Applied Learning isn't simply 'hands on' non-academic learning. There's a lot more to it than that...
Applied learning is a notion that is gathering momentum in many educational contexts around the world. But what is applied learning? In order to fully develop applied learning beyond a broad concept, it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to identify and enhance the theoretical and pedagogical underpinnings that underlie it.
This article begins with an attempt to define applied learning and then explores approaches to it from school, vocational and higher education settings both nationally here in Australia and further abroad in more international contexts. Based on this, a specific applied learning program (VCAL – the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) is explored in detail according to educational principles, historical development and the potential for it be developed further to enhance educational opportunities in the areas of personal growth, academic achievement and civic development.
Defining “Applied Learning”
A broad range of definitions have emerged for applied learning, ranging in scope from things like active/‘hands on’ learning to experiential (or ’firsthand’; see St. John, 1999) learning, informal and non-formal learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning (PBL) and service learning. It is interesting how many of these ‘strands’ link back to the discovery learning buzz of the 1960s, but in essence these terms appear to be a range of sub-categories of applied learning which can be blended in ways to create definitions of applied learning as they are applied in various contexts or for particular educational goals.
Malyn-Smith’s (1997) definition of applied learning as ‘experiential, hands-on, active learning which integrates deep academic and rigorous technical content in problems and projects which connect school to life and work’ (in the introduction for a paper about applied learning in the middle school years) is an excellent example of a contextualised definition that incorporates many of the different subcategories associated with the broader concept of ‘applied’. Her definition also resonates with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s emphasis on applied learning being about the integration of theory and application, as well as a learning approach with relevance to ‘real world’ priorities, out of school contexts, holistic learner-centred education and a transition to independent responsibility for learning (VCAA, 2006).
Similarly, vocational and higher education contexts have developed definitions of applied learning to fit their goals and contexts drawing on a similar bank of ‘active’ and ‘experiential’ learning approaches.
While it may seem overly convenient or simplistic, perhaps the most accessible definition of applied learning is to see it as learning that is applied to real world needs and challenges, which naturally require a combination of theory and application for individual, practical and academic growth in negotiated learning settings.
Approaches to Applied Learning
Applied learning is best described as a blend of different teaching approaches, with one or more of the following approaches commonly associated with applied learning frameworks.
Open learning is designed to facilitate independent and interest-guided learning on the part of students rather than achieving a pre-determined objective or result (see Hannafin et al, 1999). Popularised as ‘discovery learning’ by John Dewey (1938), open learning principles play an important role in approaches like active, inquiry, experiential and project-based learning.
By making meaning from direct experiences, people learn through that experience. The learning from reflection on doing something contrasts with the more traditional rote or didactic learning models (see Kolb, 1984) and is one of the most common pedagogical ingredients mentioned in applied learning programs across the spectrum of school, vocational and higher education contexts. Taking ownership of learning objectives is one of many benefits associated with experiential learning alongside discovery learning and rich assortments of skills uptake (for an example of this in a higher education setting see Experiential learning in the MAAPPS program, 2011).
Inquiry and Problem-based Learning
These styles of learning focus on a question or problem which the learners endeavour to ‘solve’. Inquiry-based learning has been explored extensively as part of secondary school science programs in particular (see for example Marx et al, 2004) but also in higher education and vocational courses (for example, in nursing education; see Holaday and Buckley, 2008). Problem-based learning, on the other hand, has had a lot of success in higher education medical courses (see Barrows, 2006). Generally speaking the approach is more student-centred when the learners themselves are active in creating the problem to be explored and, as an approach to applied learning, inquiry and problem-based learning procedures lend themselves well to both project and experiential learning.
In creating or developing something, learners apply inquiry and/or problem-based learning and, when projects are situated in real world settings (or address real world needs), learners are gaining valuable experiential learning that relates well to personal growth and civic development. PBL has gained widespread currency in applied learning programs – or as the applied learning component in more general education models.
Many applied learning programs emphasize community-oriented service related to formal instruction students may be undertaking. Service learning not only enhances the opportunities for more pragmatic learning experiences within a given discipline, it also has a progressive aspect related to community engagement and civic development in learners.
Service learning can be seen in school-based applied learning programs that encourage learners to undertake projects out in the broader community (see for example the case studies presented in Blake and Gallagher, 2009). It is a common element in vocational courses for nurses and other health professionals (see for example Amerson, 2010) and has even become a prerequisite in many engineering courses as a way to close the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical competence combined with social and environmental awareness.
The Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL)
VCAL is a senior high school program developed in Victoria as an alternative to the more traditional and academic VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education). Whereas VCE is the typical benchmark for high school students looking to continue on to tertiary study, VCAL is an applied learning pathway that allows students to finish their schooling and integrate their learning with vocational and work-related preparation.
