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Work-based Learning and ICT

Work-based Learning, Action Learning and

the Virtual Paradigm

David Gray

University of Surrey

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


This paper examines the various definitions of what is known as work-based learning (WBL), and distinguishes WBL from traditional forms of classroom teaching. Two important elements of WBL, action learning and virtual learning and analysed for the contributions they can offer to learning in the workplace. A case study concerning a themed-MBA programme with a major UK company is used to illustrate how action and virtual learning can be dynamically combined.

What is work-based learning?

In recent years, work-based learning has figured in UK government policy debates as a significant element of continuing professional development and lifelong learning. One result has been that higher education institutions have been encouraged to use the mechanisms available to them to give priority to widening participation, enabling adult students to benefit from HE opportunities within institutions including through work based learning. Dearing (1997), for example, discusses the need for part-time modes of continuing professional development, and for courses carried out in collaboration with employers. At a pragmatic level, the delivery of learning into the workplace (much of it via the Internet) will be one manifestation of the University for Industry, to be launched in the UK in the year 2000.

There is still some confusion, however, as to what exactly constitutes learning in the workplace. In terms of work-based learning that is formally assessed and accredited, Ebbutt (1996) suggests a classification scheme constituting four modes:

Work-based Learning as Access or Accelerated Access, achieved mainly through the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL). Here, learners’ experience is recognised by an institution of higher education, either to gain access to that institution, or as a means of gaining credit and remission from parts of a programme.

Work-based Learning as Initial Professional Preparation, where full-time students gain access to learning in an industrial, commercial or service workplace as an element of their degree programme.

Work-based Learning as General Preparation for the ‘Real World’, where a minority, but increasing number, of degree courses incorporate the development of core or transferable skills such as numeracy, communication, and problem-solving to prepare students for the world of work.

Work-based Learning as the major constituent of a programme of study, where students are full-time employees, and most of the research-based fieldwork is carried out in the student’s own workplace. The student group meets regularly with university tutors to discuss research methodology, share problems and develop thinking.

Work-based learning as Access (and especially through APEL) is a feature not only in its own right, but also as part of the other main modes.

Raelin (2000) argues that work-based learning can be distinguished from traditional classroom learning is a number of important ways. Firstly, work-based learning is centred around reflection on work practices; it is not merely a question of acquiring a set of technical skills, but a case of reviewing and learning from experience. Secondly, work-based learning views learning as arising from action and problem solving within a working environment, and thus is centred around live projects and challenges to individuals and organisations. Work-based learning also sees the creation of knowledge as a shared and collective activity, one in which people discuss ideas, and share problems and solutions. Finally, work-based learning requires not only the acquisition of new knowledge but the acquisition of meta-competence – learning to learn.

Many companies have been eager to embrace WBL, not particularly because of its connections with lifelong learning, but because it is seen as an important component of what Senge (1990) has termed the ‘learning organisation’. A learning organisation is an institution in which the learning and talent of individuals is encouraged and promoted so that the organisation itself can begin to shape its future.

Eraut et al (1998), however, argue that, what they term workplace learning, is a largely hidden element of lifelong learning and one which has not been accorded the eminence it deserves in policy documents. They argue that formal learning in the workplace (the main focus of UK government policy) provides only a small part of what is learned at work. Most learning that arises is not planned and is non-formal, resulting from the challenge of the work itself and from interactions with people in the workplace. Achieving the goals of work requires new learning that is achieved by a combination of thinking, experimentation and dialogue with other people. Sometimes, however, this approach is recognised as inadequate and other opportunities for learning are sought out, which may include self-directed learning or formal learning or training. Even the latter, though, requires supplementation by experience at work and interaction with other people.

This learning from others is sometimes facilitated by organised support such as mentoring, shadowing or coaching. But the most common form of learning from others takes place through forms of collaboration and consultation within working groups. This may include teamwork and observing others performing a task. The research of Eraut et al (1998) also found that people learnt through seeking help and advice beyond the immediate work environment from people within their own organisation, from customers and suppliers and from wider professional networks.

