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Bridging Education and Work as Assessed by
Employers and Students

Johanna Lasonen

Institute for Educational Research
University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Background to Workplace Learning in the Bridge Project in Finnish Secondary Education

The framework of the workplace learning experiment was created in the plan for developing education and research for 1995 - 2000 by the Finnish Council of State, where reforms of vocational qualifications include workplace learning periods of at least six months in vocational upper secondary education. Traditional full-time school-based vocational education and training is no longer able to ensure the best possible preparation for working life or meet the demands of industry and commerce. The focus of educational policy is an endeavour to train young people for more learning-intensive work. This affects also the way in which curricula are reformed in order to promote more efficient workplace learning. The reform is driven by the following principles:

developing curricula with a better fit with working life;

making education and the requirements of work, competencies and qualifications with a better fit with each other;

making workplace learning in authentic learning environments a part of initial vocational education;

preventing youth unemployment and social exclusion; and

sharing the responsibility for and decision-making on the organisation of workplace learning between employers, training providers and educators.

In practice, workplace learning periods may be considerably longer than six months during three-year education. In addition to the required six months, students may also substitute, on the basis of certain criteria, practical work at workplaces for their optional and free-choice studies. Naturally, workplace learning is supported also by the training in practical work that vocational establishments give in their school enterprises, workshops, laboratory classes and in many other simulated environments.

The subject of this follow-up study is the Bridge From Vocational Education to Working Life or the 2+1 Experiment (Silta ammatillisesta koulutuksesta työelämään eli (2+1) kokeilu) (hereafter the Bridge project) being implemented all around Finland with the participation of some 10.000 people including, during a period extending from 1998 to 2001, students, teachers, workplace trainers and employers. The 1999 study covers 2.028 people, of which 1.051 answered the questionnaires. The project is funded by European Social Funds through the Finnish Ministry of Education.

The experiment is an attempt to facilitate students’ transition from education to working life and combine teaching in educational establishments and at workplaces. Considered as learning environments, workplaces and educational establishments are different settings, representing contrasting social hierarchies, norms, and action cultures. These two learning environments do not substitute for each other but instead they complement and enrich one another. Implementing workplace learning has meant not only the incorporation of workplace learning as an element of secondary education but also new challenges linked with the potential benefits for learning from collaboration between organisations, enterprises/workplaces and educational establishments. Some employees are trained as workplace trainers, thus gaining new enriching roles in their working environment. Apart from workplace trainers, students will be given guidance also by other employees and by the employers. In single-person enterprises all these roles will be the responsibility of the one person owning and running the enterprise.

Pedagogical Starting Points of Work-Based Learning

Making use of authentic learning environments and the real-life problems that they generate is linked with the quality of learning. Workplace learning periods combined with school-delivered instruction enable students to construct a picture of the reality of their occupational field as a totality that changes with time and according to place and situation.

Learning environments are shaped by the underlying ideas of the people and groups who design and implement them. The nature and quality of learning are influenced also by the motivation and inclinations of the learner. The starting points for designing learning environments may derive from the psychology of learning, organisational considerations, labour policies or combinations of some of these. What matters here is that the learning environments of educational establishments and workplaces be organised and constructed on the basis of a justifiable background philosophy.

Constructing learning environments for vocational education and training may be summed up in a number of principles (See Eraut, 1998).Thus, learning environments should

enable students, through an exploitation of real-life situations, to consciously apply their previous knowledge and to discover new things;

enable students to work and to rehearse their assignments together with experienced workers;

offer students challenging tasks;

transmit knowledge as something provisional rather than as final propositions that can only be accepted as such;

encourage students to consciously develop personal theories of learning;

encourage them to engage in internally rewarding and self-directed learning;

help learners to become aware of their thinking and learning strategies;

ensure students access to collaborative teams that will give them experiences of modelling and feedback and encourage them to reflection; and

train tutors who themselves provide students with examples of meeting, applying, defining and solving problems.

