In Germany work-based learning – which goes by the long-established title: “Learning in the Process of Work”, has been gaining in importance since the 1970s. The term learning here is considered the ideal for the comprehensive development that delivers professional competence. The digitalization of work actually reinforces a renaissance of learning in and through work. This is mirrored in new business and work concepts, such as the learning company and industry 4.0. Although in practice many varieties and models of work-related learning have been developed, the related research is still in its infancy. The variants are differentiated according to the place of learning in work-integrated, work-connected, and work-oriented learning. Of this typology, five models stand out in terms of the learning organization and didactic-methodological criteria. All relevant forms and concepts of work-related learning can be assigned to these models, from communities of practice through coaching to work-oriented learning at schools and universities. The theory of learning and didactic implementation takes place in learning concepts, which focus on action learning and the learner’s self-regulation. These include concepts such as situated learning, self-directed learning and reflexive learning. Recognition and accreditation of learning outcome and success is a primary task: While experience-based learning phases in formally organized educational programs at schools and in universities are per se accredited, experience-based learning in the workplace for employees is recognized only in exceptional cases and accredited to formal educational programs in the vocational and academic educational sector.
Variants and models of work-based and work-related learning
As mentioned above, the term “work-related learning” is semantically broad and has many different meanings. Depending on its relation to in-company work, work-related learning can differ widely. Three variants of work-based and work-related learning can be distinguished from the criterion of the relationship between the place of learning and the place of work (Dehnbostel 2009, 2631 ff.):
− work-integrated learning: Learning venue and workplace are identical; the actual learning takes place at the workplace or in the work process. Examples are Communities of Practices (CoP), work- and learning tasks, traditional apprenticeship and adaptation training
− work-connected learning: Learning venue and workplace are separated, though spatially, and in terms of work organization, they are connected. In practice, e.g. there is learning area close to the production line, which focuses on education trainees relevant to a section of the production; the concept is dubbed the learning bay. Other examples are quality circles, learning stations, and internships
− work-oriented learning: Work-oriented learning take place in formal learning venues such as vocational schools or colleges, training centres or universities. Learning is made up here of simulation of work organization, work tasks and processes. It sets out to simulate real work places as exactly as possible. As learning rather than work is the primary aim, the disparity of simulated and real work places cannot be compensated.
When discussing aspects of learning organization and didactic-methodological criteria, five types of work-based learning can be distinguished and attributed to different organizational concepts of learning and organizational forms of learning. Individual concepts or shapes can be assigned to several models if they are designed differently. They feature in the graphic here and are described in more detail below:
(1) Learning through active participation in real work processes
Learning through active participation in real work processes or “learning in the process of work” is the most common form of vocational education and training. It is a learning that idealistically incorporates cognitive, affective, and psychomotor dimensions equally. Experiences, motivation and social references are addressed in particular, through the actual seriousness of real work. In contrast to school and academic learning, the learning unfolds in real working and social situations. The conditions and orientations of learning at work are highly dependent on historical, cultural and branch-specific circumstances.
The concept of communities of practice (CoP) addressed in section 1.2 is a classical concept of learning through trade practices. In recent developments, the CoP and online communities as a virtual variant are accompanied in a targeted manner (Schröder 2017), so that they can also be assigned to the following model (2). Learning on the Job (Onstenk 1995) and various forms of adaptation training are further learning concepts for learning through active participation in the real work process.