Work-based learning, then, operates at both formal and non-formal levels within the workplace, and when non-formal, often relies on networks and interactions with people both within and outside the organisation to facilitate new learning. The learning itself is often goal and work orientated. It is also often problem-centred and involves experimentation and trying things out. It may require both personal reflection on the outcomes and dialogue and feedback from others including colleagues and managers. It may include the taking of formally accredited programmes of study at an institution of higher education, and may use APEL as an accreditation and learning vehicle. Many elements just described have been formalised into what has become known as Action Learning which may be utilised informally amongst interested work groups to facilitate learning and tackle problems, or as part of a formal, learning programme, perhaps delivered and accredited by a university.

Action learning

Action learning has been defined by Revans (1982), its original champion, as "a social process: people learn from and with each other, and a learning community comes into being". More recently, it has been described by Weinstein (1995) as

..a process underpinning a belief in individual potential: a way of learning from our actions, and from what happens to us, and around us, by taking the time to question, understand and reflect, to gain insights, and consider how to act in future. (Weinstein, 1995, p.3)

Thus, participants on a work-based learning programme will, typically, focus on work-based problems and issues which could involve their own managerial and personal development, the management of staff or teams, communication, or the management of change. In essence, learning is inductive. The learner starts with a problem, examines it from as many angles as possible, builds conceptual models and solutions, implements them and evaluates the impact.

Action learning was originally identified as a style of learning most suitable for the development of managers in organisations because it

  • addresses directly the problems and issues of organisations

  • goes beyond simulation or case study work

  • allows the participants to engage on real work issues, to determine and describe real problems and positive factors, and

  • demands that intellectual and practical knowledge and skills be combined to ‘solve’ problems

Most significantly, action learning as a concept relies on the understanding that the emphasis of the activity is about the learning that arises from the process rather than (though inextricably linked to) the solution to an actual problem. The development of a solution will draw on the skills of identifying and analysing experience, reflection and feedback. Its practices, therefore, draw heavily on models of experiential learning developed by Kolb (1984) and Boud (1985), and on principles of reflective practice espoused by Schon (1983).

In Figure 1, below, Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle (darker boxes) is juxtaposed against ways in which an action learning set would, typically, address the issues. For a business organisation, concrete experience might manifest itself in an organisational problem. If it was decided to address this problem through action learning, then the issue would be given to an individual (working within an established set) or to a set organised for this specific purpose. The first task would be to gather data (which could include observation) and to discuss the implications of this with the set. The function of the set is not to provide ‘instant’ answers but to assist the investigative process by posing questions, as part of the reflective process. Through the process of data gathering, questioning and reflection, new concepts will be generated which, in business terms, will help generate new ideas and business solutions. In Kolb’s experiential cycle, this is followed by the testing of these concepts in new situations, while in the business world it would mean the implementation and evaluation of the new ideas in practice. At the heart of the process, however, lies meta-competence (‘M’ in Figure 1), or new learning that can be transferred to new situations. Failing to find a solution to a problem can be just as important as finding a solution – provided that learning has arisen from the process.

Figure 1 Relationship between Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, Action Learning and meta-competence

Hence, for the purposes of accredited Work Based Learning programmes delivered by some UK universities it is this learning which is identified, recorded, assessed and accredited (at the most appropriate level). As such, the use of Action Learning can be seen as a most congruent and appropriate experience for people learning through work, and fundamental to its assessment and accreditation.

As we have seen, one component in the process of action learning is the action learning set. McGill and Beatty (1996), suggest that such sets:

  • Focus on real problems: learning is based on grappling with real tasks (i.e., those which exist independently of their learning significance).

  • Provide for group reflection: learning with and from a group of others who are engaged in managing real problems.

  • Establish personal responsibility: the set is different from a project team or a task force, as members retain responsibility for solving their own problems.

  • Are action-based: members are concerned with implementing the actions explored in the Set, rather than simply seeking theoretical solutions.

Action Learning Sets are now commonplace in many UK industries and organisations, and are used extensively at senior management level to develop management capabilities. Results from research over many decades, from Revans forward, point to the depth and quality of learning emerging from action learning as transforming, transferable and long-term. The development of intentional reflection is one academic goal in higher education; the fact that this can arise from what is ostensibly a pragmatic activity provides a significant example of the development of academic capacity in a learner, at whatever level. Action learning can support business objectives directly, and will raise the profile of accredited development programmes in the marketplace. It can also be used for research and development by higher education in collaboration with industry, creating a learning community to both sectors’ benefit.

