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The interface between academic knowledge and working knowledge

Implications for curriculum design and pedagogic practice

Author - Dr Anne Murphy


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In a nut-shell then, a WBL model acknowledges that the integration of pedagogical design from the traditional and emerging work-based learning paradigms requires academic staff to re-conceptualise some prior givens and to integrate into their conceptual frameworks that learning that is collective, non-prescribed and participatory will inevitably emerge in work-based learning regardless of the intended programme learning outcomes elaborated in the programme document, and that academics have low control over the nature and extent of this learning. It is in this complexity that work-based learning allows for greater affordances for learning than the traditional prescribed curriculum of the traditional higher education paradigm, as illustrated generally in Figure 5.

However, for the purpose of elaborating the boundaries between the tradition and work-based curriculum, Figure 6 and Figure 7 use the continuum from Model 1 to Mode 2 from Figure 2. In Figure 6 (Brennan 2005) it is reasonable to conceptualise a continuum of curriculum design from a starting point of low relationship with the world of work to a more radical point where work is the primary site of learning. On that continuum it is possible to plot the locus of control over the curriculum and over the value placed on learning through working life. If we follow this logic we can then illustrate the relative influence of higher education and the external world in relation to curriculum content and design of learning programmes as illustrated in Figure 7. It is, of course, taken as given that there are areas of boundary-crossing in the continuum and that movement is not necessarily linear or uni-directional. However, as an heuristic it offers a conceptual framework for discussions with regard to WBL curriculum design and the interplay of interests and agendas within it.

Some critiques of WBL pedagogical design

It is reasonable at this stage to concede that work-based learning as a political or policy position that works its way into higher education practices is not without its critics, whose academic right to remain critical is not questioned in this paper. Inevitably there are critical voices from within the traditional academy which resists diminution of its powers to decide its own role and remit in society. There are critics who fear the growth in interference by the state-as-paymaster in academic matters generally. Additionally there are scholars who write from the perspective of critical theory who fear that work-based learning represents yet another means of colonisation of the lifeworlds of workers and they lament the growing emphasis on performativity at work. They fear that higher education is becoming too close to market needs with too much demand for the ‘flexible’ and ‘mobile’ worker.

Traditional scholars often dismiss work-based learning because it lacks sufficient theory, is too subjective, too generalist, too contextual. Practitioners often dismiss it on the grounds that it is procedurally too-difficult and pedagogically too time intensive. All these are legitimate criticisms in their own ways, no doubt, though the traditional paradigm is rarely critiqued in equal measure!

Unresolved issues in WBL

As with any emerging educational practice, work-based learning excites critical reaction. Among the persistent and probably troubling issues are those related to legitimation of knowledge, individual agency, worker–learner identity, academic positionalities and worldviews, and the role of higher education in the labour market.

We could phrase some initial direct questions as follows:

  • Whose codes and accreditations are most powerful
  • Who really has the power to regulate what is known?
  • Does surveillance of work-based learning serve the needs of individuals, and equally well serve the needs of economies and nation states?
  • How far will qualifications framework authorities intrude into workplace learning at the expense of individual agency?
  • Has the learned curriculum equal respect with the taught curriculum, or will it ever have?
  • Will higher education concede that is but one partner in collaborative co-creation of knowledge?

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