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The Disorderly Notions of Work-Based Learning

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Tensions on the Front Line: Reflecting on Work-Based Learning through Binary Discourse Analysis

John Brady[1], Alison Ballantyne and Jôe McGhee

University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC), Higher Education: skills in the workplace, York, November 12-14th, 2008.


Being flexible yet being role specific are important features of a work-based learning (WBL) programme, yet to what extent do they contradict each other or possibly conflict? Does meeting the requirements of employers and the needs of individual learners create work-based learning contradictions with the unique characteristics of higher education; indeed, are they compatible with each other? This paper uses Binary Discourse Analysis to confront the contradictions of WBL and the ways in which one particular programme attempted to resolve them.

Keywords: work-based learning, binary discourse analysis, information technology, vocational education, cultural dissonance, blended learning.

Flexibility and continuity are important aims of a work-based learning (WBL) programme yet to what extent are they in tension with a demand led learning programme. Are meeting the requirements of employers and the needs of individual learners consistent with the unique characteristics of higher education; indeed, are they compatible with each other?

The words and phrases contrasted above are taken from the call for contributions for the University Vocational Awards Councils (UVAC) 2008 Annual Conference. As participants in that conference what struck us was the resonance between the binary terms of the UVAC call for papers document and the binary tensions encountered delivering a WBL programme. Although WBL is often expressed as if from one voice, its discourse contains oppositional elements expressing tensions (Sobiechowska and Maisch, 2007, Biggs, 2003 ). Nixon et al have expressed these tensions as a binary between narrow interpretations and broad interpretations of WBL (Nixon et al., 2006: p 50). For example, employers value work based learning for providing skills specific to a role yet would also value the employee flexibility to meet new tasks (Glass et al., 2002: p 22).

The aim of the paper is twofold. Firstly, to investigate and explore the experience of providing education in the workplace using a methodology derived from notions of binary discourse. The second is to ground the discussion and the issues arising for a particular part-time, work based professional qualification delivered in-house by distance learning.

The use of discourse as an analytical method to explore WBL is not new (Raelin, 2008). This paper focuses on the oppositions and tensions found in the discourse (the binaries) as they arise in the practice context of WBL. Examples of binary tensions included are,

  • The Individual versus the Community
  • Practice versus Theory, and
  • Continuity versus Change.

The discussion reveals how oppositions can be negotiated, how points of opposition become clearer and how the discussion clarifies and extends the solutions put into place in a particular WBL programme. Finally, the tensions between the University (as an ideal type) and the Organisation (as an ideal type) are discussed in terms of the constraints and assumptions of the WBL discourse and how these might be turned into opportunities for innovation in the transfer of higher education to the workplace.

Discourse as an analytical concept identifies the structure and use of language as a means of reproducing relationships, definitions, concepts and power (Wodak and Meyer, 2002). The discourse is the talk, text and images surrounding a phenomenon and shaping it. The subjects of the discourse are those who reproduce the relationships but also act upon them through discursive (rational) practice. The understanding of the relationship between power and discourse is influenced by the work of Foucault.

Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it… there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy (Foucault, 1978 p. 101)

Our analysis is therefore not only about language but about the content and context of that language and the relationships and contradictions inherent, an example helps, the notion that WBL is based individual learning yet also desires to be community learning. A feature of discourse is its binary nature; facets of the discourse often expressed as opposites, they appear contradictory.

Social realities and selves/bodies are constituted in discourse, and… social change requires both a deconstruction of the way these categories work and a rewriting of them to produce change (Threadgold, 2003 p. 9).

Discourse analysis is a methodological approach using three levels of inquiry (Fairclough, 2002 p. 125). The first level is the broad sociocultural structure of the discourse. The second is that of the discourse practice, where words, text and images are treated as objects in practice or are changed through practice. The third and micro level of analysis is the words, texts and images themselves and how they relate to the practices and the sociocultural level. An alternative way of describing the advantage of discourse research is that it reveals:

  • The interpretative dialogues on which social action is based
  • Together with symbols and relationships of power that represent culture (Wetherall, Taylor and Yates, 2001, i cited in Smith, 2007 p. 60)

Fairclough‘s framework is shown in Figure 1.

It is not the intention to stick rigidly to the Fairclough schema. The focus is on the discursive practice level in the first part of the article and then moves in the final part to considering the revealed understandings of the sociocultural level. The purpose is to make broad use of the binary discourse notion to identify emergent issues and challenge assumptions and constraints.

