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Doing it differently: Re-designing the curriculum to face the challenges of student work-based learning opportunities

Tina Byrom (School of Education, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)
Verity Aiken (School of Education, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK)

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 20 October 2014




Work-based learning (WBL) is increasingly viewed as important in students’ higher education (HE) experiences. Drawing from the process of revalidating a Joint Honours in Education (JHE) programme, the purpose of this paper is to highlight challenges involved in ensuring a meaningful placement experience for students that is fully embedded within their course. Primary challenges included the disparate number of subject strand combinations and concomitant career aspirations, wider university requisites on developing Graduate Attributes and student expectations of their placement opportunities. In broadening the scope and number of placement opportunities, the authors simultaneously increased the partnership links with employers to attract increased student buy-in to the opportunities available to them.


This case study utilizes staff reflections, stakeholder contributions and student evaluations to illuminate the process involved in revalidating a JHE programme to incorporate increased placement opportunities. A particular focus is placed on consideration of the tensions inherent within WBL opportunities and the ways in which such experiences can be successfully embedded within a HE degree programme. Whilst the authors are able to report on successful integration of placement opportunities in Year 1, the authors utilize student perspectives to gain understanding of the importance, or otherwise, they place on placements through the duration of their degree.


Whilst placements are widely accepted as a positive feature of HE, inherent tensions emerged from some students who questioned the value and purpose of placements and time away from university. Conversely, employers saw placement and particularly the assessment of students whilst on placement as critical in students’ development into professional workers. The inclusion of placements in HE is therefore problematic, particularly in light of increased tuition fees. This case study, however, suggests that meaningful and disparate placement opportunities can be successfully embedded within each year of an HE degree programme and can be viewed as enhancing the student academic experience.

Research limitations/implications

The paper is located within a body of research that focuses positively on placement/WBL opportunities for undergraduate students, but does raise some emerging tensions linked to the marketization of HE and resulting student perspectives on “value”. Although generic themes can be applied to curriculum design elsewhere, outcomes may be different and linked to differing institutional habituses that influence practice. In addition, this paper reports solely on a single case that has developed a degree course to support the unique needs of its students within a particular context.

Practical implications

The WBL model presented here facilitates student empowerment in tailoring their degree to their interests and career aspirations. It requires effective internal and external partnerships to inform curriculum design and the organization of placements. This paper will therefore be of interest to HE practitioners who are faced with the challenges of providing a broad range of placement opportunities for large and diverse groups of students with differing career aspirations. In addition, it will also be attractive to employers that have strong links with universities and are in the position to influence curriculum design.

Social implications

The focus on employability and the development of key generic skills is interconnected with structures influencing social mobility. The range of students entering HE and the concomitant expectations on their degree to have “value” in the employment “market” on graduation is becoming increasingly important – particularly for students categorized as widening participation. Offering increased opportunities for placements and linking assessment to work-based competencies can therefore be viewed as an integral part of HE's responsibilities to students.


This case study highlights the versatility of WBL that on one hand, requires the academy to embrace alternatives ways of learning, but on the other hand, creates new and innovative ways of engaging students. In addition and critically, it illuminates an approach to embedding WBL into an overarching degree structure that enables students to tailor their degree to their interests and career aspirations.



Byrom, T. and Aiken, V. (2014), "Doing it differently: Re-designing the curriculum to face the challenges of student work-based learning opportunities", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 4 No. 3, pp. 271-283.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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