Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Using the web to create a community of learners in cooperative education: An example from Architecture

Susan Savage
Teaching and Learning Development Unit, and
School of Architecture, Interior and Industrial Design
Queensland University of Technology
    Much knowledge is embedded in the everyday practice of professional people; their tacit knowing is deployed daily as they undertake framing, reframing and solution of the problems that constitute their vocation. Their expertise appears to flow effortlessly however, for the novice, the acquisition of the know-how which underpins the practice of experts can be fraught with frustration and difficulty. Coming to 'feel the knowing' of experts is one of the hopes for workplace learning in the architecture curriculum at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) as it has been for over half a century. The projects described here are in development to improve learning in this essential part of QUT's curriculum. The virtual space proposed for architecture's Professional Experience Programme (PEP) is intended to diminish the gap between work and study for part-time students and their teachers in practice and at university. The Electronic Log Book (ELB) is designed to deal efficiently and thoroughly with the reporting required for students' mandatory work experience. Each project, particularly the former, is based on understanding the way in which learning through working is facilitated and each is designed to promote a community of learners in cooperative education in QUT's architecture course. Both projects rely on web-based technology to fulfil their aims [1]. There may well be ideas here which could be deployed in other disciplines to improve workplace learning.
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Architectural education has existed in formal academic settings for about a century. Considering that architects have been recognised since the time of Mesopotamian civilization one century represents a mere 'blip' on the timeline of the discipline. The earliest architects, like other professionals, learnt their skills 'on the job', in the marketplaces and spiritual centres of the ancient world. It must, therefore, be considered normal for architects to be educated through their work however architectural education which embraces concurrent formal and workplace learning is uncommon. Two of Australia's seventeen architecture schools, QUT and University of Technology, Sydney, adopt such a system while, in the USA, less than ten schools subscribe to cooperative education. In this paper ideas and practices to improve cooperative education are outlined. These projects attend to the improvement of teaching and learning in architecture's Professional Experience Programme (PEP) and to the collection of data about students' work experience (the Electronic Log Book or ELB).

PEP in Architecture

For many years PEP has been characterised by a 'separate worlds' view of work and study. A recent study of attitudes about concurrent practice experience and university coursework (Savage 1994) revealed that students frequently feel torn between the demands of their employers and their teachers. That these demands are seen as oppositional is informative in a system which is described, somewhat euphemistically, as 'cooperative'. Both employers and teachers demand the lion's share of their student's attention serving to exacerbate, rather than heal, the problems created for students by forcing split loyalties. Students also comment (Savage 1994) on the capacity of their work experience to deliver learning outcomes citing this as the primary reason for their complaints about PEP (National Visiting Panel 1999). Some academics believe that if PEP cannot sustain reasonable student learning then all responsibility for architectural education should be moved to the academy where quality and consistency, if not authenticity, can be more thoroughly assured. The antipathy which characterises much of the sentiment between practitioner-employers and academic staff leaves students caught in the middle of a poor relationship where it is unlikely that transformative learning can flourish. The system requires fundamental rethinking aimed at reducing the schism between the dual interests of workplace and university.

The foregoing short critique of current circumstances in not peculiar to architecture (Savage, in progress) and, coupled with the following brief analysis of issues centred on workplace learning, forms the basis for a new model of PEP to be described later. The new model recognises that a place separate from the commerce of the workplace and the surreality of university didacticism may improve the learning potential of cooperative education in architecture.