VCAL is operationalized according to four learning strands (Literacy and Numeracy Skills; Work Related Skills; Industry Specific Skills; Personal Development Skills) and three levels of general proficiency (Foundation, Intermediate and Senior). Assessment excludes exam and test-oriented evaluation in favour of performative portfolio, oral questioning and observation of demonstration tools, with a simple S/N (Satisfactory or Non-Satisfactory) assessment scale.
Educational principles underpinning VCAL
VCAL interprets applied learning according to four broadly interlocked themes or concepts, which in turn underpin a specific list of educational principles (see VCAA, 2006).
The first theme is oriented around the idea that applied learning focuses on ‘real life’ applications beyond the immediate classroom context and establishes this connection as immediately and transparently as possible. This involves a deliberate shift away from discrete curriculum areas to the skills involved in project, inquiry and problem-based learning, and/or real work force participation.
As a result of the emphasis on real world applications, applied learning necessitates out of school learning contexts, which in turn require ‘connections and partnerships with organisations and individuals outside school’ in order for applied learning to become relevant and demonstrable.
Of equal importance is the emphasis on holistic learning in order to effectively nurture students according to their ‘personal strengths, interests, goals and previous experiences’. This means that applied learning works with the ‘whole person’ and deliberately values a variety of skill sets, preferred learning styles and ways of learning.
The fourth and final broad principle underpinning VCAL is that applied learning recognises a transition from school to work and the emergence of adulthood, requiring more independence and responsibility on the part of the learners. Hence the outcomes and goals of learning will need to be directly negotiated with the learners.
These four broad concepts (‘real world’ application, out of school contexts for learning, holistic student-centred learning, negotiated learning for transition to independent and responsible adulthood) in turn underpin a specific list of applied learning principles developed by the VCAA (2006):
1. Start where learners are at.
2. Negotiate the curriculum. Engage in a dialogue with learners about their curriculum.
3. Share knowledge. Recognise the knowledge learners bring to the learning environment.
4. Connect with communities and real life experiences.
5. Build resilience, confidence and self worth – consider the whole person.
6. Integrate learning – the whole task and the whole person. In life we use a range of skills and knowledge. Learning should reflect the integration that occurs in real life tasks.
7. Promote diversity of learning styles and methods. Everyone learns differently. Accept that different learning styles require different learning/teaching methods but value experiential, practical and ‘hands on’ ways of learning.
8. Assess appropriately. Use the assessment method that best ‘fits’ the learning content and context.
The historical development of VCAL
Blake and Gallagher (2009) examine the development of VCAL in detail as part of a broader analysis of education participation trends in Australia as well as the nature of applied learning in the program and implications for current and future higher education programs targeting the preparation of pre-service teachers in Victoria.
VCAL was initially created as a response to ‘increasing participation rates in secondary schooling throughout the 1990s and early 2000s’ (Blake and Gallagher 2009, p. 67), which in itself was part of a wider Australian education policy reform agenda linking school completion rates to economic productivity. Not only did OECD figures point to Australia being well behind other first world countries in school completion rates, economic modelling suggested a lift to 90% for school completion would yield significant benefits to the Australian economy, including 65,000 more workers and a nine billion Australian dollar expansion in terms of economic productivity.
However, in setting a target of at least 90% for Year 12 level school completion by the year 2010, the Victorian government also needed to address the problem of more ‘early school leavers’ based on disenchantment with traditional academic transmissive style of education characteristic of VCE, at the time the only high school option for students. Blake and Gallagher identify this alongside a ‘discourse of risk’ (2009, p. 51). While completion of Year 12 significantly enhances employability and wealth generation potential, non-completion can be correlated to lower earnings, increased risk of longer term unemployment and an increase of risk to broader society in terms of crime rates (see Chapman, Weatherburn, Kapuscinski, Chilvers, & Roussel, 2002, p. 10).
In essence, in order to increase participation and completion rates to Year 12 level, alternative pathways, contexts and teaching methods were required. With an emphasis on flexible learning pathways and applied learning principles, VCAL was developed as a solution to this problem. Incorporating a range of learning settings (including things like structured work placements, community projects and youth development programs), VCAL was designed to be delivered across a range of different providers; in addition to government, Catholic and Independent schools, Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions and Adult and Community Education (ACE) organizations were approved settings for delivery of the secondary VCAL program.
