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Work based learning (in higher education), sometimes known as workplace learning is a term which has come to be used to describe an approach to higher level Vocational Education which occurs in a wide variety of formal educational settings from the mid-1990s in a number of English speaking countries, notably the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Republic. Other centers have been established by the Middlesex University Institute for Work Based Learning in Athens, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Eire. It is a term used to describe whole and part programs of learning both within universities and more technical, vocational institutions. There is no agreed definition of what constitutes Work based learning other than it is an attempt to formalize learning and confer academic awards for learning which occurs either in the workplace or is relevant to the needs of those in work. Work based learning is therefore a form of Adult education which overlaps with a number of educational and training concepts such as Practice-based professional learning, Knowledge Management, Continuing Professional Development, Lifelong Learning and Human Resource Development.

Varieties of Work based learning[edit]

At minimum Work based learning usually involves the completion of a workplace project as part of an otherwise conventionally delivered program. In its most developed forms Work based learning involves the delivery of an entire program leading to a recognized award, such as a Bachelor or Postgraduate degree either negotiated with or created by an employing organisation and/or with individual members of the workforce [1]. In this sense it has six characteristics [2]. First it involves a partnership between the university and those in work to create learning opportunities in the workplace. Second, learners are typically employees of an employing organisation or are otherwise engaged in the labor market. Third, the program is derived from the needs of the workplace rather than a curriculum based upon subject discipline. Fourth, the content and level of the program is decided after an evaluation of learners’ experience and need to learn rather than pre-existing qualifications. Fifth, learning projects are undertaken in the workplace. Sixth, assessment is conducted by the awarding university with reference to standards and levels which are trans-disciplinary in nature.

There is no body of literature which can said to constitute an underlying unifying theory of work based learning so it is best described as a type of educational practice. The most significant writer in the field is David Boud [3], [4], [5] who, along with his various collaborators has constructed a body of work underpinning practice at leading UK universities such as the Universities of Middlesex, Chester and Derby. Other important figures include Stephen Billett [6], [7] for his work on the structured nature of workplace learning, Victoria Marsick [8] for her work on incidental and collaborative learning in the workplace and Michael Eraut [9] for his work on professional learning. Useful summaries of underpinning principles and practice are contained in the work of Joe Raelin [10], [11]. Arguably the best brief summary is by Stan Lester and Carol Costley [12].

The development of Work based learning[edit]

Work based learning in higher education developed in the United Kingdom during the early 1990s. Pioneer institutions include the University of East London and Leeds Metropolitan University but the first to do so successfully was Middlesex University which created its first work based learning program in 1995 [13]. These were followed a few years later by the University of Chester, University of Portsmouth and University of Derby. Since that time the concept has gradually spread throughout UK universities in particular, notably in newer, more vocationally oriented institutions. The development of Work based learning programs can be seen as a response to four key drivers. The first of these are developments in the fields of learning theory and conceptions of knowledge which challenge traditional conceptions and practices established in conventional pedagogic delivery. For example, it is widely assumed that the principal mechanism for delivering learning in higher education the Lecture is an efficient means for doing so. This is contrary to empirical evidence that while lectures are an effective means of transmitting information they are poor devices for inculcating deeper learning involving changed understandings [14]. Unease with traditional approaches to delivering higher education have been exacerbated by the expansion of universities and inclusion of a greater number of adult learners for whom didactic instruction is often inappropriate as an effective pedagogic device [15]. Moreover traditional delivery, relying as it does upon face to face instruction at set times and places is better suited to the needs of the university than adult learners. The inability to meet the needs of adults resulted in the creation of the Open University in 1969 but its traditional academic curricula based around subject disciplines often results in instruction disconnected from the requirement for learning in the workplace. A series of reports from the late 1990s onwards highlighted the need for greater engagement between higher education and the world of work for which traditional pedagogic practices are often unsuited [16], [17], [18]. The final driver was a developing awareness of the narrowness of role performed by many universities (teaching and research) and lack of alternative sources of funding. This led to universities in the UK developing what is called the 'Third Mission' - raising income by exploiting commercializing the activities of public universities [19]. Work based learning, with its more flexible delivery and emphasis upon the direct application of learning has enabled universities to recruit students and hence increase income it would otherwise be unable to attract.

