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The Open CETL

The Open University's Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

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Understanding student learning in practice-based settings (STARS)

Exploring the ways in which workplace conditions influence learning in the practice development courses offered by the Open University

This project was undertaken by the Faculty of Health and Social Care (FHSC) in collaboration with the Milton Keynes Mental Health Integrated Service (MK MHIS).

The resultant paper ' A path of crazy paving: tensions of work-based learning in health and social care' reports on the practice development of a cohort of support staff in health and social care settings studying a work-based foundation degree by distance learning. Student development is investigated in the context of their work and home lives, and personal past, present and future. Two in-depth interviews were carried out with students as they moved through one year of the course. The interviews explored experience of study, work role, workplace conditions and life circumstances. Considerable time was given to exploring life history. Three issues can be highlighted.

  1. First, it was found that through study workers built a deeper and more critical understanding of their practice, their service users and the system they work in. While students appreciated the relevance of study to their working life, it was this relevance that meant course work representated an extension or intrusion of their working life into their personal time. In addition, while students were already familiar with many of the issues in the course, their lack of familiarity with academic conventions could make study a challenging experience.
  2. Second, students reported a vocation for their work and a desire to progress in their careers and yet their career trajectories had a fragmented and precarious quality to them.
  3. Third, many had strong relationships with their work colleagues that could help them get to grips with course material and provide moral support. At the same time, some workers found that these relationships could undermine the study experience.

Project objectives

The overarching aim of the project is to explore, across a range of contexts, the ways in which workplace conditions influence learning in the practice development courses offered by the Open University, particularly, the FHSC and FELS Foundation Degrees and FELS PGCE. All programmes involve a significant component of learning in the workplace, either on placement or as part of the students existing work role.  The research project will explore:

Workplace conditions

For students developing practice through a work-based learning course, the nature of the workplace and their role will influence programme effectiveness.  For example, work practices and worker role, regulatory frameworks and collegial relationships affect work-based learning Hodkinson et al. 2004). Also, workplace hierarchies, the organisation of work, group affiliations, personal relations and cultural practices serve to distribute opportunities to act, interact and learn in workplaces (Billet 2002).

Course materials and support

Key concerns are teaching devices that enable students to use their workplace as a site for learning, content areas that transfer into the workplace and course requirements that realistically reflect the demands of the job.

Student characteristics

Students’ experience of the workplace and formal educative opportunities and as a result, their learning is mediated by their personal characteristics and situation. Engagement in learning opportunities can be influenced by the relatedness between employee and workplace values, personal goals or prior educational experience (Hodkinson et al. 2004) or ability to construe particular opportunities (Billet 2002). Student age, recent experience of study, family commitments (non-study and non-work) and support from partners are also influential (Arthur and Tait 2004). 

In addition, the collaboration between FHSC and MK MHIS will enable comparisons to be made between the practice development of individuals undertaking foundation degree study and those without this academic input. The inclusion of initial teacher training students in the study will enable an exploration of the variation in student experience and learning that may exist between models of quality assured and non quality assured workplace settings.

The evaluation proposes that learning and practice development are built out of the interaction between course materials, workplace conditions and student characteristics.  The project therefore aims to address the following questions:

  • How do workplace conditions influence student learning and practice development?
  • What features of course materials and tutor support are particularly supportive of students’ learning?
  • How do student characteristics and personal circumstances influence learning and practice development?

In studies of workplace learning there is a danger of exaggerating worker agency or taking superficial snapshots of structural conditions (Hodkinson et al. 2004).  For this reason, this evaluation is proposed as the first year of a four year longitudinal study to capture the subtle changes in understanding, workplace conditions and student characteristics. 

Related References

  • Arthur, L. and A. Tait (2004). Too little time to learn? Issues and challenges for those in work. Studies in the Education of Adults, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 36: 222-234.
  • Billet, S. (2002). Workplaces, communities and pedagogy: an activity theory view. Distributed Learning : Social and Cultural Approaches to Practice. M. R. Lea and K. Nicoll. London, Routledge in association with the Open University.
  • Hodgkinson, P., H. Hodgkinson, K. Evans, N. Kersh, A. Fuller , L. Unwin and P. Senka (2004). "The significance of individual biography in the workplace learning." Studies in the Education of Adults 36(1): 6-24.


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