|WLE Centre Background|
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Work-Based Learning: the concept
Explained byDr. David Guile
Background to Work-Based Learning
Work-basedlearning entered the higher education lexicon as a result of the work sponsoredby the Employment Department (ED) through the Enterprise in Higher Education Programme inthe late 1980s and early 1990s. The ED defined work-based learning as:
This definitionintroduced into higher education what was widely perceived at the time to be acontroversial idea namely that: ‘all work-based learning is valid andcreditworthy' and that its value could be assessed ‘in terms which allowed itto be integrated, and possibly accredited with academic programmes' (ED 1992).This was a clear departure from conventional higher education thinking and practice.In the main, universities had retained the tradition of separating theory andpractice and rarely offered accreditation for the latter within the structureof degree programmes (Barnett 1994).
In the early tomid 1990s, the debate about work-based learning in higher education was mainlycentred upon two themes. The first theme was concerned with the potential andlimitations of the National Council for Vocational Qualification's (NCVQ)concept of competence. The second theme concentrated on operational issues, inparticular, the development of appropriate methods for establishingcomparability and equivalence between academic and work-based learning. Oneoutcome of these debates was that some universities offered academicaccreditation for NVQ awards within their degree programmes while otheruniversities developed innovative work-based learning degree programmes inpartnerships with employers and professional associations (Winter and Maisch1996).
It becameapparent from the mid 1990s onwards that the original definitions of work-basedlearning were far too narrow to embrace either the diversity of the forms oflearning that occurred in the workplace or to address the complex relationshipbetween theory and practice that was a prime concern of professional andvocational education (Evans et al (2002). One notable development was aconcern to move away from the a-theoretical stance associated with the initialwork pioneered by the ED, and to identify theories that are best fittedthe search for better understandings of work-based learning. It is widelyaccepted that these are constructivist and socio-cultural theories. The mainattraction of these theories is that they emphasise the significance of thecontext and environment for learning.
Moreover, theimpact of social changes on all aspects of working life has also helped tosharpen attention on the value of work-based learning, especially with respectto supporting student employability as well as the fostering of lifelonglearning of those at work and hence their future employability.
Taken together,the academic debate about work-based learning, coupled with employers' andprofessional associations' growing interest in work-based learning, haveconsiderably broadened the way that work-based learning has been subsequentlydeveloped in the UK and globally in higher education (Boud and Soloman 2001).Increasingly, the concept of work-based learning has served as a frameworkwithin undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes to foster the combinationand interdependence of theoretical and practical learning.
Next Challenge for Work-basedLearning
Despite thewidespread interest in the academic community to inject a stronger theoreticalorientation into work-based learning, the form that work-based models havetaken (for an early example see, Guile and Young's (1996) 'connective'typology), there are theoretical and practical challenges with many of theapproaches adopted, even though they show considerable potential for firstunderstanding, and then improving, learning.
On the onehand, they recognise that the majority of workplace learning is informal and isbest understood through initially examining the relationship with practicalwork activities; the cultural and social relations of the workplace; and theexperience and social world of the participants. On the other, they highlightthat theory should not be seen as an abstraction from the world or in Schon'sfamous term ‘a high ground'. Rather theory is a way to help learners to gobeyond their immediate context and immediate understandings. In order to useresearch to effect improvements in learning, this conceptualisation needs to beclosely linked to the realities of contrasting and diverse workplaces.
What is missingis any sense of first, how the different strengths of these differentapproaches to work-based learning may intersect to produce betterunderstandings of the process of work-based learning relevant to educationprofessionals. Until this is known, it is difficult to enhance our understandingof the extent to which strategies to increase incentives to learn arethemselves situation-specific or generalisable. Second, what is also missing isany sense of the type of knowledge that is actually learnt in the workplace andits relationship to theoretical knowledge. Until this is known, it is difficultto move beyond the theory/practice divide.