What is Cooperative Education?

G. Wiesen

Cooperative education is a type of learning in which students split their educational time between classroom learning and learning in the workplace. This can be done from one semester to the next, with one semester spent in classes, the next on the job, then back in classes, until the student finishes his or her program. Some programs instead work by splitting a student’s day between the classroom and workplace. Cooperative education is typically concerned primarily with the relationship between what is learned and how that knowledge can be used in the “real world” and is typically utilized in technical educational programs.

Students spend part of their time in a workplace and part in a classroom during cooperative education.
Students spend part of their time in a workplace and part in a classroom during cooperative education.

First proposed and created by Herman Schneider in the early 20th century, cooperative education seeks to encourage learning in students by directly relating what they learn to how it can be used in the workplace. Often associated with experiential learning and similar educational pedagogies, a cooperative education typically pairs a student at a secondary level such as college or a university with a real work environment. For example, someone interested in computer science might take classes one semester about microchips and circuit board design. The next semester, he or she would then work at a business creating microchips and circuit boards.

Cooperative education students may attend lectures each morning and apply the new knowledge at work that evening.
Cooperative education students may attend lectures each morning and apply the new knowledge at work that evening.

In other forms of cooperative education, the student in the previous example would learn during one part of the day and work in another part of the day. So he or she may learn about something in the morning and actually use that knowledge in the afternoon or evening while working. This allows a student to immediately connect the material learned in a classroom with how it applies to the actual industry in which he or she wishes to work. This connection is often assisted by instructors who work primarily as facilitators, helping students reflect on the work and how it relates to the classroom lessons.

Some critics of cooperative education see flaws in these programs, both in that they often require a great deal of time to complete and that the connection between classroom and workplace may not be properly made by the student. As technology has become increasingly important in numerous industries, however, this type of education is often seen as an ideal way to teach newcomers in a field and also to facilitate ongoing education for those already working in an industry. Other pedagogical movements, such as service learning and experiential education, have often utilized ideas from cooperative education and the future of American technological education may well involve one of these models.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - A school that I've visited recently had a really good solution, where they employed carpenters and chefs and allowed all their students to spend several hours a week learning practical skills.

I actually think this kind of training in education is valuable because some students learn better this way. I do think the article has a point though, that there need to be links between learning and practical work.


@Iluviaporos - The problem is that it takes so much time. The logistics are just a real pain in the neck. Either you've got to convince people to come into the school (which is difficult when you probably don't have any way to compensate them) or you've got to get the students to the workplaces.

And it is really difficult and complicated to take students out of a school these days. You need to make sure that they are going to be safe and you need to make sure that they are supervised by teachers.

It's a good idea in theory and I think it could work well in small doses, but I just can't see it happening on a large basis.


I honestly think that this kind of program should be operating even with the youngest students. Learning from experts is one of the most valuable things you can do and that is even more true when it comes to real skills.

I think a cooperative education program could help to develop confidence and ability in students and give them more opportunities for jobs later on in life.

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