Underpinning theory in Work based learning[edit]

Work based learning incorporates a number of theoretical and practical ideas on the nature of learning and knowledge generation which are broadly located within the tradition of Critical pedagogy and Social constructivism . An important underpinning construct is that of Experiential learning- learning gained from direct, lived experience rather than a curriculum delivered through instruction [20]. Although experiential learning is in some ways the bedrock upon which much Work based learning stands, it is not always considered sufficient as the basis for awarding academic credit. Work based learning in higher education therefore seeks to create an internal dialogue between the experience of the learner in the workplace and the more formal forms of knowledge held in universities- theory and empirical evidence. As W. Edwards Deming observed, "Experience by itself teaches nothing... Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning." [21].

Learners who undertake Work based learning courses are by definition adults, studying part time whilst in work. Although it is not universally accepted that the learning preferences of adults vary significantly from other age groups it is accepted that adults do have learning needs which traditional instructional programs often fail to address. The term Andragogy (or learning practices developed for adults) is therefore associated with Work based learning to distinguish it from Pedagogy which in its original form means literally 'The leading of children'. Principles of andragogy evident in Work based learning include ensuring learning is relevant to need, the purpose of learning is understood and the motivation to learn is consonant with relevance to experience [22]

Other leading concepts incorporated into Work based learning include Student-centred learning [23], which places the interests of the learner before those of the educator and administrator, Transformative learning [24] which seeks to enable learners to question basic assumptions about their understanding of their role and situation and Situated learning [25] which holds that learning is for the most part a process of personal exchange within a specific social setting, notably the workplace. In contrast to more traditional approaches to learning where learning is strongly directed by tutors (with a set program of didactic instruction, reading lists and so on) in Work based learning there is greater emphasis on facilitation to help learners meet their own learning learning needs. This approach draws heavily upon the work of Stephen Brookfield and his ideas on self directed learning [26].

Another important underpinning construct is the idea of Reflective practice- the notion that future thoughts and actions can be modified by structured introspective thinking about past and present actions [27]. Following the work of Donald Schon Work based learning aims to capture and enhance reflection on rather than in action [28]. To help students achieve this it is common for students to be directed to formal models of reflective thinking such as that of David A. Kolb [29] Gibbs [30] and Johns [31]. In Higher Education Gibbs has particular relevance because of the inclusion of more formal ways of interpreting experience. The Gibbs reflective cycle is also used to enable learners to analyze particularly significant events in the workplace- the Critical Incident Technique [32].

Pedagogic practices incorporated into Work based learning[edit]

In addition to theoretical developments Work based learning has exploited and incorporated a number of practical developments. The more widespread modernization of Higher education, especially in the European Higher Education Area has greatly assisted the process of translating flexible, Work based learning into academic credit [33]. This includes the introduction of formal learning outcomes at the level of program and unit/ module which has resulted in greater clarity about what a student is expected to learn [34]. Similarly the formalization of learning level descriptors has greatly assisted in understanding the level of analysis of experience [35] and the creation of a pan European system of academic credit (European Credit Transfer System- ECTS) has assisted in the translation of experiential work based learning into formal accredited learning. These three developments have created the basic architecture around which programs can be constructed and credit awarded, especially on fully negotiable Work based learning programs where credit is used as a form of educational currency.

Additionally, the development of learning contracts has created a practical mechanism for students to articulate their learning needs into a formal constituted and accredited pathway of learning either for a whole curriculum, as in the case of negotiated awards (see below) or within units/ modules [36] . Work based learning pedagogic practice has also benefited from a more sophisticated understanding of the purpose of assessment. The traditional emphasis in conventional programs where learning is assumed to occur at the point of instruction and assessment regarded as testing that learning has been replaced by an emphasis on Formative assessment [37] and Assessment for learning [38] . Such an approach where the learner is responsible for their own (guided) investigation results in a changed understanding of assessment as the principal mechanism by which students enhance their learning. Another important practical development is Instructional scaffolding where students are given help tailored to their particular learning needs to reach achievable objectives [39], [40]. The role of the tutor in Work based learning is therefore less the traditional 'Sage on the Stage' on more conventional programs but more 'Guide on the side' [41] . Work based learning tutors act as learning guide and coach, enabling students to find their own learning needs, translate those needs into a coherent program of academic study and facilitate their cognitive development as evidenced by their assessment.

Work based learning and the creation of practice knowledge[edit]

Underlying the approach to learning in Work based learning is a different concept of knowledge to that on most traditional programs in universities. The organizing principle in the modern western university is subject discipline [42], [43]. A consequence of this approach is an assumption that authoritative knowledge exists either within or between those disciplines. The creation of formal subject discipline knowledge is governed by rules on theorizing and empirical verification designed to ensure universality, irrespective of temporal and cultural context. The keepers of such knowledge are those who create it and they therefore act as gatekeepers for verifying the authenticity of new knowledge via the process of peer review [44].