The context of discursive practice

The Regulation of Care Award (Scotland) (ROCA) is a work-based qualifying programme developed in partnership with the Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care (Care Commission) and the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC). Over the past twenty years the nature of regulation and its role have radically changed (Braithwaite, 2000). At the same time there have been far reaching changes in the governance of health and social care, its knowledge base, practice and policy. This WBL context is possibly like many others in that it is in a constant state of change, the curriculum is developing, work roles are changing and the policy context is unpredictable.

This 1-year programme at Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) level 9 (equivalent to English HE level 3) develops the regulatory skills, values and knowledge of regulators using a learning outcome based curriculum alongside National Occupational Standards (NOS). There are three tutors attached to ROCA (1 FTE), all employed by the University, and 4 Practice Learning Assessors (PLA) employed by the Care Commission as well as a ROCA coordinator who is also one of the part time tutors. Together they deliver the programme to 50 candidates per year through four learning sets dispersed over Scotland and supported by a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Through the VLE assessments are submitted, learning sets can converse and there are topics accessible to all candidates, for example on legal issues or preparing a particular assessment. The ROCA qualification is necessary for the registration of the candidate with the SSSC. The management of the programme is shown in Figure 2 with inputs to the programme from candidates and all other stakeholders.

The rationale for adopting the binary discourse approach was recognition of the problematic nature of setting up and keeping updated a WBL programme; as the organisation evolves so too does the programme. It is worth making the point that evolution has been possible only through working in partnership plus the willingness of the Care Commission to obtain the maximum benefit from ROCA for the organisation and staff. Using the binary discourse approach allowed us to explore this evolution and conjecture on how each binary had been resolved (or not) in practice and in so doing attempt to negotiate the implementation, redefine terms and concepts, and better understand our own practice.

The binary oppositions considered owe much to the unresolved tensions between the organisational culture of the University (ideal type) and the differing culture of workplace organisations. As well there are binary tensions within the HE sector itself. For example, in a response to a recent Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Strategic Plan consultation UVAC pointed out the following in relation to WBL.

We are of the view that higher education should be about supporting, recognising and valuing higher level learning whenever and wherever it takes place. … HEFCE should move from the concept of the student to the concept of the learner and embrace and support more individuals from a wider variety of backgrounds in different learning environments. (University Vocational Awards Council, 2005 p. 2)

Clearly, UVAC is here contesting the text used in the HEFCE document and the structures, processes and institutions that such text supports. That its contestation is directed at the funding body for Higher Education in England reveals the struggles for control of the discourse of higher education. At the sociocultural level this struggle for the Universities to change culture and attitude and for similar moves from employers is well documented. The CBI makes a plea for both sides to recognise the advantages,

Higher education has much to offer employers. Research can generate new ideas for products and services. Employees can benefit from developing new skills (CBI, 2008a p. 9).

To what extent this appeal is a result of government policy (Leitch, 2006) is beyond the scope of this paper but the government is a significant stakeholder and driver in the development of WBL and may influence and be influenced as part of the discourse.

Having given some indication of the claims to and influences on the discourse it is time to move to demonstrating how binary oppositions are examined.

The Individual v Community

Our first binary discourse illustrates ways of thinking about WBL that seemingly stand in opposition to one another. The binary discourse reveals the opposition between individual learning and learning at the collective level, an opposition addressed by Raelin.

One learns through work at an individual level …. However, learning in the workplace requires an extension of learning out to the collective level …(Raelin, 1997 p. 565)

Learners are individuals and learning occurs only in the individual. Yet, in order for learning to transfer across collectivities of individuals there must be a common terminology and trust between individuals.

In the University there is a stress on individualised learning. University assessment processes are individualistic promoting concealment and competition. Within the workplace concepts such as community of practice or the learning organisation, although not manifested in all workplaces, denote the potential synergy between learning and social relationships. Adapting these two perspectives on learning was the challenge of Binary 1 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Binary Discourse 1: Individuals and Communities

Binary 1
Individual Community
Individual assessment

Individual experience

Collaborative learning

Community Experience

ROCA is an accredited University programme; assessment is individualised by the University consequently collaborative work does not fit easily into assessment quality controls. Managing learning and promoting learning through social relationships requires a different approach.

