• Work-based learning: enhancing learning across the curriculum

    Morag Harvey
    Open University

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: the student experience and learning, employability, skills development

    Tuesday 2 September 2008, 09.00-10.00 in Bayley

    The Centre for Outcomes-Based Education (COBE) at the Open University (OU) has been developing generic approaches to work-based learning for the last seven years.  New workplace frameworks have been developed with colleagues from across the curriculum and qualitative evaluation methods such as telephone interviews have been used to assess the outcomes of each new design.  In line with previous research (Bandura, 1977; Rogers & Freiberg, 1994) we have found that successful practitioners in the workplace rely on their social and cultural understanding of their local contexts to apply their knowledge in the most effective ways and in so doing recognise their self-efficacy. The performance of practitioners is therefore enhanced through their learning in the workplace (Argyris & Schõn, 1974).  Our workplace curriculum developments have sought to exploit the complex interactions between subject knowledge and behavioural knowledge so that higher education learning outcomes can be met through the individual's practice. 

    Learners in the workplace seek to find solutions to problems that arise by carrying out enquiry-based activities (Dewey, 1938). All types of practitioners, ranging from plumbers to lawyers, are faced with problems that they need to solve in order to carry out their professional tasks.  Knowledge created and applied through this type of activity is often unique to a particular work situation or context.  Thus it can be seen that such learning is as much to do with tacit knowledge as cognitive knowledge (Lindley & Wheeler, 2001) and requires an understanding of how things actually work rather than just relying on knowledge set out in any textbook.  Successful practitioners therefore need to demonstrate a full range of social, cultural and interpersonal skills in order to find the most effective solution for the problems they are facing (Sternberg & Horvath, 199).

    Based on the viewpoint that practice can provide the individual with a variety of opportunities to engage in enhanced learning experiences (Schõn, 1987) it can be argued that work-based learning should be viewed as more than a way to widen participation in higher education.  The complexities of creating and applying knowledge to solve problems in real situations need to be understood by engaging in practice rather than attending lectures or reading books.  Whilst higher education subject disciplines such as health and education already include practice as an important element of their learning pathways this is not true of all curriculum subjects.  It is acknowledged that those subjects that can be recognised as immediately relevant for a particular vocation or occupation are perhaps more readily applicable to providing students with practical experiences, however it is nonetheless conceivable that practice opportunities can be found for those undertaking subjects such as Literature or Mathematics.  It is therefore proposed that learning through practice should be given higher priority across curriculum developments so as to improve the student learning experience.