· 6 min read · Features

Learning: Work-based learning - Learning on the job

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Training that can be done as part of an employee's normal working day is gaining in popularity - not least because it doesn't have to feel like normal learning.

With the impact training makes so difficult to measure (see p46), learning that has an almost immediate impact on the bottom line will always appeal to employers. This could explain why work-based learning (WBL) seems to be the latest growth area in learning.

The concept is simple. Rather than theoretical, out-of-context training, WBL usually involves a series of stretch-modules - completed during normal work - that leads to an academic qualification, such as a diploma or a degree, from a higher-education institution. The training is customised to suit an individual's needs so it relates to their real job and experience. Data shows there are approximately 1,140 work-based learning providers that receive funding from the Learning and Skills Council. It is favoured because it recognises trainees' existing skills and encourages them to take responsibility for their own development. So is WBL the answer to the problems in designing L&D programmes?

While learning at work is not in itself a new concept, Jonathan Garnett, director of the Institute of Work Based Learning at Middlesex University, says a growing number of universities are putting learning into a working context: "WBL has a direct relevance to work because it is not abstract training which might be useful in the future."

Evidence of WBL's momentum can be seen by Middlesex University, which launched a partnership with other providers such as Barnet College, Enfield College and Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute this summer, to specifically target individual employees and businesses. Meanwhile Birkbeck University in London launched its Institute of Professional Studies last November.

Many employers want to contribute to curriculum design and delivery, a fact backed up by the Confederation of British Industry, which finds 84% of its 200 largest members now have associations with universities and 70% are working with them to develop courses.

Other institutions involved in WBL include The Open University and the University of Derby, which are members of Learndirect's Learning through Work initiative. The programme has recently received funding from the East Midlands Regional Development Agency.

"Employers like it because it does not take people away from the workplace," says head of customer development for Learning through Work, Deborah Rosado. "We are seeing a lot of interest from the health sector, for instance."

One client is Mansfield-based Mines Rescue, a health and safety consultancy for the mining industry. Admin staff and management from the firm signed up to the Learning through Work programme with the University of Derby to develop their industry knowledge. The result has been a radical change in its business model, which means it now offers health and safety advice to more than 1,400 mining organisations worldwide rather than to just a handful of large UK coal mines. Turnover has risen from £6.5 million to £8.0 million.

The retail sector is also a supporter of WBL. Budget chain Lidl offers a retail management degree with the Dublin Business School. The programme is accredited at level 7 on the National Qualifications Framework by the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. The learning is split 50/50 between college and WBL and is spread over 30 months. Last year Foundation Degree Forward (FDF), a national body funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, also launched a retail foundation degree in association with Tesco. The qualification is awarded by the University of Arts in London and Manchester Metropolitan University and is delivered through a combination of workshops, WBL and online tutorials. In June FDF joined forces with BT, Vodafone, the NHS and the Royal School of Signals to launch work-based courses for ICT professionals. The industry accepted its workers need a wider set of business skills, such as communication and team-working.

"There has been some negative publicity around WBL especially among more traditional training providers, but we do not see this as an either/or situation," says FDF chief executive Derek Longhurst. "There is no threat to other forms of learning but it can be challenging for some organisations to look at their systems and procedures in such a different way using WBL."

Chartered psychologist Peter Honey has written books on why employers must not ignore the benefits of WBL. "Organisations can still be too obsessed with formal courses offered by more traditional providers but managers need to know how to turn normal, everyday happenings in the business into training opportunities," says Honey. "In effect, those employers who do not embrace WBL are missing out on training that does not strain the budget but which in fact can ultimately save them money." He accepts there are many with vested interests within the more formal training provider sector who do not want to see WBL widely promoted.

The Association of Learning Providers (ALP) believes there is room for all kinds of training. "The balance of training is certainly shifting to what employers need and WBL can help organisations retain and develop their staff until the economy improves," says the ALP's director of employment and skills, Paul Warner.

For other training and learning providers the move to more WBL cannot be slowed, especially in the current downturn. Peter Bennett, CEO of e-learning provider Learning Resources International (LRI), says traditional learning can be impractical in a recession. "To maintain a competitive edge you want people in the field or office rather than in the classroom," he says. "People at work must move away from the preconception that learning has to be a single event activ-ity undertaken in a classroom or in front of a screen. A blended approach ensures the learning experience is more meaningful."

