Many professional and vocational programmes use work practice (under various different names, including "placement", "practicum" and "internship") as a means of enabling students to test their learning in the "real world". The establishment of the pattern of these placements is generally undertaken at the level of large-scale curriculum planning, largely beyond the scope of this site, and the topic is far too large to say much of value at that level, but these notes are intended to guide thinking about how the individual teacher relates to her or his students' work practice.
Don't forget that in many cases part-time students already have a substantial amount of work experience: that is what makes them so much more challenging and rewarding to teach.
In very broad terms, work practice has two broad functions:
- Application of college learning to the real-world workplace, or taking learning out, and
- Facilitating testing of learning against the experience of the work-place, or bringing experience in.
The image of the bridge is a useful one, which can inform the role of the tutor in assisting with learning through and from work practice.
If the student is concerned with the practicalities of what "they" (real practitioners) do in the work-place—look at what principles underlie it.
If the student is concerned with theoretical issues, emphasise questions about how practitioners use them in practice, or how they account for practice.
It goes without saying that work practice involves engagement with outside employers, and both the formal and informal relationships with them can vary enormously.
- For some employers and some disciplines, taking students is an obligation: some regard students as an asset, some as a liability.
- Some get recompensed for their investment in training, some provide workplace supervisors or mentors out of goodwill, and yet others duck the task.
- Some will actively select their students, others have to take whatever the college or university decides to send.
- In some cases it is up to students to find their own placements, in others the college is more active.
- Some employers pay their students, others do not.
- Some will have long-standing relationships with courses, others may be one-offs
All of these factors will affect what you can legitimately expect: but in every case there needs to be a contract. It may be negotiated with a light touch, and simply take the form of a confirmatory letter about the placement arrangements, or it may be the product of high-level negotiations, sometimes even at a national level, but whatever the form, it sets out clearly the expectations and responsibilities of each partner.
If the contract is not spelt out, there is still an implicit one, but that is likely to be too vague and variable; there may be different understandings of crucial provisions, and there may be unacceptable variations in the opportunities offered to students.
There are at least three parties to the contract; student, employer, and course, and so there needs to be a section of the agreement devoted to the rights and responsibilities of each. If at all possible, negotiate it properly, rather than try to impose it. The biggest single problem is lip-service.
This part is similar to (although naturally less detailed than) a contract of employment/job specification. It needs to set out what will be expected of the student, including hours of work, role and responsibilities, accountability, etc. It may specify the facilities available to the student, and the circumstances under which expenses may be claimed from the employer.
A significant issue for students undertaking professional training is the extent to which the placement agency or company is able or willing to allow them to take responsibility in their work: this can be defined in this section. Some thought may need to be given to whether students are covered by the company's insurance, and legal liabilities.
There may also be a section setting out the student's individual learning needs, and the opportunities sought from this particular placement. This is particularly important if the student is to undertake a specific project, either in the form of an assessment task for the course (where information control and confidentiality may also be issues) or for the employer.
This part similarly defines the level and limits of commitment of an employer, including the arrangements for mentoring and supporting the student, and their role in reporting on progress and summative assessment.
It is in the nature of this section that it consists largely of a list of obligations; do give some thought to what is in it for the employer, too!
The programme's part of the contract will define the purposes and objectives of the placement, and the arrangements for monitoring and visiting by programme staff. It may also cover the financial arrangements if any.
Much of the potential of work practice can be lost if there is a lack of clarity about objectives. There may well be a general set of objectives, included in the "Course" part of the contract, and a specific set negotiated at the outset of the placement for this particular student.
In some circumstances, students may be assessed on a specific set of competences. This, of course, assumes that every placement can offer appropriate opportunities, and that the mentor or supervisor is able to devote the time to such assessment.
In other cases, the emphasis may be much more on the value of the experience of a real-life working placement, and it will be up to the student to make of it what she or he can, with a reflective journal or similar task to be assessed back on the course. This is more flexible, and may make fewer demands on the employer, but assessment is much more difficult — particularly in terms of what the student does not mention.
Most students will survive without any particular support. Some will even learn something from the experience. But really to learn does require support.
- Support in the work-place is most likely to come from colleagues with whom the student strikes up an informal relationship. This is good at the level of survival, but limited at the level of learning. Career workers have to arrive at an accommodation with their practice in which they take a lot for granted and are not given over much to penetrating beneath the surface. They may not even know why things are done as they are. They may be locked into a grumbling culture, which locates all problems outside themselves and their responsibility—there are innumerable possibilities. However, really to learn, students need more than this.
- Work-based support from a trained mentor or practice teacher is probably the ideal. It is found in professional settings with a high commitment to training, but rarely elsewhere. The mentor has regular meetings with the student, helping him to address a defined practice curriculum. The downside of this is that the student role may be very restricted by the setup, giving little idea of what working life is like for the "real" staff.
- Tutor support from college is an effective complement to mentor support, but realistically it is rarely frequent or intensive enough to do much more than to remind the student she is still a student. Even so, the tutor has an important role in ensuring that the contract is respected and implemented.
- Increasingly, support can be provided over the net, and many students may well be more comfortable with this than their tutors. Virtual Learning Environments are often not as friendly or familiar as tutors like to think, and moreover they are clearly owned by the institution. There are many alternatives, from simple email-based groups set up through Google or Yahoo!, to Facebook pages, or Ning networks. It is of course quite possible that networks may be set up by students without including tutors... The potential and limitations of such methods are still being revealed, but students do need to be aware that it is not wise to be rude about their placement on a public site, and that confidentiality obligations extend even to unofficial media.
Follow up is essential, and in practice it is often driven by the students, who want to share their work experiences and to test their ideas with tutors. Tutors may find students re-vitalised and re-motivated, able to make connections with practice on issues which before were merely theoretical. This needs to be respected:
- Seminars are valuable where students can report on their experience and share it in a more disciplined way.
- Course credit can attach to the placement in many ways, and the reflective journal is one useful one. It does not directly assess the practice on the placement, but the extent to which the student gives evidence of thinking through its rationale, and relating it to college input.
- Tutors can make a conscious effort to recognise the students' recent experience, and draw on it in routine classes.