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Learning Layers at ECER’14 – Part 1: The VETNET opening session

September 8th, 2014 by Pekka Kamarainen

Last week the Learning Layers (LL) project was strongly present at the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER’14) in Porto, Portugal. This year the conference celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of the umbrella organisation European Educational Research (EERA) that is in charge of the annual ECER conferences. The overarching theme was “Past, Present and Future of European Educational Research“. In a similar way the EERA network for European Research in Vocational Education and Training (VETNET) took the theme “Past, Present and Future of VET Research in Europe and Beyond” for its Opening Colloquium.

As part of this Opening Colloquium I was invited to give a short presentation on the development European research in workplace learning. Originally this task was planned for two other researchers with mutually complementing approaches. As their substitute I chose to focus on the legacy of the Work Process Knowledge network – a topic that I have also brought into discussion in the first Theory Camp session of the Learning Layers project.

I first looked at the history of the network from the unfunded phase (before 1996) to the first funding period as a European network under the EU 4th Framework Programme of Research (Targeted Socio-Economic Research) to the second funding period as a transnational project on Organisational Learning under the EU FP5. During all these phases the network brought together researchers from a wide range of disciplines including ergonomics, psychology of work, VET pedagogists, industrial sociologists, organisational researchers … For the VETNET network it was important that the network was strongly present in ECER conferences from 1978 (Ljubljana) to 2006 (Geneva).

The main point of interest for us was to look at the work of a Europe-wide interdisciplinary network that focused on skilled workers’ participation in and co-shaping contribution to innovations in working life. Here, the network did not try to make an a priori agreement on one overarching umbrella theory under which it would subsume its contributions. Instead,  it organised several sets of case studies and parallel to this worked with a common interpretative framework.

The main sources for developing the framework were field studies and comparative studies of the following kind:

  • studies on organisational innovations (e.g. including the introduction of quality circles) in which skilled workers’ participation and co-shaping contribution became manifest;
  • studies on new manufacturing concepts (e.g. transition from conveyor belt to ‘production islands’) that gave skilled workers’ collective responsibility new importance,
  • studies on hybrid qualifications and new emergining occupations (e.g. the integrative maintenance competences) that required crossing boundaries between traditional occupational fields.

With the overarching concept “Work Process Knowledge” the network drew attention  to the  acquisition of new kind knowledge in the context of innovations:

  1. acquisition of work process knowledge as a whole – not merely as new ‘procedural knowledge’
  2. balanced look at the role of informal learning (by-product of designed activities) and formal learning (taking up the learning gains of informal learning);
  3. the possibility to give support measures to promote organisational learning with relevant tools, learning arrangements and facilitation;
  4. the possibility to promote wider transfer  to other contexts by sharing knowledge and experiences.

When looking back at the history of the Work Process Knowledge network, it became apparent that the phase of the TSER-network was a unique opportunity to provide such a Europe-wide conceptual, transnational and inter-sectoral overview. In the next phase, the follow-up project focused on one branch – the chemical process industry – which was beneficial for becoming more concrete. Yet, the counter-side was the gradual particularisation regarding sectoral aspects and the size of companies. Also, the shift of emphasis brought the management perspective on organisational learning to the centre of interest.

When looking at present, it is apparent that the new presence of Internet, Web 2.0 technologies and mobile technologies open up several working issues of the network in new light. (This became apparent in the other LL sessions in the conference). When looking at the newest technologies that overshadow the construction sector (e.g. “Internet of things”, 3D-printing with new materials, Building Information Modelling (BIM)), there are other challenges that are similar to the ones already discussed by the network at an earlier stage.

Interestingly enough, in the Opening Colloquium Karen Evans raised three main points for looking at past and present and how to draw conclusions for the future:

  • Making VET research robust (awareness of conceptual and methodological grounds but being open for new issues),
  • Making VET research more dialogue-oriented (research, development and practice working together),
  • Making VET research more comparative (both system level, organisational level and in historical terms).

I think this is enough of the opening session. The main contributions of the LL project were in two other sessions – the symposium “Construction 2.0” and the research workshop on “Interactive research”.

More posts to come

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