(2) Learning through companionship and instruction at work place
In the company’s educational work, systematic instruction mainly takes place in the initial training of unskilled and skilled laborer. Still the most simple form of training is based on the principle of imitation. In the course of dual apprenticeship, however, teaching does not correspond to the principles of modern methods of self-directed and self-determined learning, but it still has an important place in the plurality of learning methods. Masters, journeyman, and trainee specialists play a key role in traditional forms of instruction. They select the work tasks, arrange the work and learning processes and evaluate the work results. The traditional instruction is often carried out according to the four-step method: preparing, showing, imitating and practicing (Greinert 1994). Companies increasingly employ this traditional practice in initial vocational training in advanced vocational training. However, these and similar learning methods at the workplace, such as analytical work instruction and the action-regulated instruction, contribute only to a limited extent to competence development and reflexive action competence as they are not holistic and self-controlled methods. Different forms of accompanied learning in the process of work, such as learning facilitation, coaching, and mentoring have resulted in new forms of accompanied learning have experienced a broad spread among companies in a short time (Dehnbostel 2015, 103 ff.). Also a part of this are accompanying communities of practice and online communities.
(3) Learning through the combination of informal and formal learning
Successful learning through the combination of informal and formal learning can be observed in new forms of learning organization such as learning bays, work and learning tasks and coaching. They have gained a great deal of importance in the field of in-company education, but are mainly practiced in large enterprises and, to a lesser extent, by medium-sized enterprises. For small businesses, work and learning tasks, learning and organization forms that combine formal and informal learning, have proven to be a success (Schröder 2009). Systematic learning processes in the immediate work process combined with informal and formal learning occur in the American “Structured Learning on the Job” approach (Jacobs 1999). In the 1980s, this structured learning process, rooted in traditional training methods, is supported by learning materials and equipment.
(4) Learning through in-company observation and exploration
In-company internships are assigned to work-connected learning. Work experiences, that occur in companies, are integrated into formal educational programs in schools, vocational schools, and universities. It organizational form differs as the example of Work Integrated Learnings (WIL) in university programs shows (Peach & Gamble 2011). The intention is for interns from schools to gain insight into the working world therefore acquiring real experience and a deeper understanding of theories. However, a targeted overview of areas not represented in one’s own company is often sought for apprentices or trainees in decentralized inter-company programs. Under the auspices of formal inter-company associations and networks, systematic explorations and forms of job rotation are employed, which serve the acquisition of job-related or job-specific competences. Inter-company exploration is carried out when benchmarking is used as a form of learning organization. The comparison of methods, services and organizational processes plays a special role. These approaches and concepts are organized, formal learning measures, explicitly employing informal learning through experiences but not formalizing them.
(5) Learning through simulating work organization, work tasks, and processes in an institutional setting
Work-oriented learning in simulated workplaces and work processes takes place in schools, colleges, as well as in in-company, supra-company and non-company training and education centers. Well-known concepts and learning forms are production schools, training courses, training companies and task-based work in educational centers. Dual apprenticeship learners learn theory in vocational colleges in a task-based manner. The underlying curricula are based on so-called learning fields which reflect areas of the specific occupation. The well-known instructional psychology of “cognitive apprenticeship” also belongs to this model (Collins et al. 1989). This approach focuses on the transfer of basic elements of traditional trade apprenticeship to the acquisition of primarily cognitively determined competencies. While simulations do not allow for authentic learning, learning can be influenced to a great extent by realistic, work-related, spatial and economic criteria. Simulation of work processes sets out to create a learning situation that is as realistic as possible, to enable acquisition of complex competences and experiences and to have them reflected upon. Simulations in education and training are gaining in importance rather than losing despite the increase in learning at work is not a paradox, however, it is due mainly to the growing complexity of many work and service processes, and in particular to the observed growth potentials of simulated learning through digital media (Landriscina 2015).
The range of different models of work-based and work-related learning and the forms of learning organization associated with them will certainly continue, expand, and be differentiated in the future. To what extent learning in the workplace supplements or replaces conventionally organized learning outside of the workplace cannot be effectively estimated by today’s stage of development and research. Nonetheless, it may be assumed that the acquisition of comprehensive, professional competence in vocational and academic education is only possible through the implementation of different models of work-related learning. Theoretically, didactically, methodologically and in terms of its learning-organization these models relate to each other in a reciprocal and complementary manner.