Approaches to supervising work-based learning students’ workplace research

In recent years there has been increasing emphasis in UK Higher Education on learning relevant to the workplace. Programmes which regard the workplace as the object of study in its own right are still a relatively new undertaking. Supplanting instruction in subject discipline with learning from work experience in order to enhance practice has led to the development of distinctive pedagogic practices which until recently have received little attention from researchers. The term ‘Work Based Learning’ (WBL) is used to describe such programmes and associated pedagogic practices but the term is often used generically to describe a wide variety or employer related programmes or parts of programmes. McIver Nottingham (2012) provides the most comprehensive survey of such programmes in the UK. The sense in which WBL is used here follows Boud and Solomon’s (2001 pp. 4-7) definition which emphasises a whole curriculum where the negotiation of learning follows the needs of the workplace rather than a professional body or subject discipline and learning occurs principally in the workplace and is concerned with the practice of work.

A comprehensive review of ‘employee learning’ literature by Costley, Abukari and Little (2009) revealed a lack of empirical evidence on the varieties of pedagogical practice on WBL programmes. Subsequently the Higher Education Academy (HEA) funded a small research project to identify some of the varieties of practices which have developed in the field (Costley and Dikerdem 2011). The authors identify a number of programme and practices (such as in-house training, foundation degrees and work placements) commonly thought of as ‘work based’ but the emphasis in the research was consistent with the definition of WBL set out above. That is pedagogical approaches were studied where the curriculum is negotiated by the learner, who is in full time work, studying part time and where much of the learning occurs in the workplace. The research confirmed that a negotiated curriculum, tailored to learning needs does indeed create distinctive pedagogic practices. For example, tutors typically see themselves as trans-disciplinary facilitators of active, reflective learning rather than subject specialists and routinely use learning contracts and Recognition/ Accreditation

of Prior Learning. Costley and Dickerdem also claim to have identified a distinctive approach to the facilitation of workplace research projects although the precise ways in which such facilitation was distinctive are not clearly articulated. The present small study aims to extend their work by revealing more detail about practices in this area.

Despite the more flexible approach to curriculum design on WBL degree programmes most, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, contain the same a taught Research Methods module and a research project as might be found on a conventional degree. The terms on WBL programmes vary so that for example ‘Research Methods’ may become ‘Designing Practitioner Research’ and the term ‘Workplace Project’ substituted for ‘Dissertation’. Unlike a conventional dissertation WBL research projects usually require the student to carry out an investigation of immediate need in relation to workplace practice as the basis for action in the real world rather than an exploration within a defined subject boundary or theoretical framework. This can be an issue related to personal practice and behaviours, organisational issues or group practices. Such a project is likely to be theory aware rather than driven by formal theory.

Costley, Akubari and Little (2009 ibid) noted the relative lack of supporting texts for carrying out such projects so that WBL tutors have had to rely on texts such as Bell (2010), Jarvis (1999) and McNiff and Whitehead (2002) which although useful are clearly aimed at students on more conventional academic programmes completing dissertations. More recently academic practitioners in the field such as Fox, Martin and Green (2007), Costley, Elliott and Gibbs (2010) and Workman (2010) have produced texts specifically designed to meet the needs of WBL students conducting workplace enquiries as part of their formal study. In addition papers have appeared discussing some of the academic issues raised by such enquiries, notably the consequences of being an ‘insider researcher’ (Armsby and Costley 2000; Costley and Armsby 2007). Walsh (2011) has attempted to identify the distinctiveness of WBL research projects by contrasting differences from ethnographic studies- which might be regarded by some as similar to such work based practitioner enquiries. Walsh argues that not only are the two fundamentally different types of investigation since the former is concerned with the generation of formal social theory but there is also a difference with respect of methodology. Whereas an ethnographic study implies a certain methodology no such assumptions can be made in respect of appropriate methodology for WBL practitioner enquiries. Walsh argues that the choice of method is determined by the nature of the research question rather than any particular relationship with theory and drawing on the work of Berry (2006) and Steinberg (2006) uses the term ‘bricolage’ to describe the heterogeneous approach to using a wide variety of methods. Others such as Creswell (2003) and Plowright (2011) advocate the use of ‘mixed methods’ which despite the difference in terminology is similar in spirit.