First introduced in Victoria as a series of pilot programs in 2002, VCAL has rapidly grown in terms of the number of providers and student participation and completion rates. From 239 official providers and an enrolment of 5,127 in 2003, by 2008 there were 423 VCAL providers and 15,641 enrolled students (Blake and Gallagher, 2009, p. 54). In 2004, VCAL had a completion rate of almost 59%, which by 2008 had risen to 70% (Blake and Gallagher, 2009, p. 56).
The impressive growth of VCAL is noteworthy in terms of overall school completion rates, the popularity and call for more applied learning programs and some of the ramifications for pre-service teacher education programs.
Looking first at school completion rates, by 2008 Victoria’s percentage of persons aged 20-24 who had completed Year 12 or equivalent had risen to almost 89% - up from 82% in 2000. Not only was this on target for the government’s goal to have 90% of people completing school at Year 12 level by 2010, it had boosted Victoria’s place to second nationally (behind only the ACT with a completion rate of 90.4%) compared to all other states, and was well above the national school completion rate of 84.2%. The improvement in Victoria’s school participation and completion rates cannot be wholly attributed to just VCAL, but the provision of this flexible and applied learning pathway has clearly had a beneficial impact.
In addition, VCAL’s growth indicates that applied learning is a popular option for learners disengaged from more traditional and academic approaches to secondary school education. A survey of VCAL students indicated that 87.8% agreed or strongly agreed that it was the provision of the VCAL option itself that encouraged them to stay at school (Teese, Clarke, & Polesel, 2007, p. 7). In the same study, it was the experiential and applied learning elements of VCAL which were most popular with students. A more recent litmus test of VCAL’s popularity emerged after the change of government in Victoria in 2010 and subsequent deep cuts to VCAL funding, which created something of an uproar with students, parents and program providers.
The provision of VCAL has also presented new challenges for teachers, in that they need to develop project management skills that can be responsive to an approach requiring students to ‘assemble their different modes of learning’(Blake and Gallagher, 2009, p. 62). This means that ‘ultimately VCAL teachers are required to overcome many of the dichotomous divisions that have tended to dominate education institutions, resulting in transmissive approaches’ and they need to ‘value learning that encourages greater links between: “learning with the hands and learning with the mind”; learning as individuals and learning as teams and communities’(Blake and Gallagher, 2009, p. 63).
Addressing these challenges at the teacher training level, a Graduate Diploma of Education (Applied Learning) was established at Deakin University in 2005 which involved partnership with a Local Learning and Employment Network (LLEN) in Geelong and a ‘mixed mode’ approach incorporating intensive face-to-face workshops; online learning; work-based learning conducted in schools, TAFEs or ACEs; and service-learning oriented around community-based initiatives (Blake and Gallagher, 2009). This blended/mixed mode approach to teacher education clearly mirrors the principles of VCAL and applied learning used with learners and constitutes a major development in the area of pre-service teacher training.
Beyond the positive effects on Year 12 or equivalent completion results for Victorian learners developed over the past decade, VCAL has demonstrated the value of applied learning as a valid educational process to help different learners with more learning contexts, modes and pathways. It has also created a unique teacher qualification program that ‘practises what it preaches’ by having teachers engage in the same sorts of learning modes as the learners. Despite these very positive developments, VCAL isn’t without certain problematical issues and these need to be evaluated and addressed if VCAL is to continue to develop as a viable educational pathway.
VCAL: Potential for further development
In order to better cater to learners’ personal growth, academic achievement and civic development, VCAL faces a number of challenges. These might be summarized according to marginalization of applied learning in schools, the potential for more applied learning techniques to be considered as part of the overall VCAL approach, and an increase in emphasis on the additional ‘mode’ of online distance-based learning.
Overcoming the marginalization of applied learning
Blake (2007) accurately points to a risk that applied learning, as it is presented in VCAL, will be ‘marginalized as … a lesser form of learning’ (p. 73). In schools where both VCE and VCAL are offered, VCE is still seen as the mainstream (or ‘proper’) option while VCAL is the ‘alternative’ (or ‘therapy’ – see Blake and Gallagher 2009, p. 66; Hyland 2006) pathway, generally for students who are disengaged or struggle academically. VCAL is also often perceived as the ‘soft’ option for easier high school completion, a perception which is erroneous without an active appreciation of the robustness of VCAL and its deliberate emphasis on an integration of ‘hands on’ work with theory and academic skills.
Do we really need to identify and separate VCAL at the whole-course level? Given the versatility and range of subject options currently offered as VCE (and the capacity for mixing and matching across both VCE and VCAL), it might well be the case that the four streams making up VCAL could be offered as specialised applied learning unit options under an expanded VCE qualification system (rather than separating them as a specific course). This would go a long way towards recognizing the value of applied learning as a valid and relevant approach to school-based learning, and could very well improve the broader skill sets of many students preparing for tertiary study in courses that are increasingly being called upon to feature applied learning objectives and techniques. There would be less impetus to marginalize applied learning subjects if they were ‘unbundled’ from a named and alternative course path and incorporated as options in the regular and broadened VCE qualification.