In work based learning where the focus is on the creation of practice knowledge there is a more pluralistic conception of knowledge. It can and often does incorporate traditional subject discipline knowledge but recognizes that practitioner requirements often transcend subject discipline boundaries. Practice knowledge, often described as Mode 2 to distinguish it from Mode 1/ subject discipline knowledge is broader. As well as knowledge from a variety of subject disciplines it also incorporates knowledge shared by practitioners within a specific community of practice. In contrast to Mode 1 knowledge which is explicit much practice knowledge is barely articulated yet it is shared and understood by practitioners. Such Tacit knowledge has long been recognized as central to the functioning of organizations and professions [45]. Practice knowledge differs in other ways from subject discipline knowledge. Whereas formal subject discipline knowledge has some sort of relationship with formal theory, practice knowledge is characterized by its use of informal theories. Chris Argyris and Donald Schon [46] make a distinction between 'Espoused theory' and 'Theory in use' to distinguish between those informal theories which practitioners believe drive their actions and those implicit in what they actually do. Practitioners do not engage in formal theory construction and testing in the same way as academic researchers do. That is not to say their literally 'working theories' or in Lev Vygotsky's phrase 'everyday concept development' [47] are inferior to formal theories. They simply serve a different purpose.

Unlike subject discipline knowledge which is created for its own sake practice knowledge is intimately connected with doing. In this sense practice knowledge is linked to Aristotle's concepts of Phronesis which can be broadly translated as knowledge containing principles for practical actions [48] and Praxis which can be translated as ethically based, intelligent, practical actions [49]. Work based learning which is focussed upon the creation of practice knowledge therefore aims to create personal knowledge not just for knowing but as the basis for practical actions. Unlike traditional instruction in a subject discipline where students reproduce universal knowledge, work based learning students generate knowledge at the point of where such knowledge will be consumed- acted upon. Whilst not dispensing with or rejecting the notion of disciplinary knowledge, Work based learning can be said to be Transdisciplinarity in nature since it incorporates a concept of knowledge which transcends it [50].

Workplace projects and cooperative learning[edit]

Within work based learning programs it is common for students to gain credit for transdisciplinary workplace projects. The focus for such projects are the practical requirements of the workplace so the starting point is usually an unresolved issue or problem requiring a formal investigation in order to enhance practice knowledge. The investigation may use a formal investigative method and will utilize subject disciplinary as well as situated practice knowledge. Common examples of projects include those relating to Change management, Leadership development and Project management but there are many others. Projects in Work based learning program are an example of Project-based learning although unlike on more conventional programs they are often carried out by individual learners and have similarities with Inquiry-based learning. The open ended nature of projects means that a much variety of method is used to further practice knowledge than on Mode 1 investigations. This eclectic approach to method has been termed Bricolage by Anita Walsh [51].

A further consequence of knowledge creation for application in a specific context is that unless the learner works alone any knowledge created during a program of Work based learning is also likely to meet the needs of other stakeholders in the context shared with the learner. This might be through the use of a collaborative investigative method such as Cooperative inquiry, Progressive inquiry or Action learning or there may be simply changed practices which impact others. Since practice knowledge is shared any revised practices have, unlike on conventional programs, implications for the knowledge of others. In this sense all knowledge creation on a Work based learning program can be said to foster Collaborative learning and Cooperative learning even where an assignment is personal to the learner.

Leading providers and varieties of practice[edit]

Leading providers of such programs in the UK include the University of Middlesex's Institute for Work Based Learning, the University of Chester's Centre for Work Related Studies and the University of Derby's Corporate department. Other leading centers include the University of Northumbria, The Open University, Teesside University, Kingston University, Staffordshire University, The University of East London, Lancaster University, University of Portsmouth, The University of Greenwich, Aston University, The University of Kent, Trinity St Davids University, Birkbeck College London, Glasgow Caledonian University and Anglia Ruskin University . A fuller list of providers in the UK is contained in Iain Nixon's 2006 survey [52]. Outside the UK Work based learning has made less progress in establishing itself as part of the university curriculum than might be expected. There are some established centers such as the Pretoria Centre for Work-Based Learning in South Africa, RMIT University in Australia and Athlone Institute of Technology in Eire. Despite attempts to spread practice more widely, Work based learning has struggled to become established in the USA [53] or the rest of Europe, Eire and the UK excepted [54], [55].