The research on tutor practices to support research projects on WBL was initiated in part to help answer practical problems the authors were experiencing themselves and also to shed light on more general practices in the field. Although we were aware there are similarities in broad approach between different tutor teams we also knew there are points of difference as each WBL programme has evolved within a different organisational and cultural context to create a series of specific communities of practice (Leonard and Talbot 2009). Although the intention was to both describe practice and discuss problematic issues there was also an intention to create dialogue between overlapping communities of practice as a means for increasing learning about practice for participants. This paper therefore paints a picture of practice as it exists in a point of time and a formal mechanism for dialogue between communities of tutors, with the aim of sharing and improving practice.


Research objectives

The motivation to conduct the research arose from practical concerns by the authors who are both responsible for facilitating research projects for WBL students. Informal discussion with tutors in other institutions indicated an interest in this area of practice and a willingness to participate in a small project. A small research project was therefore set up to shed light on the varieties of practice and approach in leading WBL institutions to better inform practice therein and ultimately to facilitate student learning and performance.

The first research objective was simply to describe established practice in respect of the facilitation of research projects in the workplace on WBL programmes. The focus was therefore on how Research Methods is taught- mode of delivery, use of ICT, content (qualitative and quantitative), delivery at different levels, support for learning, resources available for analysis and so on.

A second objective was to discover whether the teaching of research methods for WBL students is distinct from conventional approaches, requiring separate delivery. A key difference between pedagogical approaches in WBL to traditional academic programmes is the emphasis upon pragmatic problem based enquiries designed to produce findings as the basis for practical actions, an approach which can be likened to Aristotle’s notion of praxis (Aristotle 1976). Elsewhere one of the authors has argued that the production of knowledge at the point of consumption as occurs on WBL programmes involves a different conception of knowledge from that underpinning more conventional academic programmes (Talbot 2012).

A third objective was to explore experiences in respect of the tutor-student relationship in practice based enquiries.  As previously noted WBL students are situated within the workplace not the University. They are described as ‘embedded’ and therefore subject to different opportunities and pressures from conventional students. There is an imbalance in knowledge between the student and tutor as it is the former who greater knowledge of the situation in which the investigation will occur (Workman 2007). Underpinning WBL programmes is a belief that knowledge is distributed beyond subject discipline and the academy. By their very nature WBL programmes transfer power to learners so that the relationship between tutor and student is different from that on conventional programmes (Talbot 2010). While this is usually unproblematic there are occasions when there are ideological differences between tutors and students such as rarely occur on conventional programmes where the authority of tutors is less likely to be challenged. The authors have experienced this kind of conflict where for example a student insists on using a ‘non-scientific’ framework for analysis such as Nuero-Linguistic-Programming (NLP).

A fourth objective was to identify the variety of research methods used in WBL research projects and their relationship with the object of study. In the authors’ experience many students exhibit a strong preference for qualitative methods, something which appears to be true on other WBL programmes (Costley and Armsby 2007). Beyond that there was little empirical evidence although we had reason to believe that there is extensive use of more traditional academic methods- case studies, questionnaires, semi- structured interviews and focus groups- rather than the myriad of other techniques potentially available. In particular methods such as options appraisal, quantitative methods, deliberative methods, forecasting methods and observation studies we thought might be under-used. The study therefore examined whether this is indeed the case.

The final objective was to explore the student experience, albeit as reported by participating tutors. This included specific issues such as the adequacy of tutor support, ability to access knowledge sources, ethical dilemmas in workplace research (such as confidentiality), and the relevance of textbooks.