Those revising curricula to achieve a better fit with working life wish to avoid the traditional term "on-the-job training", substituting it with the word workplace learning. Fischer (1998) distinguishes between "having-experience" and "gaining-experience". According to Fischer, in "having-experience" "... someone has gained experience which proves useful in doing work. Experience corresponds here to the memory of images of the experienced object." "Gaining-experience", by contrast, involves the fact that "... practical interaction with the outer world as a basic part of gaining experience ... is linked to personal ways of living and acting, and therefore has a subjective aspect." Experience makes it possible to undertake an appropriate and necessary adaptation to reality, correlating knowledge with particular situations; this is what has been called situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Among the European Union countries, the most exclusively school-based vocational upper secondary education is provided in Finland, Sweden, Spain, Greece and Portugal in 1993-94 (Eurostat, 1997). The highest proportion of vocational training delivered solely or mainly at the workplace is to be found in Austria and the Netherlands, that of training combining the workplace and school in Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Germany. In Finland, both general and vocational secondary education has been delivered at school; the proportion of apprenticeship trainees has been in the range of a few per cent even if it is increasing all the time. In a few years’ time the practical work experience made possible by workplace learning will be available in all Finnish vocational establishments and study fields. Another target is an increase in the number of students in apprenticeship training, by the end of the millennium, to 10 per cent of those entering secondary vocational education.

Vocational Development as an Investment in Human Capital

Workplace learning sets goals to networks of local and national enterprises and educational establishments. The learning organisation is expanded and enriched as a concept. Organisations and their personnel do not engage in learning as individual units but through cooperation with another and different organisation. Networks of different organisations are another possible form of a learning network, which may come to serve as the source of motivation for a permanent and functioning network and the foundation of its continued existence. The model of a learning organisation put forward by Pedler, Burgoyne & Boydell (1991) presents 11 structural elements (eg internal flow of information, exchange of experiences, a flexible system of rewards, organised internal learning, and an atmosphere favourable to learning). Organisational learning has reached the adaptive level at the point where the learning process is able to successfully adjust to external conditions. Higher still is the level of learning involving the creation of something new, where certain structures are used to promote a positive learning atmosphere, applying new ways of action. At this level, the operations of a learning organisation become, to a degree, automatic and proactive. Management of learning begins with the recognition of core competencies, which depend on the line of business of the organisation and where the relative emphases placed on various competencies is linked with the organisation’s competition strategy. Each organisation defines various competence areas, such as task, result and output competencies, and knowledge, skills and attitudes. An essential aspect of making good use of competency is the individual’s willingness to use it for the good of the organisation; thus, competencies are linked with values and commitment.

Education is more and more closely bound up with the development of economic life, and human capital or individual competence is seen as one of the most important future factors of production. The outcomes that individuals, enterprises and society desire from education are not identical. Apart from a salary, individuals have also subjective, non-monetary expectations, employers wish to enhance the competitiveness of their enterprise, while society has objectives involving economic growth and the distribution of prosperity. Increased workplace learning will result in a better fit between education and working life and enhance the status of vocational education particularly among employers.

The reforms of secondary education in Finland were attempts to ensure abundant and many-sided educational opportunities, broad programmes and ready access to vocational further education. On the other hand, vocational education is acquired in one way or another later in life, which shows in practice that people do value it and that it is useful in working life. Accordingly, Kuusi (1996, 97) has argued that we should avoid making a sharp distinction between vocational education for young people and vocational education for adults because training needs are individual and because they are manifested in different ways at different stages of life. A consideration of choices between vocational and general upper secondary education reveals that in more than half the EU countries, the majority of young people are on vocational programmes (Lasonen & Parikka, 1999).

Youth Unemployment

Considered in a long term (1973-96), Finnish youth unemployment rates have been 2.4 times as high as those of adults (Oppilaitostilastot, 1998). Though Finland has towards the end of the 1990s managed to reduce its total unemployment rate to a figure close to the EU average (and to the same level as, for example, in France), youth unemployment remains a problem that can scarcely be fully solved by increasing the number of study places. In a situation where a third of the working-age population under 25 is without employment and where three fourths of them are looking for their first job, it is also the labour market, not only the educational system, that is not functioning properly. While in Finland nearly half those under 25 were without a job in the middle of the 1990s, in such countries as Austria and Germany, possessing well-established apprenticeship training systems, the corresponding figures were below 10 per cent, and amounted even in Sweden only to some 20 per cent. By international standards, in Finland young people stay long in education but often fail, even in vocational education, to acquire practical work experience of their intended occupation. The OECD has accordingly emphasised the importance of apprenticeship training to young people’s integration into the labour market.