Learning in the workplace

Much has been written about the potential of the workplace to provide an appropriate venue for education in the professions and trades (see for example Boud 1998; Marsick and Watkins, 1990; Billett 1993,1994; Stevenson 1994; Brockbank and McGill 1998). These analyses of the pedagogical qualities of the workplace draw heavily on ideas from cognitive psychology and sociocultural psychology (see for example Martin, Nelson and Tobach 1995; Detterman and Sternberg 1993; Brown, Collins and Duguid 1989; Rogoff 1990; Rogoff and Lave 1984). This literature demonstrates that the social circumstances of the learner's workplace shape the ways in which knowledge is acquired and used. Workplace learning is described as informal and incidental (Marsick and Watkins 1990) and dependent on the unravelling of the tacit knowledge which accompanies professional action (Beckett 1996 and Schon 1983 and 1987); it fosters the development of working intelligence (Scribner 1984). These theories share an idea of situated cognition described by Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) who contend that,
"knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used ... the activity in which knowledge is developed ... is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition" (p32).
These observations are reinforced by analysts of the professions in practice. Schon's well-known descriptions of the professional framing and reframing problems in search of a solution (1983) assume a situatedness within the conditions and culture of practice. Professional practice, reliant as it is on the immediate needs of problems as they emerge, has led Beckett (1996, p137) to describe that which professionals do as "contextually specific, socially significant, hot action". Professionals act out their knowledge in courtrooms, at drawing boards and on sites when the heat is on (Beckett 1996, p136). It is this knowledge which students might acquire by immersion in the workplace.

It is little wonder that professions, like architecture, value workplace learning. However the schism that currently exists between the academy and the theatre of action, the workplace, requires attention if the dualisms of the theory-practice, thinking-crafting, formal learning-informal learning divides are to be addressed in student learning. Whilst these dualisms might be "experientially inseparable from the flux of life" (Beckett 1994, p279) the gap between them is responsible for some of the difficulty which students encounter as they move between work and study. When the academy premiates theory, thinking, and formal learning and the workplace reinforces practice, crafting and informal learning the need for a 'space' in which to develop the critical reflection deemed essential to best-practice in higher education (Brockbank and McGill 1998) becomes obvious. Such a space could act as a mediating zone between the entrenched competing interests of workplace and university and provide resources to support learning in the workplace.

Space to learn about the practice of architecture

In a continuum represented at one extreme by a bureaucratised, departmentalised office environment and at the other by a didactic, teacher-centred academic institution optimal places to learn about architecture exist in between. Workplaces that allow the social construction of problems and solutions and universities that develop student-centred, problem-based approaches to professional education best serve a model of cooperative education. These learning venues may coexist around professional education however they remain physically remote. The following diagram (Figure 1) describes a way that a mediating space might link two such places putting to rest some of the confounding dualisms which characterise the divide between workplace and university. The mediating virtual space proposed should allow students to reflect critically on their architectural education.

A typical workplace Virtual space for thearchitectural educationA typical academic setting
Depends on shared cognition

A cyberspace 'home' for a workplace learning programme.

A place with equal access for students, teachers-in-practice and academic teachers; a place for a learning community

Resources to support teaching and learning in the workplace
Depends on individual cognition
The meaning of problems is derived socially The meaning of problems is free of authentic social construction
Learning is incidental Learning is a desired product
The organisation learns as knowledge is used, transformed, reviewed and turned overThe individual learns a body of knowledge at a moment in time
Learning is through networks of peers, superiors and consultants outside the professionLearning is predominantly individual and centred on the teacher's goals for the subject
Actions and objects are contextualised in the immediacy of problemsSymbols are manipulated; problems are not real

Figure 1: A place to support workplace learning located
between a typical workplace and a typical academic setting

Promotion of this idea for a 'space' for workplace learning in architecture assumes a few changes to current methods. Firstly it assumes that curriculum can be adapted to allow students to undertake the type of reflection on work necessary to make sense of working in the profession of architecture. Secondly it assumes that academic staff will view teachers-in-practice as colleagues and will work with them to promote student learning. Thirdly it assumes that architects are willing to recast themselves as teachers-in-practice accepting that their role involves the facilitation of student learning. At its most basic level such a site will foster better communication between workplace and academy so that the rifts outlined earlier can be understood and addressed.