Research design and findings

The research design was a simple two stage process with a questionnaire designed to establish base data and a follow up one day seminar to explore more qualitative issues in depth. The workshop was a day event attended by the respondents to the original questionnaire. The results of the questionnaire were presented as the basis to explore in greater depth the various identified themes in an informal setting. The event was videoed as the basis for later analysis. The analysis itself has not been conducted in any formal sense but comprises contemporaneous notes taken during and immediately after the workshop combined with viewing of the recording of the day with a separate set of notes taken. The results presented here combine the findings from the questionnaire with the subsequent Workshop discussion. The research can be described as collaborative in the sense that the originators of the research, the current authors, also participated in the questionnaire and workshop (Reason and Rowan 1981).

The first task was to try and identify every HE institution where the authors believed WBL is occurring and where therefore there is the potential for the teaching of Research Methods for WBL. At the time we did not have access to McIver Nottingham’s (2012) work and the only published survey of WBL practice (Nixon et al 2006) made no claims to being comprehensive. WBL programmes are not identified as a distinct category by the UK Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) so it is difficult to know exactly who is doing what. As a result an intelligence gathering exercise was conducted which involved drawing on tacit knowledge, scouring web sites and asking practitioners. There are difficulties in this because WBL does not always go under that name; very often it exists as a module on a conventional programme and is mostly confined to a single Faculty or School. Even though some of the identified institutions did not deliver WBL in the fullest sense the sample was defined as widely as possible in order to capture all potential programmes. In all twenty nine institutions where WBL is occurring in some form in the UK and Irish Republic were identified as potential participants.

In each case an academic tutor was identified who is either responsible for the overall leadership of the programme or has specific responsibilities for research within the programme. A questionnaire was sent electronically and followed up. Eight individuals responded out of 31 approached¹.  This is quite a disappointing response especially given the potential for participants to learn more about practice.  It is noticeable that respondents were all individuals known to the authors through regular informal contact at seminars, conferences and academic groupings. What the study inadvertently highlighted is that although WBL practice is probably more widespread than thought, it exists for the large part in quite isolated pockets. On the positive side those who responded included representatives from what we believe are the largest providers of WBL. It would seem that despite the widespread currency of the term, Work Based Learning is quite a small world.

The results are presented below, beginning in each case with those from the questionnaire survey, supplemented by findings from the Workshop. The numbers are small so there is no attempt to represent the findings graphically. The main outcome of the Workshop was to confirm the impression gained from the questionnaire- namely that WBL tutors recognise the distinctive academic challenges they face and that the similarities in approach developed by each institution outweighs the differences. WBL tutors believe strongly that student research projects should have the potential for practical application as far as is possible. Beyond that the Workshop suggested that any pedagogical differences between WBL tutors may be related to whether programmes are negotiated with individual learners or whether delivery is in cohorts.

¹ The discrepancy between the number of institutions (29) and the number of individuals (31) is because in some universities WBL operates independently in different Faculties

A distinctive approach to teaching Research methods?

The survey revealed that the majority of WBL tutors believe that the teaching of research methods demands a distinctive approach for WBL programmes. Six of the respondents deliver a Research Methods module specifically designed for WBL students.

The Workshop clearly demonstrated that WBL tutors accept the distinction between Mode 1 and Mode 2 knowledge (after Gibbons et al 1994). WBL projects broadly fall into the Mode 2 category while conventional student research projects/ dissertations are more likely to be Mode 1. This gives a different perspective from conventional student research projects not just in respect of the purpose of the research but in a number of other respects. For example any conventional research project, constructed within a Mode 1 paradigm is likely to conclude that the study is small scale, exploratory and more research is needed. Where students are conducting research projects in the workplace and the purpose is therefore to guide actions, saying more research is needed is not usually an option.

Working within a Mode 2 framework also implies a fundamentally different relationship with formal theory. Whereas a Mode 1 investigation is likely to occur within a formal theoretical framework or is an attempt to create building blocks in the creation of formal theory a Mode 2 investigation operates within a practitioner context which is best understood in terms of informal or espoused theories (Argyris and Schon 1974).  Focussing on practical problems does not mean the abandonment of formal theory but it is not the purpose of the investigation to contribute towards its development. Instead the purpose is provide the basis for solutions to practical problems.

