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Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
About the Guest Editor Carol Costley is a Reader in Work Based Learning and Head of the Work Based Learning Research Centre at Middlesex University. Her principal research interests and publications include examining methodologies and epistemologies in work based learning. She has looked particularly at work-based learning as a field of study and how it relates to transdisciplinarity, equity and access. She has a research interest in the ethical issues involved in practitioner-led research and development projects. Carol Costley can be contacted at: email@example.com
Work-based learning has been growing as an important field in higher education for about 15 years. With it, new technologies for learning have been developed such as learning agreements (or contracts), reflective practices and recognising experiential learning. The work-based project can be seen as the most significant of these technologies as it is frequently the final and most consequential work-based activity carried out by students of work-based learning. Work-based projects in higher education come in a wide variety of forms and are carried out under very differing circumstances. A project could be undertaken by an undergraduate doing a full time campus-based degree as part of a placement activity. At the other extreme a work-based project could be one undertaken by a full time worker doing a part-time Master’s or professional doctorate degree. The differences, apart from the level of the award are often to do with the extent to which workers carrying out projects are insiders within their area of project research. For example, those who are mid to late career professionals are already experts in their field and their project work tends to be real-time projects that may have been undertaken anyway but are being researched and developed as part of an award and therefore with support from the university. A significant element of the university’s intervention in what would have been a development project only is to enhance how that project work is undertaken and to make available methodologies which suggest new topics or areas for project work (see Boud and Costley (2007) for further discussion of the support offered by universities towards project work).
Garnett (2005) coins the term “project capital” in relation to the real time work-based project which he describes as transitory and drawing upon the human capital of the particular community within which the project takes place but also drawing upon and contributing to the structural capital of the community whether it be an organisation or a particular professional field or other grouping. The work-based project is therefore able to meet the needs of a particular community in a very direct, immediate and often satisfying way.
Project work has been undertaken in higher education before the work-based project became popular and there has been criticism in relation to practitioner-based enquiry in that gathering data as an insider needs careful attention especially concerning ethical considerations, questions about insider bias and validity (Murray and Lawrence, 2000, p. 18).
Costley and Armsby address the research methodologies that undergraduate worker-researchers might use when approaching work-based research projects. Their discussion of the appropriateness of differing approaches leaves a question to be answered and a need for more research on the kind of methodology appropriate for this kind of research activity. Some writers do not even refer to practitioner-research as research at all, but instead call it enquiry or investigation and some assume that it is all action research. What would now be valuable is more research and evaluation that investigates insider research and that considers a range of research activities (not just action research) that may be used by worker researchers. This would be instead of the general social science-type research books that address research from the assumption of an outsider as researcher or simply transfer existing research techniques into the worker-researcher context. Workman has made a contribution to worker-researcher approaches in her study on the insider researcher where she focuses particularly on how the insider needs to prepare for the work-based project given that it is to take place in the familiar context of the researcher’s own workplace. Based on research with students and tutors, the paper makes a detailed analysis of how this preparatory stage of research may be undertaken and demonstrates the issues and concerns that can arise. Moore looks particularly at the important elements of ethics and tensions in work-based projects which are alluded to in the other papers but are considered in depth here using case studies from the health sector that have application in other fields. The case studies reflect a clash in the approaches of some health professional and patients concerning joint decision making and sharing knowledge. New paradigms of learning favour inclusive approaches where patients may have a role in decision making whereas some healthcare workers are operating in a more conventional top-down paradigm. These familiar dilemmas are discussed in relation to how professional people can negotiate such clashes ethically and continue to develop themselves and their practice through work-based projects that provide profound learning opportunities.
Looking at project activity as a whole, Rhodes and Shiel discuss the value and learning potential of work-based projects to both the worker-researchers and their organisations. They consider a range of issues and elements that are difficult and problematic such as the difficulty in assessing a learner’s personal reflection on their own development. Overall, it is the major benefits of work-based projects, how they can be organised by the university to generate and use knowledge in practice that adds to the important debates in this area. Lester approaches work-based projects from the perspective of accreditation of experiential learning which considers projects that have taken place before the practitioner has registered on a university award programme. This view of the work-based project allows different dimensions of the debate to be revealed. Reflective approaches to reporting on previous practice can be adopted by learners enabling them to engage in current activity that is developmental and forward looking. By using a learning agreement that stipulates various assessment criteria that need to be met, learners may be able to use this retrospective approach to their project work to gain a whole award. The paper discusses how this can be done by using some compelling evidence.
Carol CostleyGuest Editor
Boud, D. and Costley, C. (2007), “Changing demands of project advising: towards a new conception of the role”, Innovations in Teaching and Learning (accepted for publication)
Garnett, J. (2005), “University work-based learning and the knowledge-driven project”, in Rounce, K. and Workman, B. (Eds), Work-based Learning in Health Care: Applications and Innovations, Kingsham Press, Chichester
Murray, L. and Lawrence, B. (2000), “The basis of critique of practitioner-based enquiry”, in Murray, L. and Lawrence, B. (Eds), Practitioner-based Enquiry: Principles for Postgraduate Research, Falmer Press, London