Within universities where it is established there are considerable variations in practice. On fully negotiable Work based learning programs such as those at Chester and Middlesex students typically begin with each learner assessing their learning achievements to date, reviewing their potential to achieve academic credit through the Recognition of Prior Learning (commonly referred to as Accreditation of Prior Learning in the UK) and identifying their learning requirements. The curriculum, rather than being constructed by the tutor is therefore negotiated based upon identified need. This might include more traditional subject discipline based learning as well experiential trans-disciplinary workplace projects [56]. Awards are available at any level in higher education, up to and including a Doctor of Professional Studies. In many other institutions Work based learning either forms part of an otherwise conventional curriculum, typically as the basis for a workplace project. In many universities Work based learning is associated with particular subject disciplines such as Engineering, Health, Business and Social Work. In others it is seen as pan-university, sometimes with centrally located academic departments to facilitate delivery cross-faculty. Another important dimension of practice is the extent to which there is professional marketing support. In some universities tutors are solely engaged in facilitating learning while the marketing function is performed by specialists, whilst in others tutors combine the pedagogic and marketing roles. The University of Coventry has created a wholly owned subsidiary company ACUA to deliver Work based learning and more conventional corporate programs using tutors on non-HE contracts.

Another distinctive aspect of Work based learning practice is delivery. Since Work based learning attempts to meet the needs of learners facilitation of learning is often in the workplace rather than the university. This often involves fairly conventional face to face delivery but can involve workshops and more active forms of learning. More recently there has been greater emphasis on Distance learning, often using e-learning. The Work based learning framework at Chester has been adapted to convert learning from MOOCs into claims for accredited experiential learning.

Quality assurance and Work based learning[edit]

As will be apparent from the foregoing Work based learning is a significantly different form of learning to that traditionally delivered in universities so it is not surprising that it has proved something of a struggle to become established [57]. In particular the emphasis upon open access to programs, employer involvement in their design and delivery and lack of traditional pedagogic tools such as lectures and exams has led to a suspicion that academic standards have been lowered to meet commercial imperatives. This impression is difficult to dispel since as Paul Gibbs has noted [58] anything as non-standard as Work based learning, especially in its fully developed, wholly negotiable form, is likely to arouse suspicion and it is extremely difficult to demonstrate academic quality to sceptical outsiders.

Perhaps the best external, independent evidence that academic standards are maintained is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education a regulatory authority for standards in UK Higher Education. The QAA conducts quinquennial institutional audits of UK universities to assess the quality and standard of provision. All of the UK universities delivering Work based learning have obtained the QAA's highest level of approval- namely that "confidence can reasonably be placed in the soundness of the institution’s present and likely future management of the academic standards of the awards it offers". In addition those institutions most heavily involved in delivery have also had their programs commended as examples of good practice. The 2009 Institutional Audit at Middlesex identified "the distinctive contribution of the Institute for Work-Based Learning to the University's portfolio of educational provision" as an example of 'good practice'. Similarly the 2010 inspection at Chester praised "the effectiveness of the Work Based and Integrative Studies framework in providing flexible, responsive and relevant educational opportunities to work-based learners" and as with Middlesex cited it as an example of good practice. Similarly the University of Derby's 2009 Review praised "the well thought-out approach to the University's engagement with employers".

Another way of gauging the quality of Work based learning is to gauge its impact upon practice in the workplace. Although there are relatively few studies in this area those which exist are positive. [59], [60]. The perceived benefits include improved personal performance and motivation but wider impacts on the organization vary according to the nature of the organization itself. Companies most likely to see organizational benefits are those where employees have greater autonomy. More process driven, mechanistic organizations by contrast allow little room for personal initiative and are therefore less able to capitalize on enhanced employee capabilities [61].


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Further reading[edit]

On the connection between globalization and the requirement for customized lifelong learning:

Field, J. (2006), "Lifelong learning and the new educational order", (2nd Ed.), Stoke on Trent, Trentham Books.

On workplace learning:

Illeris, K. (2011), "The fundamentals of workplace learning: how people learn in working life", London, Routledge; Malloch, M., Cairns, L. & O’Connor, B. (Eds.) (2011, "The SAGE handbook of workplace learning", London, Sage Publications.

On literature for workplace learning:

Costley, Carol; Abukari, Abdulai and Little , Brenda (2009), "Literature review of employee learning", York, The Higher Education Academy. (23.1013)

On vocational/ non- higher education Work based learning:

UNESCO/UNEVOC (2013), "Re-visiting global trends in TVET: reflections on theory and practice", Bonn, Germany. (23.10.13.)