The Workshop enabled those institutions delivering a generic rather than WBL oriented Research Methods module to explain why. It would appear they are not doing so out of choice. An important constraint is the ability of WBL tutors to deliver a tailored module as only five institutions did so using someone who normally works as a WBL tutor. So it seems likely that where resources permit, WBL tutors will attempt to tailor Research Methods.

As to the nature of projects which students are encouraged to participate in there is a variety of practice in respect of focus. Four institutions insist upon projects being ‘work based’- that is directly related to practice whereas another four also allow ‘work related’ projects where there is some relevance to practice which does not directly feed into practice. One institution allows projects which are unrelated to the workplace. All institutions will allow students to carry out projects which relate either to their personal learning needs or those of the organisation, while five require some sort of statement on the relevance of the project to workplace practice. One important finding, which demonstrates part of the distinctiveness of WBL learning is that no institution encourages students to conduct projects which are of purely personal interest (as opposed to personal learning need) so in this sense it can be said that whatever the differences in approach all recognise the centrality of application over the pursuit of personal curiosity- perhaps in contrast to the approach on conventional academic programmes.


Use of technology?

Some parts of the questionnaire related to the use of supporting technology. All of the participating universities use some form of face to face delivery mechanisms, whether it be lectures, workshops and tutorials. But as WBL students are by definition part time and their learning is situated within the workplace, the question arose as to how technology is used to supplement more traditional methods. The use of technology to support WBL is a topic worthy of wider investigation in its own right but suffice to say WBL research tutors appear to be active users of technology to support learning. The wider literature on the use of e-learning in UK universities supports the view that its use is heavily concentrated on part time, distance learning programmes for adults (White et al 2010). Unsurprisingly the most popular technologies are phone and online text based materials designed to supplement face to face delivery (both seven of the nine). Six of the nine use online learning in a different way- to provide comprehensive underpinning knowledge rather than as a supplementary resource. This suggests e-learning is used extensively both as part of a blended approach incorporating more traditional means of delivery and an essentially distance based mode where the principal delivery mechanism is electronic.

Other technologies appear less frequently used. Three of the nine use Skype or similar software which enable sound and vision in real time. There were also three users of podcasting but only two use multimedia materials such as short video clips, recordings of lectures and TV programmes and only one has used a social networking site. All of this suggests that where technology is used it is very much Web 1.0 technology rather than Web 2.0.


Exposure of range of methods to students?

Another set of questions asked respondents to list the research methods they ‘exposed’ to rather than ‘taught’ their students. Not everyone responded to this set of questions so there were only eight responses. One respondent said they determined the focus first and then the method- and the workshop confirmed the emphasis on problem definition prior to identification of method among other tutors.

There are some techniques all respondents expose their students to such as Case Studies and Systematic Review. The next most popular methods (seven out of eight) are Questionnaire Surveys whether descriptive, explanatory or evaluative, In-depth Interviews and critically reflective methods such as Triangulation and Quadrangulation. This was something of a surprise because these are extremely resource intensive methods and might be beyond the scope of a student to undertake them.

The next most popular method, mentioned by six respondents is Observation Studies. Five respondents mentioned methods associated with organisational performance such as Monitoring, Review, Evaluation and Impact Assessment. Five also mentioned personal learning methods such as Dialogue Journals, Learning Journals and Personal Action Logs. Five also reported exposing their students to Discourse Analysis and Problem Solving- using techniques such as Dilemma Analysis, Document Analysis, Brainstorming and so on.

Less popular are methods associated with establishing public preferences such as Opinion Polls, Contingent Valuation and Conjoint Analysis (four respondents); Deliberative and Participatory Methods and Forecasting Methods- both three out of eight. Least popular of all are the variety of methods associated with financial performance and Knowledge Management which were only mentioned by two respondents.