In 1990, the average unemployment rate among those who had completed their studies in Finnish educational establishments within the five preceding years was as low as 7 per cent, after which there was a sharp rise until 1993, when 32 per cent of them were without jobs. Since then the figure has slowly gone down, falling to 24 per cent in 1996 (Työttömyys tutkinnon jälkeen, 1997).

Knowledge Society, Networking and Workplace-Based Learning

The knowledge society is often perceived as a transformation of the economic system where information becomes the most important factor of production. The knowledge society is defined by such features as real-time processes, a global reach and the quantitative growth of information, which simultaneously increases the amount of non-essential and erroneous information. It is assumed that there will be great changes in working life when production processes are reorganised, productivity increases and an ever greater proportion of work is done over information networks. In a knowledge society work is splintered across different partial markets; even individuals will see their jobs break up into many parts, into pieces of work done to many employers or clients. It is increasingly difficult to define clear-cut occupations; rather, we must think in terms of various areas of competence. Because an individual cannot be competent in all possible areas, networks offer themselves as a means of gathering together the expertise needed at any given time. The knowledge society promotes lifelong learning in many ways, for example as a combination of practical work and network-based studies relevant to it. Naturally, the future status of vocational education depends a great deal on how well formal education will be able to meet the challenges of the future and retain an important position in the knowledge society.

According to many visionaries, mass unemployment will become a permanent feature of society unless we find ways of sharing work. On the other hand, it is predicted that within just five years certain fields will be suffering from labour shortages. The necessity of taking jobs in low-income trades increases disparities of incomes and may even lead to a fall in demand for vocational education - even today the majority of those out of work in Finland have some vocational qualification, and their proportion will grow when the oldest age cohorts retire with low educational attainment. Growing income disparities mean growing differences also in the relative status of various occupations, which in practice most benefits higher education, this being the type of educational investment that will in the future bring individuals the greatest returns. The workforce will be expected to be yet more flexible, work will be more irregular, more a matter of a succession of short-term jobs, and incomes will vary over time. In addition to general qualifications shared by several occupations, people will also need special competencies, possibly in several fields, and demonstrating one’s qualifications through skills tests will become more common if employers consider them a reliable method of assessing occupational competence. Even though the educational system will continue to react slowly to the changes taking place, work-based learning, a system of vocational qualifications, and apprenticeship training will make vocational education better able to react to changes in and the needs of working life.

In the future learning will be seen as a continuous lifelong process where vocational education is an aspect of general education and vice versa. In practice this may, in historical terms, mean going back to the beginning, to an esteem for occupational skills stemming from individual qualities, with the status or lack of status of the education or training as such receding into the background.

From the individual’s point of view the status of vocational education is based on employment prospects and on being paid for doing a job, but also on competence and occupational skills, the preconditions of being able to even attempt to find a paying job in the first place. From an enterprise’s point of view vocational education is esteemed only if it produces competent employees that the enterprise is able to make good use of without long induction periods, considered expensive. Society values vocational education, in the same way as it values other types of education, for example because it promotes a positive image of the country and enhances its international competitiveness. In different countries, historical factors linked with levels of social development and the structure of industry and commerce and of the occupations as well as the particular emphases of educational policies affect significantly the position and status of vocational education.

Purposes and Procedures

The Bridge project, funded by the ESF (European Social Fund), was launched in August 1998 by the National Board of Education under the direction of the Ministry of Education. Previously a number of pilot projects on workplace learning had been started in various parts of Finland. The "2+1" mentioned in the context of the national experiment refers to a reform and extension of Finnish two-year vocational programmes to three years. The purpose of the reform is enhancing vocational students’ qualifications for further studies and their readiness to enter the labour market. The additional year will be used for workplace learning. Besides quantitative expansion the main focus of the reform of vocational qualifications is developing curricula and promoting local-level collaboration. The rationale behind this deepening and broadening of the contents of vocational qualifications derives from the idea of authentic learning, that is, learning at the workplace. The qualifications will be reformed by 2001.

The national follow-up study of the Bridge project started in February 1999. The purpose of the first half-year follow-up study was answering two questions:

(1) What are workplaces like as learning environments in the opinion of employers and students?

(2) What are enterprises and educational establishments learning from their collaboration?