Individualised assessment was retained but modified with the use of patchwork text (the building up of sections of an assessed piece of work) (Winter, 2003), which allows for greater tutor feedback and the sharing of the texts through the VLE. The candidate posts the patchwork text in the learning set discussion group for all members to see. The community or collaborative element is for each student to peer review at least one other ‘patch’. VLE discussion postings on elements of the assessments also contribute to a community and collaborative means of learning and preparing for assessment. These strategies are able to combine the individual and community binary by integrating types of learning such as theoretical learning as well as the skills of critical discussion. It also has elements of Raelins (1997 p. 569) ‘action learning’ (real problems become the focus of study). Central to this resolution was the use of feedback loops often absent in the University environment where detailed feedback is limited to that between the lecturer and the student. Here feedback was used to enable student-to-student learning through patchwork peer review and collaborative online learning.

Practice versus Theory

The tension between practice and theory elements of professional courses based in the University have been apparent for many years and have often concealed the use of discipline based teaching only loosely related to the occupational sector/profession concerned. A good example is inputs of undiluted first year sociology into a professional social work qualification. Recently there have been greater efforts in Universities to improve discipline-based inputs. Often this has been a response to Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) ‘benchmarks’ for subject and professional areas (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2001) or regulatory intervention by professional validating bodies. However, practice and theory tensions persist and are as present for ROCA as for many other professional courses. Part of the tension is the very different nature of the two concepts, practice and theory, as outlined in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Binary Discourse 2: Theory and Practice

Practice Theory








The table represents idealised characteristics of theory and practice; practice is not wholly emotional or intuitive, it is also rational. Theory building is not totally rational as there are paradigmatic shifts implicated in theory building (Kuhn, 1977).

Several problem solving and theory generating schemas attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice using a learning cycle and/or reflective practice as a means of practically combining abstract problem solving and empirical work practice (Kolb, 1983, Boud et al., 1993, Boud and Feletti, 1991, Ghaye and Ghaye, 1998, Argyris and SchöN, 1974). Others have specifically addressed the organisation as the focus of learning (Schön, 1973, Senge, 1990, Wenger, 1998, Wenger et al., 2002, Reason, 2000, Argyris, 1992). They constitute a significant response to the question of how learning in practice progresses to theory building and generalisation

Regulation is a multi-disciplinary subject claimed by, amongst others, socio-legal departments, political scientists, economists, sociologists and psychology departments. There is a substantive body of work in areas such as -why do people comply, what are regulatory problems and the extent of inspector discretion (Ayres and Braithwaite, 1992, Baldwin and Cave, 1999, Morgan and Yeung, 2007).

Reflection and problem solving as cited above are used to integrate this academic theorising into the unique problems encountered in the workplace. The patchwork text, the learning sets and the practice folders enable candidates to apply theory to the workplace in the context of their particular organisation. In a sense practice is a problem which theory may enlighten or through which gaps in theory may be revealed. There are 2 theoretical modules in the programme. Candidates discuss the theory in learning sets, through shared patches in learning sets and through the VLE. Thus, while programme structures enable theory application the same structures use learning to enable social relationships.

Further, the group develops a social culture in its own right which presents participants with lessons regarding group dynamics (Raelin, 1997 p. 569)

Unfortunately, it has to be said that the structure of the programme reinforces the division between practice and theory in having a separate practice learning module. To overcome this we have integrated theoretical analysis in to regulatory practice planning. For example, the direct observation of the inspection will require a plan which includes demonstrating an understanding of where theory relates to practice viz. regulatory capture/responiveness and this is also applied to other practice areas.

A exploratory area has been linking values to theory and practice. The NOS have their own statement of values and in every case a value is expressed as a complex concept or principle. Empowerment, discrimination, citizenship and rights are expressions of value around humanity, dignity, freedom and fairness, values embedded also in the legislation used by regulators. This linking led us as a team to theorise on the place of ‘values’ within all regulatory work and to better understand the complex decision making, conflicts and learning required in this occupational sector. This approach is allied to Sen’s (1979) capability approach – if equality is a right then it should be supported by understanding and learning on equality. Therefore, values, rather than being the passive subscription to a value statement, become an audit of one’s learning on the value. This may provide in the future an overarching means of integrating theory, practice and values in Sen’s notion of capability.