THE PROVIDER AND EMPLOYER RELATIONSHIP

A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills to analyse the links between 135 WBL providers and employers reveals relationships are getting stronger but barriers still remain. Some 55% of providers said employers were involved in designing the training, although 77% would like organisations to get more involved. This would ensure a more tailored and bespoke approach to this form of learning.

Currently many employers are involved in the assessment of trainees. This includes sitting in on reviews. Providers believe this gives employers a better understanding of WBL and how it can and will benefit them as well as the individual.

It seems employers react more positively to the idea of work-based learning if they are given a menu of training options and can select those that best fit their specific company and sector needs. Some of the major concerns were around how this form of learning is funded. Many employers are reluctant to invest in training that does not produce a full qualification.

The report concluded that if work-based learning is to flourish providers must build deep and lasting relationships with employers and work hard to dispel the misconceptions that many companies still have about this type of learning.

YORKSHIRE WATER

Seeing itself bottom of the Ofwat league table for performance and customer service prompted bosses at Yorkshire Water to take a long hard look at their training strategy.

As learning and development manager at the time, Steve Dixon remembers how the new managing director told him the company must focus more on developing technical and soft skills.

"I was charged with creating a programme that would link learning to the regulatory pressures the company was under. We had to grow managers as leaders but make the management theory work-related with business benefits even if people wanted to do academic learning," says Dixon.

He launched a post-graduate diploma in management course for middle and junior managers identified as having potential, and a City & Guilds graduateship in management and asset management for first-level managers. For the 2008/09 academic year there was also a postgraduate certificate in asset management.

Yorkshire Water worked in partnership with the University of Leeds Business School, which has offered WBL since the mid-1990s. "We quickly saw improvement because the learning was work-based," says Dixon. "Employees were taking information they learned at university and using it to challenge what we were doing in the business."

Margaret Gibbons, director for work-based learning at Leeds, says companies such as Yorkshire Water understand the business advantages of this kind of training. She says enquiries from other employers have increased in the past six months. She says funding is available through the Regional Development Agency. "There is a tangible increase in employee confidence as a person's own knowledge of how their business works improves," she says. "The students' learning is supported by university staff, a business manager and the individual's line manager and all assessment is conducted through work-based assignments."

Since 2000, 66 Yorkshire Water managers have completed the City & Guilds graduate course in management, 67 have graduated in asset management, 64 have completed the post-graduate diploma and 15 passed the new post-graduate certificate in asset management.

According to Ofwat, Yorkshire Water moved up to eighth out of 22 companies for customer service and water supply for the period 2007/08.

UNIVERSITIES MEETING THE WBL CHALLENGE

UNIVERSITY: Coventry University

What's on offer: Coventry has a suite of post-graduate diplomas, certificates and MAs covering leadership and management practice, managing operations and organisational effectiveness. Students have face-to-face contact with tutors over six days spread throughout the year, monthly half-day discussions with other students and online support. The emphasis is on developing a learning community.

Clients using this approach: Coventry NHS PCT, Warwickshire County Council

UNIVERSITY: Birkbeck, University of London

What's on offer: Senior lecturer in work-based learning Anita Walsh hosted an open day in July to talk about her team's work within the university's new Institute of Professional Studies launched last November. Modules are delivered through workshops, lectures and seminars alongside individual support, either face-to-face or online. There is a part-time BSc programme in professional studies and a part-time MSc in professional studies, which involves a workplace research project.

Clients using this approach: Metropolitan Police Force, United Jewish Israel Appeal

UNIVERSITY: Queen's University, Belfast

What's on offer: The part-time MSc/postgraduate diploma takes two years and has six modules. It focuses on developing and applying knowledge in the workplace, structuring organisations, business management and general problem-solving. The university is keen for students to spend the first few weeks reviewing their own experience and becoming familiar with the concept of WBL.

Clients using this approach: Police Service of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Water, Belfast City Airport

UNIVERSITY: University of Derby

What's on offer: The University of Derby has won national awards for its distance learning and its Learning through Work personal and professional development courses. There are also leadership and management courses and skills for development-at-work modules. There are sector-specific courses covering technology, teaching, art and design and volunteering. Programmes created for specific employers include website design, managing people and change, and marketing.

Clients using this approach: Lafarge, Hanson.