Published on 2013/05/20

Work-Based Learning and Continuing Education: Connecting the K-12 Classroom to Real Life

Work-Based Learning and Continuing Education: Connecting the K-12 Classroom to Real Life
Continuing education units can play a major role in preparing the future workforce as well as in supporting today’s workforce by creating links to educators both in K-12 and in undergraduate institutions.

The next generation must be ready to transition into the workplace or their jobs will go to someone else — in many cases, someone well-trained and in a far-off country. It is no secret the competition for jobs has expanded globally. While each of these statements might seem disquieting in nature, each is true, and each re-emphasizes the necessity and urgency of preparing our graduates for successful transition into the global workforce. Our students’ competitive edge may rest in secondary and post-secondary institutions offering work-based learning programming that connects their learning to real life.

So, what is work-based learning? It is an educational strategy that links school-based instruction with real-life experiences in the workplace. It is a planned program of job training and work experiences such as job shadowing, informational interviews and workplace tours, as well as workplace mentoring. Additionally, programs could add components providing students with work experience through apprenticeships, volunteer work, service learning, school-based enterprises, on-the-job training and paid employment.

Brennan and Little note that work-based learning has increasingly become an area of interest for the continuing education sector.[1] It has evolved into a means to support the personal and professional development of students who are already participating in the labor market, and the focus of the learning and development tends to be on the student’s workplace activities.

Connecting learning to the workplace is nothing new in continuing education. In fact, it is common practice for continuing education institutions to develop training, courses and certificate programs based on input from industry professionals and company advisory boards. The result of this collaborative effort is relevant training for industry employees and a means for individuals to break into new or emerging jobs. Given the bond between continuing education and industry, it makes sense for educators across the teaching space — both in K-12 schools and in undergraduate institutions — to collaborate with the seasoned professionals in continuing education to bridge learning in the classroom to the real world.

Early work-based learning experiences can help students build crucial job-keeping skills, or soft skills. Many employers report that they want employees who are eager to learn, show respect and take their job commitment seriously. While jobs in today’s economy require that employees be able to solve problems, use technology and be proficient in reading, writing, math and speaking skills, it is the soft skills that seem to make the difference in whether or not an employer hires and keeps someone on the job. Specifically, employers want employees who display positive social skills including a strong work ethic, tolerance, self-discipline, self-respect, a friendly demeanor and reliability. [2] This is not a secret to other countries that face the same challenge of developing the next generation of talent.

Countries throughout the world are taking advantage of work-based learning to effectively train their future employees. Many countries have developed systematic policies for integrating young people into the workforce. Germany uses an apprenticeship (work-based learning) system that begins early and combines classroom and on-the-job instruction. In Japan, many employers agree to hire students referred to them by specific schools. Various organizations, administrative agencies and policies in the United States encourage work-based learning; however, the variance in the number of students participating in work-based learning and the quality of these programs differs from state to state, even from school district to school district.

High-quality work-based learning requires students to have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the experiences offered and to reflect thoughtfully on their learning. It requires educators to link experiences to the classroom and to work closely with employers and communities to ensure students comprehend the standards to which they will be held as adults in the working world. Organizational structures and resources, instructor preparation and employer engagement strategies must be aligned to facilitate this form of high-quality learning.

So what are the benefits of work-based learning to students and educators? According to Rob Atterbury with the California Center for College and Career, students who participate in work-based learning connected to their school programs:

  • Show improved academic achievement.
  • Realize the relevance of their education and apply acquired knowledge in a meaningful way.
  • Have the opportunity to explore career options before selecting a college major.
  • Increase self-confidence.
  • Acquire real workplace experience and employability skills.
  • Connect with an adult role model and mentor, who provides employment support and could potentially lead to employment in the future.
  • Are more likely to go on to some type of educational training after high school.

As states explore ways to improve post-secondary student outcomes, work-based learning may factor significantly among the solutions. For this reason, it merits ongoing investigation and investment.

– – – –


[1] John Brennan and Brenda Little, “Towards a Strategy for Workplace Learning: Report of a study to assist HEFCE in the development of a strategy for workplace learning,” Centre for Higher Education Research & Information, 2006, available from

[2] Christine D. Bremer and Svjetlana Madzar, “Encouraging employer involvement in youth apprenticeship and other work-based learning experiences for high school youth.” Journal of Vocational and Technical Education, Vol 12(1), Fall 1995. Available from

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Increase Revenue with Modern Continuing Education Software

How using modern eCommerce principles drives revenue in Continuing Education

Read here

Readers Comments

Melinda Curry 2013/05/20 at 8:53 am

Strangely, I’ve been seeing a lot more of these summer programs being offered by different universities and, all this time, I’ve been wondering “what’s the point?”

Thanks for this piece Ed – it’s great to understand the value institutions can gain from offering classes for high schoolers

    Rhonda White 2013/05/20 at 11:15 am

    Actually one really interesting reason that was brought up in an earlier interview for creating links between high school and post-secondary was to drive enrollments.

    The college provides transfer credits for completion of a given course, and high school students would be closer to their degree should they elect to enroll at that institution.

    Sounds like a great idea to me to offer more courses and programs aimed at high school kids. Who says ‘LIFE’long learning starts after post-secondary graduation?

Greg Allen 2013/05/20 at 4:40 pm

The article states that some countries have “systematic policies for integrating young people into the workforce” — something that is lacking in the United States. I would be interested to learn more about the policies that have been introduced in other countries, their success rates, and whether they could be applied here. (I could foresee some difficulty, though, given that our states have a lot of control over higher education; in other countries, it might be that the national government is responsible for education issues.)

Josh Shapiro 2013/05/20 at 6:20 pm

Engaging students (regardless of age) in industry can make the learning experience come to life. By providing students this ‘missing link’ educators can engage the students in real world issues enabling the classroom to move beyond the four walls of the school.

Thanks for writing this important and informative piece.

Will Wright 2013/05/21 at 1:29 am

It’s promising that departments are starting to collaborate with continuing education units to develop work-based learning. However, there are also other departments that are quite far along in terms of using a work-based learning model. For example, some programs have mandatory co-op placements that give students work experience or offer courses that prepare students for professional designations. These departments, along with continuing education, should take the lead in encouraging the rest of the institution to rethink their programming.

Chelsea Bellows 2013/05/21 at 7:42 am

I am not surprised by the California Center for College and Career’s findings that students who participate in work-based learning fare better than their counterparts in traditional programming. When learning is based on real-life scenarios, students are better able to see how their education prepares them for a career and are, thus, more likely to work hard to master the material and related skills. All programs should make efforts to connect their curriculum to the workplace, even if, for some departments, it means simply hosting a career fair or having industry leaders come in to give presentations to students. These are small steps, but they do begin to create a culture within the department that recognizes the importance of linking education with the labor market.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *