1. Action-inquiry, work-focused learning



Based on the Ultraversity Project, this collection of patterns identifies the key innovations developed to teach an undergraduate programme of some 300 student researchers, supported entirely online and having collaboration between learners as a central component.

The Essence of the Problem

To widen participation in HE for those who current provision does not fit.

The Problem in Detail

How to provide a highly personalised, collaborative experience that is supported through online communities and that has authentic work-focused learning for student researchers who wish to study at a full-time rate whilst working full-time with the aim of improving the work that they do.  Developing a combination of pedagogical approaches, which together provide a different route for academic study and appeal to people who are committed to their work and for whom current university provision does not fit. The approach must widen participation by satisfying learners whose need is for flexibility with time, place and pedagogy.  More specifically this could be because:
1.    They need to continue in full-time paid employment whilst they study;
2.    They wish to make their study directly relevant to their work;
3.    Family commitments prevent their on-campus attendance;
4.    Geographical location or poor transport links makes campus attendance difficult;
5.    They seek to develop further their communicative creativity and technological understanding as a complete professional;
6.    Traditional examinations and academic essay writing are either intimidating or uninviting;
7.    They seek the company, support and intellectual challenge of fellow students rather than studying alone;
8.    They seek the advantage offered by technology to enjoy the possibility of work on joint ventures and studying collaboratively.

The Solution

Personalised learning
Learners identify subject knowledge that is relevant to their own work context and needs. Through a process of negotiation with learning facilitators, the learner develops a set of learning activities recorded as Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) or inquiry proposals.

Inquiry-based learning
This methodology has an emphasis on critical reflection on an individual’s work practices and inquiry into their work context. This leads to an inquiry focus that is identified by the student, and an action that is planned, implemented and evaluated with the intention of making a positive impact in their work context.

Online community of inquiry
Online ‘community of inquiry’ offers a rich experience of challenge and debate, support, sharing findings, critical feedback, and conversations with invited experts.  The facilitation team intentionally create an environment where trust and critical friendship can grow and contribute to the development of the community, anticipating a successful environment for deep learning.

Assessment for learning

There are no timed examinations with assessment being based on a patchwork of accumulated elements of work culminating in a critical commentary that accounts for the learning journey in relation to the set module learning outcomes.  Students’ academic voice is developed through encouragement to creatively use alternate genre, rich media and technology such as video, audio, websites and blogs.

Exhibition for dissertation

Towards the end of the programme, learners are required to construct an exhibition of their findings primarily based upon the final year of their studies but drawing on the whole three-year experience. The exhibition is given to an informed audience identified by the learner, wherever possible in their place of work.  Critical evaluation of the exhibition by the audience helps validate their findings.

Internet infrastructure

Students are required to develop their understanding of the use of emerging Internet technology for collaboration and learning preparing them for a future of self-directed, life-long learners.  Interaction between students and learning facilitators is entirely online with no face-to-face meetings.

Reflections on use

Although the pattern posed many significant challenges, noteably the balancing of work/study/life commitments, it was successful in enabling significant numbers of student researchers to gain an undergraduate qualification.  It also proved to be a succesful model for improving the work practices of these student researchers.  Most significantly, since its inception several institutions have developed the ideas to their own context.

Related patterns

1.1 Organise learning places
1.2 Team Teaching
1.3 Exhibition for Dissertation
1.4 Workplace advocate
1.5 Action Learning Set
1.6 Patchwork ‘Media’
1.7 Personalised Learning Contract
1.8 The ‘Hotseat’ expert guest
1.9 Nurture Online Community of Inquiry


5 responses to “1. Action-inquiry, work-focused learning

  1. I believe this statement is incomplete – “6. Traditional examinations and academic essay writing are either intimidating or uninviting;” The traditional form of examination and means of evidencing achievement (essays) are often *invalid* particularly when applied to a work context. Evidencing achievement in a work context is often about implementing successful actions not just the acquisition and recall of knowledge. These actions are often creative and impossible to anticipate they also, in practice, require a professional judgement in order to ascribe a value.

    So revise to ‘either intimidating, uninviting or invalid.’

    When a learner perceives an assessment as invalid or inappropriate they can be demotivated even though they are in reality highly competent.

  2. I think it would have been helpful if you could have attempted to link the problems and the solutions in some way. I think some solutions might apply to more than one of the problems?
    Whilst being aware that this is like a summary, then it would be useful to see the evidence, maybe in the pattern – that supports the findings. Eg “Most significantly, since its inception several institutions have developed the ideas to their own context.” Which institutions? Is there any feedback from their students?
    At the end, you have a list of related patterns – how and why do this fit? Is this concept of a pattern helpful?

  3. Yes, Tom Smith touched on this and suggested a wiki would be a better tool to use. I am sure you are both correct and one weekend when I have some time I will address this!

    I can add the context you suggest and will do.

    As to the ‘Patterns’ approach I am pretty agnostic at the moment, we are trying it and will see where it ends up.

    Thanks for this.

  4. “often *invalid*” I agree Malc.

  5. We need a pattern – the role of the Learning Facilitator. Model, build community, etc.

    Also see.. http://www.stephenp.net/2008/10/01/a-pattern-language-for-action-inquiry-work-focused-learning/#comment-160593

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