The present interim report of the follow-up study concentrates on presenting, by means of descriptive frequencies, the results of a survey carried out in the first half of 1999. The workplace learners serving as the target group are students who completed their workplace learning period in the school year 1998-1999 together with their employers in enterprises or in workplaces owned by federations of municipalities. The focus of these interim results of the first half year are analyses of surveys conducted among students and the employers. The results of the surveys among the last two groups will be analysed more closely at the end of this year.

The first year’s follow-up materials were collected by questionnaires in March-April 1999. The employers and students were given a structured questionnaire while the workplace trainers and teachers answered open-ended questions. The target group of the follow-up study consists of teachers and students from 46 vocational education establishments representing all seven vocational study fields that in the school year 1998-1999 took part in the Bridge project together with the workplace trainers who supervised the students and the employers whose enterprises served as their learning environments. The respondents comprised four target groups: students, teachers, workplace trainers and employers/managers.

This interim report gathers together the materials collected from the students or workplace learners and their employers/managers. These are distributed across the different sectors of vocational education and training, including natural resources; technology and transport; travel, catering and hospitality; commerce and administration; social and health services; leisure and sports-related activities; and culture.

The questionnaires sent to the employers and students were mainly structured. The reliability of the questionnaires was tested using the Cronbach’s alpha index. Cronbach’s alphas calculated for the structured question batteries (22,24,25,26,44) aimed at the students, measuring chiefly their assessments of the success of their workplace learning period and its effects on their learning and life situation, ranged between .78 and .93. Measured with Cronbach’s alpha, the reliability indices of the question batteries (13,14,25,26) of the employer’s questionnaire ranged between .66 and .88.

Enterprises as Learning Environments

The enterprises have been analysed as learning environments in terms of the background data on the employers, the characteristics of the enterprises/workplaces, the forms of collaboration between the vocational education establishments and the enterprises, and the enterprises’ criteria for selecting new employees. The analysis approaches the subject from three directions: (1) the background data on the employers, casting light on their function as role models to the students; (2) the employers’ own assessments of their enterprises as learning environments; and (3) their attitudes towards collaboration with the educational establishments. This section considers the enterprises and workplaces as they are seen by the employers/managers and students as learning environments.

Background Data on the Employers/Managers

A little more than half (51.5%) the employers participating in the Bridge project were women. Most employers were middle-aged; 7 out of 10 were between 36 and 56 years of age. Most had children of their own so that they were not unfamiliar with the task of bringing up the next generation. As regards basic education, 19.9% have received theirs in elementary school, and the rest in upper secondary education. Most (63.1%) had post-secondary or tertiary-level qualifications.

Technology and transport was the largest study field represented among the respondents (32.8%), with commerce and administration as the next largest field (12.9%). Nearly 9 out of 10 employers have more than ten years’ work experience. The majority of the companies (46.5%) are service enterprises; 2 out of 10 (20.7%) are industrial firms while the same proportion are public-sector enterprises. Nearly a third of the enterprises had been operating for more than ten years. Of the employers who answered the questionnaire, 7 out of 10 told that they were owner-entrepreneurs.

Characteristics of the Enterprises/Workplaces

A third of the enterprises had a staff of 1-3 people, and only 20.7% of the enterprises had a staff of more than 51 persons. Limited company was the favoured company form. Business name was the company form of 1 out of 10 enterprises. Turnover varied from a few hundred thousand to hundreds of millions of FIM. Specialisation, customer service, versatility and the staff were mentioned as the enterprises’ strengths.

It was essential from the point of view of ensuring young people’s employment to know whether the workplaces are able to take on new employees in the near future and whether they in fact plan to do so. Most enterprises (73.4%) participating in the experiment are able to take on people within the next five years.

The Employers’ Views of Their Enterprises as Learning Environments

The employers were asked how many workplace learners they had had within the last year. Most enterprises (40.7%) had had only one student; 27.4 per cent had had 2-3 workplace learners, 19.8 per cent 4-10 workplace learners while 7.9 per cent provided more than 10 students with a workplace learning experience.

