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National University Students Given Access to Work-Based Learning Via Online Platform

For the past three years, students at National University (NU) have been given the chance to bolster their in-classroom learning with integrated real-world work experience via a partnership between NU and work-based learning platform Riipen.Dr. Mark MillironDr. Mark Milliron

The partnership, in the form of a pilot program which kicked off in 2021, has allowed NU faculty to use Riipen’s online platform to source employers willing to offer work experience and project opportunities to students and add these projects into their curricula.

This allows NU’s students to gain real work experience and professional skills for college credit as they progress through their academic pursuits, which they can then display on their work portfolios. Through Riipen, these students also receive feedback from their employers.

“As the student starts to build up these experiences, where they have two, four, ten different companies that they worked with over their education pathway,” said Dave Savory, co-founder and vice president of experiential learning at Riipen. “And they can showcase who those companies are, what kinds of projects they worked out, the skills that they demonstrated, and what those companies actually said and validated about that learner's impact.”

Since 2021, the platform has been used in a number of NU’s different departments, from digital marketing and analytics to cybersecurity and healthcare, according to Dr. Errin Heyman, associate vice president of learning experience at NU.

The choice to use Riipen’s platform is left up to faculty, but more than 33 in total have incorporated employer projects into their courses, either requiring a work project as a capstone assignment or earlier in students’ academic journeys. Almost 200 NU students have completed a work-based learning placement with an employer through Riipen-integrated NU courses, Savory said.

“Instead of working on a case out of textbook or something theoretical, we're helping faculty actually embed and connect with lots of different types of real-world employers who have projects that align with the learning objectives of that class,” Savory said. “[Students are] actually working and collaborating on a regular cadence with these employers to build those connections, get that experience, [and] apply the learning, but also develop some of those professional skills.”

Surveys with students and faculty involved in the pilot program showed positive qualitative responses, though faculty voiced initial difficulties with incorporating work-based learning especially into courses with shorter terms, according to Heyman.

Riipen’s employer pool is made up of more than 35,000 industry partners. And the company’s work to source and shape employer projects to better fit the academic needs of its partner schools saves faculty the labor of having to seek out employers themselves, Savory said.

NU is one of over 430 postsecondary institutions in U.S. and Canada that Riipen works with.

“It's not a job board," Savory said. “We really have put a lot of time and energy into helping them come up and think through some of AI project generation tools to really create project scopes that are structured and designed in a way that that can be embedded into courses and other short-cycle training programs.”

What the platform provides aligns well with the educational priorities that NU has for its student population, said NU President Dr. Mark Milliron.

NU’s student body – about 55% are graduate students and 45% are undergraduate – is primarily made up of working, non-traditional, or military students. And the average age of an NU student is 33, and student ages range from 18 to 70, according to Milliron.

NU's strategic plan involves pairing student-specific supports with the usage of “next-generation” technologies and practices – such as virtual reality and online learning models – that meet students “where they are and take them where they need to go,” Milliron said.

“We want to design into our education programs experiences for that student, whether its peer advising, internships, project-based learning, [or] civic engagement. We want to curate the co-curriculars and other experiences they could have that will be rich for them,” Milliron said. “The Riipen stuff just seems perfect for us, because it was an infrastructure that allowed us to build in [student-faculty-profession connections] but especially to weave in really thoughtful experiences directly into the instructional side.”

It is yet to be seen what the partnership between NU and the company will look like moving forward, according to Milliron. Given the pilot nature of the program, NU intentionally limited which academic fields could use Riipen in their courses. But faculty from all of NU’s six schools have expressed an interest in employing the platform in the future, Heyman said.

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