Work-based Learning: An Approach to Teaching and Learning

Work-Based Learning (WBL) refers to students applying their existing knowledge and skills in a real workplace, while at the same time gaining new knowledge and skills. In many disciplines, particularly those with a clear vocational focus, WBL takes the form of placements, where students work in an organisation for a defined period of time while undertaking tasks related to their studies. While on placement, the students typically have regular contact with tutors and are required to produce reports on their work.

"Zabrina_IMG_0125_cmyk_enlarged" by Vancouver Island University

“Zabrina_IMG_0125_cmyk_enlarged” by Vancouver Island University

For some disciplines, such as nursing, these placements are a requirement by the professional body, whereas in others students are strongly encouraged to take part but it is not a requirement of the course. In less vocational disciplines there are usually opportunities for students to undertake WBL. These may be less formal than university-organised placements but they still allow students to refine their skills and knowledge and gain valuable experience and evidence of working. Examples of this informal WBL include summer internships, freelance work, and voluntary work.


Possible Technologies to Support the Approach

One of the main issues faced by students when undertaking WBL, particularly with placements where the majority of the cohort is away from the university at the same time, is a sense of isolation through reduced interaction with peers and tutors. Technology can help to address this by providing spaces and opportunities to share thoughts and experiences with other students and interact with tutors. Tools such as Blackboard discussion forums, blogs and social networks (e.g. Twitter and Facebook) allow students to communicate with each other even if they are unable to be online at the same time, so enabling students who are working shifts or in different timezones to still feel part of the larger community; whereas tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and Skype are ideal for real-time communication, especially spoken communication, between individuals or groups who are unable to physically meet. For students whose WBL environment means that they are constantly on the move or away from a PC, mobile apps and devices offer the ability to keep in touch with their peers and tutors in a much more flexible manner.

As part of a WBL approach, students are often required to maintain evidence of their activities and reflect on how it has impacted on their learning. Blogs and ePortfolios are well suited to recording this type of information and, by allowing tutors to have access, offer a mechanism through which the students can receive feedback and guidance in a timely manner.

The growing use of technology can pose a particular challenge for students undertaking a WBL activity. In particular, the students need to understand what is and isn’t acceptable to share online about their workplace. Some of the technologies above are restricted to registered students and their tutors, but others, such as social networks and blogs, may be viewable by others, including people from the organisations where the students are working  or even competitor organisations. This means that the students need to understand the importance of being careful and discreet when discussing their work and workplace, particularly by not naming individuals or divulging ‘secrets’ about their work.

Getting Started

If you are interested in trying out WBL there are a few practical questions that you should answer:

"Day 328 - Forensic student blogs about WMP work placement" by West Midlands Police

“Day 328 – Forensic student blogs about WMP work placement” by West Midlands Police

  • Where in the course would this approach work best?
  • Should the WBL be a formal part of the course, or should students be encouraged to find their own opportunities?
  • What level of support would be required to introduce WBL?
  • How much technology should be involved? Which tools are most suited?
  • Are the students, tutors and other staff ready for this?

Having thought about these questions, you should have worked out whether WBL is an approach that makes sense in your context and have some ideas about how to introduce it.

Further Resources

Case studies from SHU:

The following links are to case studies showing how staff at SHU have used WBL ideas in their teaching:

Related ‘Teaching Nuggets’:

The following links provide further information on some activities and assessment outputs that can work well with WBL, especially for students who are part-time or not campus-based:

Other resources:

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