As learning environments the enterprises were described using the following statements. The percentages given for each statement indicate the positive dimension of the responses to the statement:

the business idea includes developing cooperation with educational establishments (54.4%)

there are plenty of training and learning opportunities (73%)

all employees have opportunities to learn (72.6%)

calling old practices into question; (43.1%)

using feedback from different parties as a resource (78.7%)

encouraging employees to make suggestions (74.4%)

the management’s confidence in the personnel (91.3%)

encouraging the employees to learn (81.7%)

shared learning from problems (80.5%)

developing collaboration skills (85.1%)

making decisions as teams (61.4%)

the superiors orient the students to the workplace (78.7%)

discussing study programmes together (63.5%)

assessing student performance (75.5%)

individual guidance of the students (43.4%)

gathering feedback from the students (47.3%)

the students’ enthusiasm (78.8%)

regular collaboration with the teachers (63.1%)

the educational establishments and the enterprises learn from each other (55.1%)

the trainer orientates the students to their assignments etc (85.9%)

the employees eager to guide the students (70.5%)

the employees feel responsible for the students’ learning (68.4%)

the employees informed about guidance given to workplace learners (78.9%)

The employers wished to see their enterprise as a positive learning environment.

Cooperation Between the Enterprises/Workplaces and the Educational Establishments

Cooperation with the educational establishments was perceived to bring more benefits than disadvantages. The employers stated that collaboration benefits above all the enterprises, a view supported by the actual interaction between the parties. On the other hand, collaboration in the form of workplace learning was also said to take up resources. As methods to maintain networks between educational establishments and enterprises the employers suggested communication, training and developmental meetings, and ensuring resources and continuity. The enterprises collaborate with the educational establishments on organising workplace learning periods, final study assignments and diploma works, and personnel exchanges. A willingness to promote collaboration with and organise workplace learning together with educational establishments was expressed by 68.5 per cent of the employers. Three fourths of the managers claimed that they have a commitment to workplace learning also in the future.

The investigation shows the extent to which links between education and working life are implemented in practice. The following percentages indicate how many employers gave a positive response or characterised a statement as "highly accurate":

the enterprise’s expertise has been used as a resource in the educational establishments (26.9%);

the teachers maintain adequate links with the enterprise (50.2%);

the workplace and educational establishments plan their collaboration together (36.1%);

the enterprises have representatives in the management teams of the educational establishments (9.9%);

the teachers have a contribution to make to the enterprises (34.8%);

the enterprise consults with the educational establishment (11.6%).

The responses show that there is room for improvement in forms of collaboration.

Criteria for Selecting New Employees and Characteristics Required at Work

Workplace learners’ studies in the enterprises were seen above all as a way of training students and orienting new employees. The employers place most weight on a student’s positive attitude, initiative and personal qualities. A further quality mentioned as more important than previous work experience were interaction and negotiation skills. As seen by the employers, the most important qualities needed at work were practical field-specific skills, independent problem-solving skills, readiness to constantly develop one’s own competence, willingness and ability to collaborate, self-confidence, faith in one’s own occupational skills and knowledge and mastery of one’s own life.

The Workplace Learners’ Assessments of the Enterprises as Learning Environments

This section discusses the background data on the students, their study performance, career development and plans, how active the students are as job seekers, and their assessments of how their workplace learning periods were organised and opinions about how they should be organised. The workplace learners studied in a total of 40 enterprises. They completed 28 different qualifications in their educational establishments.

Background Data on the Workplace Learners

Of the students who returned the questionnaire 206 were girls (48%) and 220 boys (51.6%). Most were aged between 17 and 19 (34.3%) while 33.1 per cent were aged 20-21, 24.2 per cent aged 22-25 and 8.2 per cent were over 26. About 1 out of 10 were over 25. More than half the workplace learners (56.8%) already have a vocational certificate. A little more than a half (52.3%) intended to look for a job in their home area and a third somewhere else than where they were studying or had their home.

On the basis of their last certificate, 69.5 per cent of the students claimed that they were giving a good average work performance. They also have faith in their study success: 95.1 per cent thought that they are doing well or do well if they make an effort. Only 1.9 per cent answered that they were doing badly.

The workplace learners were also asked about the strengths of studying in the Bridge project. Teamwork assignments were considered strengths by 42 per cent of the students, followed, in order of preference, by independent assignments (35.9%) and individual modules or subjects (29.8%).

A good third of the students had by the point of answering the questionnaire accumulated half a year’s work experience at most, while 15 per cent had work experience ranging between half a year and a year and 13.4 per cent had worked for 1-3 years. More than half the students (53.1%) had already been out of work, a good third (38%) of them for a little less than a year or for a year. Most of the students (58.5%) intended to look for a job after completing their present studies while 11.7 per cent planned to study at an AMK institution and 10.3 per cent to combine work and studying.

