The term ‘work-based learning’ logically refers to all and any learning that is situated in the workplace or arises directly out of workplace concerns.
The great majority of this learning is not accredited or otherwise formally recognised, although arguably much of it has the potential to be. It includes learning that takes place at work as a normal part of development and problem-solving, in response to specific work issues, as a result of workplace training or coaching, or to further work-related aspirations and interests.
It overlaps with, but is not the same as, experiential learning, continuing professional development, and what is sometimes referred to as informal or non-formal learning.
It is frequently unplanned, informal, retrospective and serendipitous, though it may also be planned and organised by the individual learner, the employer, or a third party such as an educational institution, professional or trade body, or trade union.
Much of this learning is outside the scope of what higher education institutions could reasonably be expected to engage with in that it is either at too low a level academically or it is ephemeral in nature, but there is still a substantial proportion that is concerned with higher-level skills and knowledge and with the development and use of broad, high-level capability that suggests that it has capacity to be recognised and enhanced through university involvement.
Research into learning at work such as that of Gear et al (1994), Eraut et al (2000, 2005), Felstead et al (2005) and Eraut & Hirsh (2007) suggests that the most effective and valuable learning for people in work is often that which occurs through the medium of work or is prompted in response to specific workplace issues, as opposed to formal training or off-job programmes.
While this kind of learning can be purely instrumental, it can also be highly developmental particularly when it is linked to a personally-valued purpose and engaged with critically and reflectively. Responding to this there is an ongoing trend within some universities to move into the “territory” of the workplace (Scott et al 2004) to enhance and accredit genuinely work-based, often individually-driven learning, as opposed to relying on extending more established approaches to education and training into work-based settings.
Work-based learning programmes generally require a different set of practices for learning facilitation and learner support than are appropriate to taught programmes or conventional research degrees (Stephenson et al 2006, Boud & Costley 2007). The role of the tutor often moves on the one hand from being a teacher to being both a facilitator and an expert resource, and on the other from supervisor to advisor or “academic consultant” (ibid).
The role of the work-based learning tutor can be varied and extensive, and experience from several British and Australian universities involved in work-based learning suggests that activities will include: helping learners to become active in identifying their needs and aspirations and managing the learning process (Graham et al 2006) acting as a process consultant (Stephenson 1998a) helping learners develop their abilities of critical reflection and enquiry (Graham et al 2006) helping learners identify and work with ethical issues (Graham & Rhodes 2007, Moore 2007) helping learners make effective use of workplace resources (Moore 2007) developing learners’ academic skills and helping them use them in the workplace (Rhodes & Shiel 2007) providing specialist expertise (Stephenson 1998a) inspiring and encouraging learners (Moore 2007).