Given its emphasis on learning through action, there is a concern, sometimes articulated within higher education institutions themselves, that WBL lacks academic credibility. However, there is no a priori reason for assuming that action learning should be theoretically deficient as a learning approach. Firstly, the workplace is recognised as a highly effective learning environment in its own right. As argued above, Eraut et al (1998) in a major study of WBL in the engineering, business and health care sectors, found that considerable learning occurs in a typical workplace environment. This learning may be the result of a formal course of training, but is also likely to result from consultation and collaboration with other people within the immediate working group. Secondly, there is no reason to assume that work-based learning should be atheoretical. There are strong grounds for assuming that the work-based issues and problems identified as part of action learning should lead to a search for a theoretical understanding of such issues as a means of solving them. And thirdly, using research methodologies as part of WBL can significantly improve the problem-solving capacities of employees as well as increasing their academic skills.

The very openness of work-based learning requires that structures are put into place to support the learner. Hence, participants in an action learning programme usually comprise:

In addition, if the programme is run and accredited by an external organisation such as a university, there will be an interface with other parties such as administrators, moderators and external examiners.

Since an important element of action learning is the use of other members of the action learning set as resources for learning, it is essential that means are found to allow set members to communicate with each other. This, obviously, includes scheduled meetings, but, increasingly, this communication tends to be virtual, either through electronic mail, interactive forums and, less commonly, video conferencing. The next section provides a case study of a formally accredited WBL programme that is underpinned by an action learning approach and supported by interactive communications technology.

WBL and virtual learning: The BAA themed-MBA programme

BAA (former British Airports Authority) is a major international company which owns and operates the seven major international airports in the UK, as well as airports in the USA, Italy and Australia. UK airports currently handle about 140 million passengers a year, a figure that is predicted to increase to about 310 million over the next 20 years. Most of this passenger capacity will move through airports owned and operated by BAA, the largest being Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world, handling 57 million passengers per annum. BAA spends approximately 1.4 million a day on building airport infrastructure such as roads, rail links, terminals and commercial property (providing commercial space for more than 900 companies). As well as its airport business, BAA is the world’s second largest duty-free retailer, with just over half of its annual total revenue being generated by retailing.

The challenge for BAA is how it can develop and grow its core business skills – airport management, managing construction projects, retail and property development and management – over the coming period, through a process of continuous improvement. A key ingredient of this is the growing of management potential, of which the themed-MBA (a work-based learning/action learning programme, delivered and accredited by the University of Surrey) is just one element. In brief, the objective of the BAA/Surrey partnership is to produce an MBA programme that develops people with:

The MBA programme, therefore, was designed to reflect these demanding requirements. Hence, it comprises a suite of core modules (e.g., Finance Management, Strategic Management, Operations Management, Human Resources Management, etc.). But, because the programme is based on the principles of action learning, participants are not issued with large volumes of pre-packaged material. A web site contains introductions to each module in the form of sixteen tutorials, each of which provides an introduction to the topic and reading lists. Students then attend a series of ten three-day residentials (over the two-year duration of the programme) that provide a number of important elements:

Between residentials, students commence work on a number of work-based, problem solving assignments on key issues facing the business. Deciding on what problem to address is a matter of establishing a tripartite agreement between the student, their line manager or mentor and the University. From the student’s perspective, each assignment must present both interest and a challenge; for BAA, the assignment must help it to meet its business objectives; from the University’s viewpoint, the assignment must be academically valid, and contain not only a practical focus but academic credibility and underpinning.

One of the unique features of the programme is the fact that the action learning methodology is combined with Internet and web support. A themed web site has been designed incorporating the following features:

In addition to the web site, the University provides on-line learning resources, particularly a data-base of business journals with a search engine for helping students to locate specific topics. Thanks to the continual expansion of the web, several hundred of these journals are now on-line and full text, so that, following a search, complete articles can be immediately downloaded and printed.