The Workshop revealed something important about the way Research Methods is taught on WBL programmes, missed by the questionnaire. That is such modules are typically used as the basis for a research project proposal rather than didactic instruction in methods, divorced from problem formulation and that while tutors have preferences for particular methods or perspectives they are open to the idea of students using a very wide range of methods. The practical nature of investigations appears to enable projects to use investigative methods drawn from a wide variety of epistemological traditions- and confirms Walsh’s (2011 ibid) observation of the appropriateness of bricolage.


Sources of information and analytic frameworks

Respondents were asked to identify where formal facilitation to specified sources of information occurs when preparing students for research projects. Again there were only eight respondents to this question. All refer their students to ‘academic books and journals’ and ‘internet search engines’ such as Google. In addition all respondents refer students to ‘Official statistics and government sources’. Fewer (six) refer students to educational Information Gateways such as Intute, Biz/ed and the specialised databases in education, health and many other fields. Five of the eight refer students to ‘Organisational data’- that is information held by employing organisations and other bodies such as professional associations, think tanks, trade bodies, Qangos and so on. This is slightly surprising since for many students engaged in WBL, the first port of call in respect of information might be expected to be within their own organisation. Additionally, only two respondents refer students to the possibility of ‘grey literature’- that is literature which is some way copyrighted, is not published for commercial gain but which is held to be of such value that it is likely to be held within library stocks (Schöpfel  and Farace 2010).

Respondents were also asked about formal facilitation in the use of various software packages to analyse data. As might be expected positive responses were lower here: four indicated they instruct students in the use of SPSS for quantitative data, whilst three mentioned Nu*dist, two Nvivo, one each for Atals/ti and a bespoke in-house programme for the analysis of qualitative data.

Discussion at the Workshop revealed differences as some tutors clearly feel these methods more appropriate for advanced levels of study, as part of doctoral study for example.


Validity, ethical and application issues

The final set of questions asked respondents to describe how they introduce students to notions of validity and ethics in research projects. Given the potential for ethical conflict in ‘insider research’ it is not surprising that all respondents said their students are required to formally consider ethical issues in carrying out workplace research. Subsequent discussion at the Workshop revealed it is common practice for proposals to be formally vetted to identify any potential ethical issues, often through a formally constituted Ethics Committee. Some institutions, wary of the ability of ethics committees to delay and frustrate projects, actively seek to avoid using them. Instead they rely upon tutors to identify any potential ethical issues by asking students to complete a short form. Although ethical dilemmas were discussed at the Workshop no tutor had experienced a project which involved a serious breach of ethics although there was some discussion of instances where tutors had identified the potential for an ethical breach and advised the student accordingly.

The responses in respect of validity were a little more surprising. Respondents were asked whether they sensitise students to issues in respect of construct validity, internal validity, external validity and reliability (Denscombe 2003). It might be expected that of these the most important are construct and internal validity. Construct validity is another way of ensuring the focus of the investigation is correctly framed by being fully informed by the state of existing knowledge. In other words the focus of the investigation should be cognisant of the state of knowledge in respect of the problem both in terms of what might be called ‘near knowledge’ such as is held within the organisation or among colleagues and more general knowledge- that which exists in the broader occupational grouping and other published sources. However three of the respondents do not formally address the issue of construct validity at all with students.

Similarly internal validity- the extent to which it is reasonable to infer particular variables cause particular outcomes, is also likely to be relevant and was reported as a matter discussed with students by seven of the eight. External validity- the extent to which findings are generaliseable is addressed by six out of eight and reliability – the extent to which findings are consistently replicable was addressed by all. This is surprising since internal validity and reliability are both less likely to be relevant in practice based enquiries.  By their nature such enquiries are heavily situated in place and time so the question of replication and generalisation are unlikely to be major considerations.

The final issue addressed was that of application of knowledge.  Seven of the nine respondents allow the submission of workplace artefacts as part fulfilment of the requirements for research projects. Four allow them to be used for the whole submission. Five of the nine require some sort of formal statement about the application of knowledge generated from the project and all expect there to be some kind of discussion about application.

