Work based learning in continuing vocational and professional education

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Work based learning in continuing vocational and professional education

Paper for WACE 2003. (August 26-28) - First Draft
Dr. J.H.A.M. Onstenk


Work based learning is becoming more important in Dutch vocational education on all levels, from preparatory vocational education to professional higher education. In 2003 a conceptual and descriptive study on work based learning in vocational and higher education was commissioned by the Dutch national Education Council. The study (Onstenk, 2003) was based on an extensive literature and document analysis. Relevant theory, experiences and research results form Germany, England and Australia are included. Also recent policy documents, models and practical evaluations are evaluated. Traditionally, education is perceived as school based, formal learning. Vocational education, however, mostly is an organised mixture of inner- and outer school learning as well as a mixture of formal, non-formal and informal learning. The most important form of learning out of school in vocational education is learning in the workplace. That can be as part of the curriculum, but it can also be jobs or volunteer work. In the study the focus is on out-of-school learning as part of the vocational curriculum: learning op the workplace in traineeships, practical placements, apprenticeships, internships etc. Form, content and outcomes of learning are discussed, as well as the way connections between learning contents and places are established. The study focuses on important characteristics of learning situations in the work environment, that influence learning in the workplace. Also optimisation of conditions that promote learning on the workplace is discussed. The study deals with work based learning in the whole column of vocational education: vmbo (preparatory vocational education), secondary vocational education and professional higher education, as well as its role in transitions from one level to the next and in continuing vocational learning.

The paper gives some results from this study, focusing on characteristics of the work situation as a learning environment in vocational and higher education. What is work based learning and how can it contribute to the acquisition and development of competences in vocational education? Which characteristics of the work place are favourable or inhibitive for learning on the job? In which ways integration of learning in different contexts and different stages of vocational education in continuous processes of competence development is supported (or not). A model of the work place as a strong learning environment is presented, highlighting aspects like nature, content, complexity and variation of the work, communicative, organisational and material aspects of the work environment, guidance and coaching as well as the social position of the worker-student in the organisation.

Work based learning is in different ways included in vocational education on all levels, that is preparatory, secondary and higher, as well as on the vocational learning career in going from one level to the next in the so called ‘vocational educational column’ (beroepsonderwijskolom, Commissie Boekhoud, 2001). Different types of work based learning are evaluated (practice placements, dual learning, apprenticeship, learning-working trajectories). Recommendations for supporting, improving and assessing work based learning are given.

Work based learning and life long learning

Lifelong learning is an important policy issue in the OECD-countries (OECD, 1999), in the European Community (Memorandum, Lisbon 2000) as well as in Dutch policies (MOW, 1992; SER, 2002). Main objectives are defined as entrepreneurship, employability and active citizenship. Learning is defined as broader than just schooling, but also includes learning in a variety of context, like at home, on the internet, in important life situations, and in the workplace. The OECD (1999) mentions the opportunities of learning in a realistic context and learning through application as the strength of combining learning with working.

The Dutch Education Council, the main advisory board for the Dutch government in the field of education, has been an active contributor to this discussion. The study discussed in this paper is part of the preparation by the Education Council of a white paper on life long learning and the central role of the learner. This white paper is part of a series of white papers on life long learning. In 1998 a white paper was published under the title: ‘Lifelong learning and vocational education’. It was stated that vocational education should not only contribute to the development of occupational competencies, but also to competencies for learning, career (employability) and active citizenship. In 2002 another white paper dealt with ‘Learning in the knowledge society’. It was stressed the new concepts of learning as well as changing demands by society and economy asked for new contents, new places and new ways of organising learning. There should be more attention to non-formal and informal learning, and its connections to schooling. A series of interviews was made about the ways people learnt during their career in coping with changes and innovations.

Learning in the workplace

Learning in the workplace can be defined as active acquisition of work related competencies, where r

eal work problems are the learning object and the learning material and the

real work situation is the learning environment (Onstenk, 1997)

. This definition builds on a constructivist conception of learning, which, as put succinctly by Kirschner (2000) “holds that in order to learn, learning needs to be situated in problem solving in real-life contexts where the environment is rich in information and where there are no right answers (embedded knowledge). The tasks must be authentic and are best learnt through cognitive apprenticeship on the part of the learner in a rich environment. Meaning is negotiated through interactions with others where multiple perspectives on reality exist. Reflexivity is essential and must be nurtured. Finally, all of this is best (and possibly only) achieved when learning takes place in ill-structured domains”.

From this perspective the work place is seen as an authentic learning environment, which in a kind of reciprocal logic seems the best place to acquire competencies, which are needed to function in the modern workplace. Kessels et al. (2002) stress that competence development and knowledge construction involve reflection and abstraction from a series of concrete and personal situations (e.g. Simons, 2000; Van der Sanden et al. , 2002). “Exposed to the realistic and meaningful contexts in the workplace, students will have an easier time acquiring abstract and generalizable domain knowledge and meta cognitive skills than in a programme intended to impart abstract, theoretical knowledge through lecture courses”. . Kessels et al. (2002).

As vocational practices demand specific combinations of codified, situated and tacit knowledge, Guile and Griffiths (2001) propose connectivity as a pedagogic approach which educators could adopt in order to take explicit account of the relationship between theoretical and everyday knowledge and to mediate the different demands arising in the contexts of education and work. This model, which will be discussed below, is build on comparable ideas. Griffiths and Guile (2003) argue that, firstly, context (i.e. the historical organisation of curricula and work), and therefore the access provided in different contexts to artefacts and people, influences learning. This point is with regard to learning in workplace practice also elaborated by Billett (2002a), who analyses affordances of work situations. Secondly, they state that learning through work experience involves mediating the relationship between the different kinds of knowledge and experience developed in school and work (i.e. theoretical and everyday). This fits nicely with discussions on including situated and tacit knowledge in vocational education (Van der Sanden et al., 2002). Thirdly, opportunities to participate in forms of social practice, for example, using context-specific language to clarify understanding and resolve problems associated with different workplace ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) are central to learning through work experience. Fourthly, Griffiths and Guile (2003) stress the developmental perspective in the sense that work experience should assist learners and educators to create new knowledge and new educational and workplace practices.

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