How Active Are Workplace Learners as Job Seekers?

Most of the students who took part in the survey completed their studies in May-June 1999. By April 57.5 per cent had been looking for a job, 15.3 per cent monthly and 4.2 per cent weekly, while 38.7 per cent had not yet made any attempt to find employment. Of those workplace learners who had attempted to find a job 39 per had asked for one at the places where they were doing their practical training or studying, 2 out of 10 at the employment office. Jobs had been offered to 42 per cent of the students, but only about a half of the offers were, according to the students, in keeping with their training. Only about 1 out of 10 had turned down a job offer. Nearly half the students (48.3%) has considered setting up an enterprise of their own, been entrepreneurs or saw it as a stopgap. Correspondingly, nearly half of them (49.8%) had not given thought to setting up an enterprise. When the workplace learners were asked about the strengths they used in selling themselves to an employer, those mentioned most often were sociability, reliability, competence or occupational skills, and industry. Next came initiative and the ability to learn. A small proportion of the students did not perceive themselves as possessing any strengths at all.

The Workplace Learners’ Personal Expectations and Targets

The students were given the task of placing various things linked with the targets set to the workplace learning period into an order of importance. They considered it very important that

their assignments are varying (94.6%);

they are given responsibility (87.7%);

they learn to perform new tasks (96.5%);

they are able to perform their duties well (96.9%);

they are trusted and they are able to trust others (96.7%);

they are treated as equal members of the work community (97%);

they are treated fairly at the workplace (95.8%);

agreed-on rules and norms are observed (95.1%);

safety and health are assured at the workplace (96.3%);

they are allowed to perform their assignments independently (90.6%);

they are able to apply what they know (88.3%);

they can rehearse what they have learned (83.6%);

they learn to know new people (79.1%);

implementing the workplace learning period at a single workplace (38%) and at several workplaces (48.7%).

Being able to apply what one knows and rehearse what one has learned and learning to know new people were considered fairly important things. Nearly half the students thought it important that they have the option to do their practical training at several workplaces. Some 2 out of 10 students prefer to receive their practical training at a single workplace.

According to the students, studying in the Bridge project had affected most profoundly their ability to understand and accept different people and, naturally, the growth of their occupational skills. Advancing one’s career and enhanced self-confidence were also mentioned as the most positive outcomes of workplace learning. Opinions about its effect on taking up entrepreneurship were sharply divided: 45.5 per cent of the students thought it had had a negative effect while 44.8 per cent saw its effect as positive.

The students were asked how far certain factors affected the ways in which their career or study goals and plans change. They put their own abilities and skills, changes in their own thinking, and the labour market situation forward as the most important factors. Feelings and fears of failure were stated by 14.6 per cent of the workplace learners to exert a great deal of influence on changes in their targets and plans.

More than half the students stated that their employment (66.7%) and further study (51.6%) plans were unclear. Many of them saw their experiences from the Bridge project as very positive even if they found some flaws in its implementation.

Organising Workplace Learning Periods

All those involved in workplace learning have emphasised the scheduling of workplace learning and the orientation of students to the workplace. The students were asked who took part in their orientation, whether they had a choice between several workplaces, which things were discussed during their orientation, how long did it take them to become familiar with the workplace, how long workplace learning periods should be, as well as about study visits, their final study assignment and the scheduling of workplace learning.

More than half the students (53.5%) had a choice between several workplaces for the setting of their workplace learning. They selected a workplace on the basis of personal interests, good location and challenging assignments. According to the students, they were most often oriented to the workplace by employees and workplace trainers, followed, in the order of frequency, first by the superior and then by the teacher. Of all the answers 6.1 per cent indicated that no workplace orientation had been provided. The following things were mentioned by the students most often as having been discussed during orientation:

line of business and objectives of the workplace;

the collective agreement regulating the field;

the students’ duties;

industrial safety instructions and regulations;

the goals of workplace learning and assessment principles;

the workplace learning contract,

linking the students’ personal study programme with workplace learning,

implementing self-assessment;

confidentiality at the workplace;

the students’ rights;

planning assignments;

strengths and future plans of the workplace,


A good quarter (27.2%) of the students think that one week is enough to become familiar with a workplace while a third (35.2%) considers two weeks a suitable period. According to 105 workplace learners (24.6%), learning how things work at the workplace takes 3-4 weeks while 33 students consider that it would take more than a month. In the more service-intensive fields two weeks are mentioned more often than one week as the time required for finding out how things work.

