Work-integrated learning (WIL) programs are widely recognised as a key component of experiential learning to equip graduates with employability skills (Orrell, 2004; Jackson, 2015). In our Master of Data Science and Innovation degree, work-integrated learning is built into the curriculum. Innovation Lab subjects (iLabs) are a core part of the program that prepares students to tackle complex real-world challenges. 

In practice, Innovation Labs require students to work with industry or research partners over a semester to help solve their data problems in innovative ways. Examples of past projects are Huber Social’s dashboard design for decision making with data, SenateSHJ’s analysis of crisis and reputation for organisations, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse’s pharmacy dashboard to improve patient experience and UTS research’s materials discovery using machine learning

Balancing the needs of students, partners and remote work

Facilitating work-integrated learning is often challenging, taking into account the needs and learning outcomes of students as well as the requirements of industry partners and their projects. Self-directed study is a key feature, with students managing rigorous assessments and academic requirements at the same time as dealing with client project work. 

During 2020, a further challenge was added as the worlds of work and education both shifted to remote environments. Partnerships and arrangements which previously involved a significant degree of physical presence (eg. attending an office or other workplace) had to reach the same outcomes with remote work and teaching arrangements.

To tackle these challenges, our measures included:

  • Deliberate design of assessments for students to set personalised learning goals and reflect regularly on their work, tracking their progress using andragogical principles where learners take responsibility for their learning (Knowles, Holton and Swanson 2005). This introduced additional marked components for weekly reflections and project updates for supervisors and partners.
  • Streamlined processes, roles and documentation to orient students and partners towards new ways of working. This included working with a dedicated partnerships team and teaching staff to create additional resources such as project selection processes, flow charts, timelines and weekly checklists of activities to set clear expectations. 
  • Increased communication and touchpoints for support in remote settings. Students were made aware of support mechanisms such as supervisor check-ins for guidance, Slack channel for technical support and online classes/ email support from teaching staff. 

We found in particular that there was a need to ensure better alignment between learning and partner outcomes, and we know there is more work to be done in this regard.

A positive response from students and partners

Feedback from students in classes and on Canvas was generally positive, despite the challenges posed by remote teaching. Many students appreciated the real-life work experience they gained from the subject by working with industry partners, as demonstrated in some survey responses: 

I was able to get real life work experience from this subject, which is extremely important.

 For international students this is very valuable because in our countries the jobs are different and with this subject we can know how the work is in Australia. 

All 39 industry partners who engaged with students this semester completed an evaluation survey where they provided feedback on the projects and their satisfaction with the subject. The average satisfaction score was 4.3 on a scale of 1-5, with 95% of respondents likely to provide another iLab project again in the future. 

I thought this concept is a fantastic learning opportunity for both students and organizations alike. It definitely solves real-world problems which adds knowledge as well as value to organisations

UTS delivered a rare combination of students that can use advanced data skills to solve a business (or in our case, clinical) problem, in a well structured and defined project period. The students exceeded expectations in their foundation skillset, intuity in overcoming challenges, and ability to mesh into our existing team. 

What’s next?

Overall, the experience strengthened ties between UTS and industry partners, and provided students with valuable learning outcomes to make them distinctive graduates with real-world employability skills. More broadly, this also helps us to develop sustainable partnerships that exist beyond short-term goals. 

With an increasing number of students in the cohort, we are now observing learners of all levels, including non self-directed learners who require additional supervision. We also experience challenges in training some students for more professional exchanges and communication with industry partners (particularly for partners with non-technical backgrounds).  We are exploring more support mechanisms which will identify and help these learners and can be implemented in the future.

Further information and acknowledgements:

Master of Data Science and Innovation (MDSI):

iLab industry partner information:

This work is supported by colleagues from the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation: Chin Yeow Wong (Jared) and Adrian Buck, Partnerships Team, Industry partners, Teaching team, Students and founding members of the MDSI community including past teaching staff and alumni. 


Choy, S., & Delahaye, B. (2011). Partnerships between universities and workplaces: some challenges for work-integrated learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(2), 157-172.

Jackson, D. (2015). Employability skill development in work-integrated learning: Barriers and best practice. Studies in Higher Education,40(2), 350-367.

Knowles, M. S., & Holton, E. F. Ill, & Swanson, RA (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development.Orrell, J. (2004). Work-integrated learning programmes: Management and educational quality. In Proceedings of the Australian Universities Quality Forum (pp. 1-5). Victoria: Victoria University.

This topic was originally shared as a 10-minute presentation by the author at the 2020 UTS Learning and Teaching Forum under the theme of ‘Work-integrated learning’. Work-integrated learning was one of six themes at the Forum, which focussed on connecting current practice with future directions at UTS. 

Feature image by Anna Zhu

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