The flexible and dynamic nature of the web is ideally suited to an action learning programme of this kind. Let us say, for example, that the executive board of BAA takes a decision to shift a significant proportion of its retailing operations from airport shopping malls into electronic commerce via the Internet. How could the themed-MBA programme respond? Firstly, both BAA and the University of Surrey would look at the dynamic learning curriculum and agree what elements required modification and what new elements needed to be introduced. To take just one example, the Information Technology module would need to include a greater emphasis on the planning, implementation and support of e-commerce. Secondly, some of those BAA managers responsible for the introduction of e-commerce would be invited to provide presentations and respond to questions at some of the MBA residential weekends. Thirdly, an on-line discussion of the potential threats and opportunities posed by e-commerce would be introduced to the Meeting Space; this debate might be ‘seeded’ or introduced by the Information Technology tutor. Fourthly, as the impact of the e-commerce initiative spreads across the organisation (e.g., IT management, operations management, financial management), more MBA students (and their managers/mentors) would want to base their project/assignments around this theme. The University would be pleased to accommodate this, but would also want to couple the theme of e-commerce to leading-edge business thinking in the literature.

In sum, the Surrey/BAA programme is an example of many of the most significant features of learning as we move into the next century: learning in and through work. It includes partnerships between corporations and higher education to promote learning and accreditation; the use of action learning as a powerful learning method; and the integration of the new technologies as interactive tools and information data-bases for learning.

Figure 2 illustrates conceptually how work-based learning, action and virtual learning through the Internet can interact. At the data gathering level, the Web can be used as a research tool, making use, for example, of a web search engine or directory. Next, e-mail communication can be used by those conducting the research to contact significant others such as managers or information networks. Then, on the basis of the data gleaned, on-line discussions can be held between members of the action learning set. This may also occur at the next stage in the action learning process, when solutions are planned and shared with the set either face-to-face, or on-line. Finally, at the implementation phase, the solution to the business problem may itself involve the use of Internet technology (as in the example of BAA e-commerce, above) or the findings of the study might be shared with others in the (learning) organisation via the web. Indeed, the web is increasingly seen as a repository of knowledge for organisations where learning can be ‘stored’ in a knowledge data-base for others to share.

Figure 2 Relationship between action learning and virtual learning

Raelin (2000), however, provides a note of caution, arguing that virtual communities allow plentiful scope for private reflection, but may not present a conducive environment for public reflection on members’ practices and assumptions – a vital ingredient of action learning sets. This is because dialogue is restricted by a lack of non-verbal cues and a reduction in the exchange of socio-emotional information. The result is that virtual teams may handle task-oriented interactions, but may be slow at developing relative links between members. Clearly, this is just one area that would benefit from investigation by researchers.

Issues for research

The role of ICT in work-based learning, particularly where there is a focus on action learning, is relatively new. To date, there has been little research on how action learning can most effectively be supported and facilitated by ICT. Although, for example, the web site has been used widely by Surrey/BAA students, it is clear that some students have used it more extensively than others. Why is this so, and what can be done to encourage those who observe on-line discussions but contribute nothing themselves? Can interactive forums be designed in such a way as to make them functionally powerful and yet intuitive to use? How should such a site be managed, particularly when the group dynamics of action learning sets may sometimes ignite conflict between set members, conflict which may spill over into on-line arguments, or ‘flame wars’. Within an interactive forum, what should be the role, if any, of tutors, set advisors, managers and mentors? Certainly, the utilisation of virtual technology means that the role of academic tutors has changed from the provider of knowledge to facilitators and designers of learning methods.

In action learning more responsibility is given to students for managing their own learning. This includes undertaking research, an increasing amount of which incorporates using the web as a research tool. We have seen how, as part of the Surrey/BAA MBA programme, a large range of on-line journals have been provided. Yet the web also, of course, comprises a staggering array of sites at least some of which offer knowledge and data, relevant to WBL programmes. Students can find such sites by using web search engines and directories, but research questions arise as to what skills are required to perform these tasks, and how these skills can be taught. Indeed, one of the arguments of Elliott (1999) is that the lifelong learning agenda is omitting the vital role of the teacher.

Work-based learning is a problem-focussed and collaborative endeavour, often involving the learner’s interaction with fellow workers, managers, mentors and professional networks. Action learning with virtual learning can offer a dynamic combination for supporting learning in the workplace. Researchers, however, need to understand more about the roots of these dynamics rather than be in awe of the technology itself.



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This document was added to the Education-line database on 08 December 1999