a driver of innovation.
  • Host organisations should also encourage placement students to make suggestions for improvement if students see the potential, and should ensure that clear systems are in place to gather suggestions. While many host organisation staff were amenable to receiving suggestions and feedback from placement students, the students were not always aware that this possibility was available to them and were also unsure about the process for making suggestions if they saw potential for improvement.
  • Host organisations should take measures to ensure that contributions to knowledge and practice at the local level can be shared widely through the organisation. The research suggests that knowledge and practice contributions do not necessarily spread from the local level.
  • Host organisations and providers could work together to challenge stereotypes, encourage suggestions for improvement from placement students and identify mechanisms for disseminating knowledge and practice improvements at the local level. At present, strong relationships between providers and organisations ensure that a number of benefits arise from the student-placement process, including facilitating organisational agility, but mechanisms could also be established to realise the potential that student placement has to contribute to innovation.

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