The length of the workplace learning period is an important issue particularly to the learners and the employers. When they were asked about the suitable length of a workplace learning period spent in the same workplace, 199 students (46.7%) mentioned 1-2 months while 2 out of 10 considered 3-4 months appropriate. Some students (79 in number) would like to stay even longer (5 months or more) at the same workplace.

As regards the scheduling of workplace learning periods, either the week (23.2%), the month (13.4%) or the term (52.1%) was divided into learning at the educational establishments and at the workplace. The greater part of the week, month or term was spent at workplaces. The "theory periods" were taught at the educational establishments between the workplace learning periods.

More than half the students (53.5%) had all of their workplace learning period at a single workplace, 21.4 per cent at two and 17.5 per cent at 3-4 workplaces. Eleven students (2.6%) claimed to have worked at five or more workplaces.

On being asked about the instruments used in monitoring workplace learning and in formative assessment the students reported that they had used particularly learning diaries and talks with the workplace supervisor. Reflection, self-evaluation forms and portfolios were also mentioned.

The Workplaces as Learning Environments

The students were asked to judge, on the basis of their own first-hand experience, what they had felt that they learned best at the workplace and at the educational establishment respectively. They thought that at the workplace they had best learned field-specific occupational contents, technical skills, using tools, decision-making in authentic environments, and combining theory and practice. According to the students, the things learned best in educational establishments were the theory of an occupational field, basic knowledge and concepts and, in real-life-oriented exercises, the rationale for action. As regards the benefits of workplace learning, the students mentioned such aspects of work as mastering the rhythm of working, learning to work under pressure, learning the approaches and methods used and gaining more self-confidence and assurance. While the workplaces provided an opportunity to learn situation-specific dimensions of the work by experience, the educational establishments enabled the students to gain a broader understanding of their future occupation (eg ergonomics, the social function of the occupation in question, chemistry, physics and aesthetics). The workplaces were considered the best places for learning sociability, gaining an overall grasp of various aspects of the occupation, learning to think and learning the customs and rules of the work community.

Generally speaking, the students described their experiences and learning outcomes at the workplaces as positive. Nearly three fourths (74.2%) of the workplace learners perceived the atmosphere at their workplace as positive and encouraging. Only eight students (1.8%) characterised the atmosphere as negative. Every second student encountered no difficulties during their workplace learning period. Every second student mentioned several difficulties encountered by them, stated to stem from

inadequate guidance and counselling;

deficiencies in the students’ own abilities;

the failure of contact teaching periods at the educational establishment to interest them;

the failure of studying to interest them;

difficulties with their friends or family;

inadequate basic studies.

A few students perceive the workplace as such as not the best possible setting for work-based learning. Therefore, it might be necessary to consider different choices of workplace settings.

The students assessed the workplaces where they studied on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Most of the students, 52.3 per cent, gave their workplace grade 4, 18.5 per cent the highest grade 5; together these two groups accounted for 70.8 per cent of all the students. The intermediate grade, 3, was suggested by 96 students (22.5%). Only 15 students (3.5%) awarded their workplace one or other of the two lowest grades. More than three fourths of the students considered that

they were given an opportunity to assume responsibility for task complexes (87.6%);

they were given encouraging feedback on their work (83.1%);

they were able to make use of their abilities and skills during their workplace learning period (83.3%);

their assignments developed their thinking (83.3%);

the work their performed in the enterprises included a variety of assignments (82.9%);

the permanent employees appreciated workplace learners (83.1%);

they felt equal members of the team (76.7%).

However of the students 157 (36.8%) maintained that they were unable to influence decisions about their own work and working environment, while 259 (60.8%) were of the opposite opinion.