Critics of this notion might be quick to point out that a ‘blended’ overall VCE qualification would confuse the process of tertiary admission criteria, but this both undervalues the academic learning potential incorporated into VCAL units and ignores ‘the increasing importance being placed on applied and experiential learning in university contexts (see for example Wolff & Tinney, 2006)’ (Blake 2007, p. 73). If applied learning principles are becoming more popular in a greater range of tertiary subjects, it makes sense for access to these courses to include consideration of achievements in applied learning at the high school level as well. The organisation and set up of all/any VCAL strands effectively makes them flexible and valid enough to apply to any career pathway, including those with specialist and academic orientations.
Rather than working on ways to accept and include applied learning strands, one might alternatively argue that the academic and transmissive orientation of current VCE offerings actually inhibits learners’ potential for post-school employment, personal growth and civic development. In this case applied learning in the form of Personal Development Skills and Work Related Skills in particular could be seen as important prerequisite inclusions in any high school matriculation program.
Expanding applied learning approaches in VCAL
While VCAL currently enjoys an emphasis on experiential, project-based and out of school applied learning techniques, it would be beneficial to consider a broader range of applied learning approaches in order to find more ways to improve the potential for learners’ personal growth, academic achievement and civic participation.
As an example, one applied learning approach that is worth closer attention is ‘learning by teaching’, closely related to the LdL approach first advocated by Jen-Pol Martin and bearing a lot in common with the Peer Assisted Study System (PASS) currently being promoted in many tertiary contexts. As a result of teaching content and skills within a given context to other learners, students have the potential to increase their own knowledge and understanding (academic achievement) as well as expanding personal growth and confidence and making a social contribution in applicable civic contexts.
Connections with primary school programs and earlier years of secondary school are two ways of doing this for VCAL students. Applied Learning in the VCAL facilitates the development of specialised skills, and these can be applied with younger students in the form of specialised projects.
However, the structure of VCAL itself (with three broad levels: foundation, intermediate and senior) represents significant opportunities for students to do this with their own applied learning peers. Students enrolled in senior VCAL have the potential to pass on skills and awareness in a range of strands and specialised work skills to other VCAL students at intermediate level, and intermediate students have opportunities to do the same for foundation level students. The potential for this is enhanced considerably given more access to a wider variety of learners through online-distance based course options (see below).
One of the major challenges facing teachers in applied learning programs is the call for highly personalised and negotiated learning pathways for each learner. Given restrictions in teaching time, resources and coordination funding, and despite teachers’ best intentions, the temptation to revert to more linear and ‘one size fits all’ programs and projects is a real one.
One way of overcoming some of these difficulties and to more effectively use applied learning in group settings is to consider some of the principles of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), which cater to learner diversities at group level and remove unnecessary barriers to learning while maintaining academic rigour. With a rich research base including a variety of detailed case studies and instructional primers (see for example Edyburn, 2008), UDI integrates well with applied learning principles and addresses some of the more practical challenges of using applied learning in structured group settings.
Building online distance-based options to complement VCAL
The integration of applied learning principles via a ‘multi mode’ approach in the Graduate Diploma of Education (Applied Learning) was demonstrated to be effective and appropriate (see Blake and Gallagher, 2009) as a pre-service training and preparation program for teachers. Intrinsic to that approach is the mode of online distance-based learning and it is suggested here that the same mode needs to be further developed and made available as part of VCAL course options for students.
VCAL students usually represent a small minority in school-based programs where regular VCE is the more common course of choice and this no doubt contributes to the marginalization effect described above. Having access to an online community of other VCAL learners across the state would no doubt enhance prospects for personal growth in students, not to mention confidence and social skills. It would also make more course content options available via distance based teachers, increasing academic achievement potential for applied learners in more remote/rural settings where local school resources for applied learning streams (and associated potential for a ‘negotiated learning program’) are limited.
Online learning has also now developed to the point that multiple learning styles can be effectively catered to (for example visual and aural materials), with scaffolding and self-pacing mechanisms that can enhance applied learning for students who find classroom settings uncomfortable and/or inappropriate in terms of delivery methods.
Given that more people and more aspects of social interaction and community building are increasingly taking to the online medium, it makes sense for VCAL to take advantage of the online mode to increase civic development in learners. Students can ‘apply’ their skills in ways that create online e-portfolios (enhancing assessment processes) and contribute to real projects and organisations increasingly active in an online world.
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