Theory and practice present a binary opposition rooted in the difference between the workplace and academia. Putting aside the fact that the University is also a workplace (Solomon et al., 2001), the next binary is possibly the most fundamental, the notion that WBL can deliver both continuity and change.

Continuity versus Change

ROCA consolidates knowledge around the role of the regulator contributing to the continuity and stability of the organisation. What regulators do now, and should be able to perform, is an important area of a learning programme. The employer wants employees who know the job, know the procedures and can make independent and consistent decisions.

Yet, and employer surveys confirm this (Cbi, 2008b), employers also want flexibility, autonomy and the ability to work in a changing environment. Is it possible to deliver both? The parameters of this binary are given in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Binary 3: Continuity and Change

Binary 3: Continuity and Change
Continuity Change



Institutionalised problem solving

Specific skills

Single loop learning





Capacities and meta-skills

Meta-learning or transferable skills

Double loop learning

Consolidating learning and learning to change represent opposing tendencies but how far can they be integrated? Embedded within the ROCA programme are the assumptions of the NOS – statements of skills and knowledge that the learner should possess at a point in time and be able to demonstrate. The NOS bring together the ability to do the job now.

In contrast doing the job in the future will almost certainly require different skills. One cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that learning for continuity and learning for change are inevitably counter posed. However, a way out is to recognise that both contribute to organisational adaptiveness, the stability of the organisation in a certain environment whilst being able to adapt to changes in that environment. How continuity and stability are produced and reproduced has been of concern to many scholars – Kuhn, Weber and Marx. From an educational perspective, the role of knowledge and ideas in these processes is central. Learning, or meta-learning can be seen as a theory of incremental change (Jackson, 2004, Bamber, 2005) – what is learnt in one situation can be applied in a different or changed situation.

Similar in form but not in philosophy has been Sen’s linking of ‘capabilities’ with social transformation. Mention has been made already of the notion of ‘capability’ in the context of values. Here the focus is on the educational application. Sen’s work is concerned with the way in which the language of rights should reciprocate within a structure of opportunity (Sen, 2004). This has educational applications in that capabilities can be identified that lend themselves to social change and transformation (Walker, 2008 p. 485). As Walker suggests, the very content of education (in so far as it responds to Sen’s perspective) may itself be transformative; capabilities such as critical thinking, the social relationships of learning, argumentation, having ownership of knowledge, autonomy and active and experiential learning create continuities between where we are now and where we want to be.

However, continuity and change have also been considered as a central part of systems theory (Checkland, 1981, Conti, 2006, Donabedian, 1980, Freeman, 1997, Vickers, 1983, Beer, 1981, Beer, 1959); we now shift the focus from the learning content of the programme to the learning feedback between elements of the programme.

Figure 6: ROCA structure and process

Figure 6 above shows the system feedbacks, inputs, outputs and outcomes of the ROCA programme. A primary mechanism promoting change through the programme is the use of ‘self-assessment’ where candidates assess not only their own strengths and weaknesses but also those of the organisation. Candidates then set learning goals in both areas that are part of the assessment commented on by tutors and practice learning assessors. The role of practice learning assessors recruited from within the Care Commission is fundamental as they both validate practice (assess its consistency and potential for continuity) and support the learning points for improvement of practice put forward by the candidate (assess the potential for change and innovation). Aggregated information from the learning points and assessment comments is fed into the organisational practice review bodies; for example, to improve the quality of registrations. At the individual level the learner feeds the accumulated learning points from ROCA into the continuing professional development (CPD) system of the Care Commission. The organisation also feeds its changes in methodology and process, for example, new inspection frameworks, into the ROCA programme. Rather than a binary between continuity and change, the notion of adaptiveness combines the binary discourse into the programme structure.

Learning from binaries

Much of the discussion thus far has focused on the tensions between the organisation and the University. We can ask: does contrasting the University, as an ideal type, and the organisation as ideal type help in understanding the binary discourse of WBL? Mention has been made of the difficulties Universities have in looking outside to the workplace. There are commentators who imply that the organisation may not be as willingly adaptive to change or to learning as the discourse would suggest (Grey, 2001, Antonacopoulou, 2002). This final part of the discussion will take up those concerns.