The students were asked to judge a list of items in order to find out how much of the collaboration linked with workplace learning actually took place, to what extent fellow students exchanged and compared experiences, how much the students received guidance and feedback, how personal study programmes were implemented, how smooth was the flow of information, and how successfully expectations were met. All down the line, the assessments fall into the highest positive quartile. However, the students wanted more detailed information about the educational benefits and financial aid for students available to them during their workplace learning period. They also wished that the contact teaching periods delivered at the educational establishments would be efficient in the sense of there being an adequately frequent provision of such periods suitably scheduled for the intervals between the workplace learning periods and that contact teaching periods would enable a systematic discussion on and exchange of experiences from workplace learning.

The students also expressed their opinion about the extent to which they had, during the Bridge project, acquired occupational, core and other skills. The students claimed that their best learning achievements involved the acquisition of collaboration skills and initiative, independent thinking skills and self-confidence, field-specific practices and resources for the continuous development of one’s own occupational skills, independent problem-solving skills, using information sources, the skills required in evaluating one’s own work, planning skills, foundations for valuing one’s own occupational field and the basic values of life management. The students felt that they had been least successful in achieving the skills required for handling matters using a foreign language (53.5%) and for setting up an enterprise of one’s own (47.5%). Next came writing skills and a knowledge base for further studies. The workplaces were claimed to have been the best settings for learning basic field-specific skills, sociability, the higher occupational skills and assurance and self-confidence.


The current vocational education system rather emphasizes contextual learning methods than abstract ones. Workplace-related learning projects or youth apprenticeship programmes or bridging between school and work programmes are designed to situate learning in the workplace so as to provide students with contextual, meaningful and relevant use of knowledge. Learning may occur in a community of experienced practitioners in an efforts to situate learning in the context of its utilization. The study is a part of the pilot research on the Finnish experiment of workplace learning in initial vocational education titled Bridge from Vocational Education to Working Life (2+1 experiment). The target groups of the pilot research consist of students, employers, trainers and teachers. This study reports the tentative results of the students’ and employers’ responses. The study aimed to survey companies and workplaces what they are like as learning environments in the opinions of employers and students.

The workplaces and companies participating in the study mostly represented service areas. One fifth of them represented public sector workplaces. Almost a half of the companies had a staff of less than 50 persons. The employers working with students mostly had post-secondary education and their own children. The employers assessed quite positively their companies as learning environments. However, the companies differed from each other in responses to regular collaboration with teachers, and to what extent students received individual tutoring. Employers were also hesitate in their opinions to what extent the educational establishments and enterprises learned from each other. Nevertheless, the employers stated that the collaboration related to workplace learning benefited above all the enterprises although it took up resources. Employers also expected more regular communication with teachers and suggested to ensure resources and continuity for workplace learning. Most of employers wanted to commit themselves to workplace learning in the future. The study also showed that there are quite a few actual forms of collaboration between enterprises and schools outside workplace training.

The students, workplace learners, studied in a total of 40 enterprises. About 50% of them were under twenty-years old and about 90% under twenty-five years old. Little more than a half of the workplace learners had already experiences of unemployment.

In students’ opinion studying in workplaces had affected most profoundly their ability to understand and accept different people and naturally, the growth of their occupational skills, problem solving and decision making skills in autenthic situations, mastering the rhythm of job, learn to work under pressure, gaining more self-confidence, learning different approaches and methods and integrating theory and practise at workplace. Advancing one’s career and enhanced self-esteem were frequently mentioned the most positive outcomes of workplace learning. More than half of the students stated that their employment and further study plans were unclear.

The students describe their experiences and the atmosphere at the workplaces as positive and encouraging. However, the students considered that the periods to teach theory at schools might be more effective and better support workplace learning. They also expected opportunities to systematically exchange their experiences with other students and teachers. The students felt that they had been least successful in achieving the skills required for handling matters using a foreign language, for setting up an enterprise of one’s own, writing skills and a knowledge base for further studies.

While the workplaces provided an opportunity to learn situation-specific dimensions of the work by experience, the educational establishments enabled the students to gain a broader understanding of their future occupation (eg ergonomics, the social function of the occupation in question, chemistry, physics and aesthetics). The workplaces were considered the best places for learning sociability, gaining an overall grasp of various aspects of the occupation, learning to think and learning the customs and rules of the work community.

The results of this pilot study, where the respondents were not randomly selected, showed that the employers believed that their companies were relevant learning environments. The students found learning in workplaces relevant and positive. However, workplace-based training will also challenge work-based learning provided at schools.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 23 September 1999