The Electronic Logbook

Whatever happens in the gap between university and the workplace the requirement to record student work experience will continue because both the university and the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA) have a duty to monitor this aspect of architectural education. Currently students and new graduates of architecture maintain a log of their experience to demonstrate the extent and nature of their practical experience; such experience is a prerequisite for registration as an architect. This data, mostly quantitative, is collected manually although a scheme is on trial whereby undergraduate students and their supervisors enter this log of experience through an Internet site. Basic differences between the old manual system and the new electronic system are outlined in the following table (Figure 2).

Manual system Electronic Logbook
Data is collected at six to twelve month intervals highlighting problems long after the possibility of solving them efficiently has passedData is collected monthly allowing problems to be identified and managed early
Data is collected, collated and calculated manually Data is collected, collated and calculated through an online database
"Anyone" in the employer's office signed off on student experience One supervisor must be nominated for each student
Anyone with a pen could use the system Only students working in offices with Internet access can use the system
Database was managed by Senior Lecturer with administrative support; usually this management assumed 20% of the SL's time Database is managed by HEWA4 using Microsoft Access (usually this takes 10% of the HEWA's time), HEWA reports to Senior Lecturer
Little scope or encouragement for qualitative evaluations; one comment over a twelve month period makes these evaluations over-generalised and of little use Greater scope for specific qualitative evaluation of students on monthly basis through the use of open fields in the database; cumulative commentary provided in the open fields provides history of student development
Students completed AACA logsheets manually and separately to university reports; university and AACA reports were separate but overlapping Students can download their data in a format suitable for submission to the AACA
Targets and performance against targets was largely invisible due to infrequency of reporting Targets and performance against targets is calculated and reported monthly so that students can readily assess their achievements

Figure 2: Comparison between manual and electronic
collection of student work experience data

The advantages of such a system seem obvious however unforseen bonuses have emerged during the trial. Most importantly participating workplaces have been forced to nominate an individual responsible for student employees. Because the supervisor must verify their student's reports monthly their invigilation of students has increased. In one participating office an associate has been given an official title and relief from other duties to oversee students and to write the company's policy on mentoring, forwarding it to the university for review and comment. This represents a substantial turnaround in the symbols and culture of workplace learning in architecture. Additionally a number of graduating students have requested their continuation in the system whilst they complete twelve months postgraduate work experience required for registration by the AACA. This means slightly increased workload for the administrators of the system however it allows the School to maintain contact with its alumni and presents opportunities for close and continuing contact with the architectural profession. The start-up cost of the system has been substantial ($10,000) however these ongoing benefits should not be underestimated, changing as they do the culture of cooperative education in architecture and promoting positive values in workplace learning.


The focus of this paper has been on workplace learning in architecture and on the creation and maintenance of resources to support a community of learners around this essential aspect of the architecture curriculum. The projects outlined are intended to close the gap between university and the world of work using web-based technology to ensure flexibility and adaptability in professional education. Other disciplines whose practice is socially constructed and culture-borne may find lessons in these projects for their own development.


  1. The development of these resources has been supported through funding from 1997 QUT Large Teaching & Learning Development Grant "PDP for Students". Russell Cheetham, Programming and Multimedia Coordinator, SMILE (Software, Multimedia and Internet Learning Environments) has contributed significantly to the development of these resources.


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Billett, Stephen. (1993). Learning is working when working is learning: A guide to learning in the workplace. Brisbane: Centre for Skill Formation Research and Development.

Billett, Stephen. (December 1994). Situated cognition: reconciling culture and cognition. Paper read at 'Re'forming post-compulsory education and training: Reconciliation and reconstruction, at Griffith University.

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Savage, S. (in progress). Helping architects helping architecture:Flexible delivery of resources for architects/teachers-in-practice. QUT Teaching Fellowship Project.

Schon, Donald. (1983). The reflective practitioner. London: Temple Smith.

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Please cite as: Savage, S. (2000). Using the web to create a community of learners in cooperative education: An example from Architecture. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/savage.html

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