Figure 7: The Organisation and the University

The Organisation The University
Market/Policy driven

Management culture

Knowledge management


Performance Review

Risk Averse

Skills orientation

Problem solving

Corporate governance

Hierarchy driven

Scholarly culture

Knowledge as the artefact


Peer review

Evidence based



Ethical codes e.g. impartiality and balance

The Organisation and the University represent very different modes of governance (Tenbensel, 2005 p. 268) and very different cultures. Most of the features listed in Figure 7 are self-explanatory but it should be remembered that they are ideal types. In ‘real life’ organisations are also hierarchical and University Vice Chancellors are very aware of the marketplace. That being said there remains a significant difference.

A recurrent theme has been criticism of the University either in its traditions or in its flexibility. Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity as to what exactly the University brings to work-based learning.

There is rarely a positive view taken of the University in relation to WBL.

negative perceptions of HE held by employers include the irrelevance of programmes, lack of flexibility in the time and place of delivery, high transactional and financial costs, poor standards of delivery, and limited return on investment (Cbi, 2008b p. 12).

This is so even in reviews coming from academics (see Garnett and Young, 2008) and our account has not been free of criticism; however, we have also sought to demonstrate the strengths.

It is those characteristics of the University such as traditions of argumentation (seeing all sides of an argument) (Nussbaum, 2008 p. 348), impartiality, the use of evidence, rationality, scientific method and theory construction that are amongst the benefits of work-based learning deriving from the University. The CBI describes how these characteristics can impact on employer abilities in a listing of the benefits of University involvement.

For employees the benefits can include:

  • Increased confidence, higher aspirations and motivation
  • Raised personal and professional status through job changes or promotion, and professional recognition and membership
  • A greater awareness and understanding of particular issues, and being better able to see other points of view
  • More self-awareness as an individual and encouragement to take stock and reflect on their performance
  • Development of new and enhanced existing skills leading to improved performance at work
  • Positive change in thinking at work and being able to challenge assumptions (Cbi, 2008b p. 14).

These benefits fit well with the capabilities discussed earlier as characteristic of higher education (Walker, 2008, 2005) and that also contribute to enhanced adaptability to changing life and work situations.

In trying to explain the success and the failure of the University it could be argued that the University community is not explicit enough concerning the academic characteristics fundamental to the University. A possible reason is that academic skills are often left tacit or if explication does exist it is deeply coded (Lessig, 2006). In contrast, by way of explaining what is meant here, Codes of the Organisation are reasonably accessible and there is often external oversight of those codes making them visible as with corporate governance (Cadbury, 1995, Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 1999).

If higher education benefits are poorly articulated this does produce variability in how they are integrated into WBL. Reflecting on our efforts to combine academic perspectives with work-based demands it can be seen that there was not simply a merging of streams. We had to consider also the individual context of the Care Commission, its processes and systems; the aspirations of and constraints on candidates, and the political and social context of regulation itself. In other words academic processes were customised within the organisation using our interpretations of what the processes were.

In the next section we complete the exploration of binary oppositions by looking at them as strategic confluences; the place where higher education and the workplace converge rather than collide.

Beyond the binary

This discussion has identified the creative activities that have resolved the tense convergence between higher education and the workplace. This section takes the convergence as the defining point of the WBL discourse. Instead of seeing oppositions as barriers they become they focus of the uneasy synergy between higher education and the workplace. Looking back at the earlier discussion it is the discourse between the individual and the community, between theory and practice and between continuity and change that is the essence of the WBL challenge (there may be others). The tensions have promoted problem solving and new solutions across different domains that possibly never will, and never should be, anything other than at opposite ends of the binary.


In our work on the Regulation of Care Award (Scotland) we have been fortunate in having as partners our candidates and the Care Commission, both of who have been willing to explore new ways of the University and Organisation working together. Candidates have reported many of the benefits earlier mentioned by the CBI. These have included increased confidence and an increased ability to challenge. The organisation has reported on a more skilled and independent staff group better able to engage with change and contribute to policy.

Our focus has often been on the creative tensions involved with transferring higher education to the workplace. Our examination of this process has also pointed up our own learning processes and the resources we have used. An integral aspect of this exploration for us as a tutor team has been the recognition of the unique characteristics and potential contribution that the University offers the workplace. This account of front line life suggests that there needs to be greater clarity around these unique characteristics including a more outward facing engagement with learning outside of the University.


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[1] Contact John Brady at: john.brady@precepts.uk

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