To summarise: the questionnaire highlighted some differences in emphasis and approach but overall there is a broadly consistent approach which recognises that student research projects on work based learning programmes are different from those on conventional programmes. The most notable feature in comparison with convention academic programmes is the desire to see projects capable of generating change in working practices. These responses were amplified in the Workshop.


Further findings

The Workshop provided an opportunity to explore some of the issues which had instigated this project. Some variations in practice emerged between those institutions where WBL is tailored to individuals and those where cohorts are taught a set curriculum. Unsurprisingly the latter were more likely to use a more traditional, didactic, classroom based approach to teaching research methods, the former more likely to encourage autonomous learning and a less didactic approach.

The more individualised approach would also appear to result in a greater transfer of power from tutor to learner, as evidenced by the greater willingness of learners on such programmes to challenge the ideological assumptions of the tutor as to what constitutes legitimate knowledge. This is not a common occurrence but it appears not to happen at all on any of the cohort based, more didactically led programmes. It would also appear that individualised WBL programmes make more extensive use of the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL- also known as Recognition of Prior Experiential Learning) so that reported difficulties on such programmes – where students who have made large APEL claims find great difficulty in completing research methods modules and work based research projects- are not evident on cohort/ didactic/ curriculum approaches.

The workshop also enabled the articulation of particular institutional issues. For example one University has a large number of students working in a health context for whom the Faculty Ethics Committee has proved a major obstacle. As a result they have had to find creative ways of facilitating projects which do not attract the interest of the Ethics Committee, including some unusual module names. It is also clear that at some universities there is some resistance to the idea that knowledge should be defined by purpose rather than subject discipline and the attendant need to locate research within a formal theoretical framework rather than be entirely defined by the context of the workplace. This does not necessarily reflect the views of WBL tutors but rather their nervousness about perceptions elsewhere in the University where such an approach may be viewed as ‘dumbing down’.

The perceived lack of understanding in the rest of the university also affected the conduct of the workshop. Because WBL tutors feel distanced form the dominant frame of reference within universities whenever they get together in an informal setting there is both a palpable sense of relief and the opportunity to let off steam. Like Goffman’s ‘tricky, harassed little devils’ (Gouldner 1970) some WBL tutors feel obliged to pay lip service to dominant organisational norms while secretly engaging in something slightly different.



In keeping with the ethos of Work Based Learning the project was designed to deepen and enhance practice knowledge. Although small in scope the research has made a number of interesting findings and suggests future avenues for further investigation. The first finding is that there is a great deal of unanimity of purpose among tutors attempting to facilitate WBL research projects even if the approaches are slightly different. The study also highlights aspects of practice where there is the potential for improvement, such as the greater use of Web 2.0 technologies. One tutor at the Workshop reported a very positive experience in the use of the social networking site Ning, indicating the potential for wider application with WBL students, who by definition are also distance learners.

Some issues discussed in the literature and elsewhere did not figure highly in discussions and were not raised as issues by participants. These include ethical issues, which it seems are less of a problem than Ethics Committees and the potential conflict of interest for ‘embedded researchers’ – who may be compromised by commercial confidentiality or other conflicts of interest. Nor was the preference of students for qualitative research seen as problematic although this is a concern for the authors. One of the weaknesses of student investigations is how rarely they focus on costs- a key indicator in any workplace setting. It would appear student research projects elsewhere are similarly focussed on soft rather than hard data.

Beyond our concerns the study also highlights the gaps in knowledge about the nature and extent of practices in relation to the facilitation of learning in WBL. The present study has highlighted the potential difference between WBL programmes where students negotiate an individualised curriculum and those where learning is based around cohorts learning a set curriculum negotiated by an employer. It would also appear that some programmes are more focussed upon achieving practical outcomes than others and that the distinction between work based and work related learning may be blurred in practice.



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