A little bit more refined, but any comments are still gratefully received.

Learning what isn’t yet known: the contribution of students and apprentices to innovation in the workplace

Aims and objectives

Aim: To investigate how Coventry University students involved in a variety of models of degree delivery (apprenticeships, sponsored degrees, Masters and PhD studentships) add value to innovation and the generation of new knowledge in work placement situations


  1. Use the expansive learning theory model to analyse how far students add value to the innovation and the generation of new knowledge in particular work placement situations (the ‘case studies’)
  1. Use interviews, observation and discourse analysis to determine how the context of the case studies is contributing to the construction of innovation, and how it facilitates Coventry University learners and their professional colleagues to collectively create new ways of working and products
  1. Focus on particular elements of expansive learning theory, particularly the individual/collective dialectic, the students’ roles as ‘boundary-crossers’ between learning and work, and the affordances available to students and their co-workers, and how these elements help to create the conditions for innovation
  1. Consider the relevance of the findings of the study to the possibilities for further research in HEI degree apprenticeship and sponsored MSc and PhD situations, and the possibilities of the wider application of the model across Coventry University.

I propose to use a range of case studies to determine the value students as trainee workers contribute within a professional environment, and how they influence practice in the workplace during their involvement in new models of HE delivery. There are a number of potential case study sites in Coventry University that I am currently investigating: these include areas where students (at Undergraduate, Masters or PhD level) are working in placement situations which involve them directly interacting on the shopfloor alongside workers employed by the placement company. Possibilities being investigated include: the PhD student placement initiative in partnership with Haribo-Mira; new degree apprenticeships being developed by CUC Strategic Partnerships; other PhD studentship models operating in the engineering and transport departments.  Negotiations with Coventry University staff, and with the company or companies involved will form a substantial part of the early work once the proposal is approved.

Engineering is an under-researched topic in activity theory, and of particular interest for me. Here market forces already drive rapid innovation, technological development and new products, and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  As a specialist area of expertise for Coventry University, this is where the case studies will be based.  The assumption is that students working alongside skilled professionals and also partnering in the development of innovation, add their own insight into the ‘disruption’ of existing practices which generate problem-solving ideas leading to change and innovation.

Relevance to Professional or Academic Field

There is much anecdotal evidence for the value work placements add to a students’ learning experience.  The proposed Educational Research Centre will be undertaking work in this area (eg, the Evaluation of Professional Experience Element of Extended Masters Provision in HLS) as well as looking at issues around equity of attainment.  The introduction of graduate apprenticeships will considerably increase the number of students studying at Coventry University whilst spending a substantial amount of time on work placement in businesses and industry, in line with the Coventry University Corporate Plan commitment to ‘prepare students to make significant contributions to their professions’.  This PhD will examine the contribution students bring to the company’s own innovation and research in order to determine the value which the student presence brings, and how and in what circumstances student input can directly assist with the development of new products or new ways of working.

Highlighting the direct benefits of this model of HE delivery will be an important factor in persuading more companies to engage in sponsored training and higher-level apprenticeships and PhD sponsorship in partnership with Coventry University.  The study should contribute directly to evidencing our Corporate Plan commitment to providing ‘embedded employability’, as well as benefiting the student experience by spotlighting their role as ‘co-contributors in the creation of shared knowledge and understanding’.

I intend to use expansive learning theory, which was developed by Yrjö Engeström as part of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) (Engeström, 2001 and 2015: Sannino et al, 2016) as the theoretical underpinning for analysing innovation. Engeström has created a branch of hybrid action research called Developmental Work Research (DWR) which centres on the Change Laboratory model (Engeström, 2001). Citations of articles on CHAT, DWR and Change Laboratories have increased exponentially in the last few years, indicating the vibrant interest in this area of research.  Many DWR projects are centred around the Centre for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki (http://www.helsinki.fi/cradle), with related research in the UK mainly undertaken at the Oxford Centre for Sociocultural and Activity Theory Research (OSAT) where research largely focuses on CHAT approaches in schools.  Coventry would be one of the first UK universities to engage directly in this area.

Expansive learning theory is distinct in attempting to describe how things which are not yet known (new ideas or ways or working) are learned.  At the heart of the theory is the expansive learning cycle (see below) in which contradictions or dialectics in workplaces drive teams to critically evaluate the objective of their own practice, recognize limitations in that practice, and collectively devise new solutions.  These can then be tried out and modified as required, leading to permanent changes in work practices, or new and innovative products, which themselves help to redefine the ‘object’ of the work.

In the theory, individuals or practices which cross boundaries in traditional work practices are seen to create their own dialectics and drivers for change. The theory encourages a deep examination of history and current context, in order to appreciate the affordances and agency available to individuals and teams which can either help or hinder the cycle of expansive learning.  The cycle is characterized by its founder, Yrjö Engeström, as a method of ascending from the ‘abstract to the concrete.’  It has been criticized as a performative tool due to its practical application.  However, consideration of power and politics in the workplace remains at the heart of the theory, and, alongside a desire to describe how people learn things ‘which are not yet known’, gives the theory the potential to be a good descriptor of how change happens in workplaces.  As an academic theory, it also mirrors many employee development models derived from industry, and provides a theoretical and pedagogic underpinning for innovation and creativity in businesses.

DWR has been tested in a range of different industries, but not so far in situations such as in my potential case studies where the lines between work and learning have been deliberately blurred, and where learners work alongside skilled practitioners. The attractions of the CHAT approach include the deep analysis of context, the primacy given to social interactions, consideration of the affordances available to actors, in this case students working with qualified and experienced staff, and the analysis of the effects of power and politics in the workplace (Lee 2011).   These elements are summed up in interactions in an activity theory triangle.

In developing this proposal and determining the precise focus, I have been in contact with Professor Engeström, who has kindly agreed to work with my supervision team to provide guidance and comments on emerging work.  He is keen to see how the theory can be expanded beyond the context of professionals in the workplace to include students.  Parallel models of innovation have been produced in many industries, and it will be interesting to see if there is potential for any interface between expansive learning theory and the company learning ‘culture’ in the chosen workplace(s).  The involvement of the founder of expansive learning theory and the Research Centre he has built up will involve Coventry University in a new academic community of practice, and mean that they are one of the first UK universities to engage with Developmental Work Research.  Professor Harry Daniels of OSAT has also expressed interest in the project, and invited me to join with research community events on activity theory held in Oxford in the course of the study. I would also like to share preliminary findings with researchers at CRADLE, the specialist research centre in the University of Helsinki and OSAT, in order to add an element of peer debriefing with neutral parties (Lee and Roth, 2007) to the research.

Workplace learning has its own established pedagogy and research. However, the case study models will differ from a standard ‘apprenticeship’ model which Lave and Wenger (1991) would characterise as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in their context and praxis, and highlights the limitations of pedagogic models which are not able to cover ‘learning what is not yet there’ (Engeström and Glaveanu, 2012) in that the focus of the research is not what the students are learning but how they are contributing to a shared creative innovation. Some of the literature around co-creation, the social justice agenda and social construction of knowledge at work (eg, Avis, 2017; Evans, 2017) will be relevant to the study, and form part of the description of the context of each potential case study.

The perceived contribution to knowledge will be:

  • Analytical evidence on the benefits of learning in context for students, and their involvement in the generation of innovation and change in real-time workplace situations which should have a positive impact on growth targets and retention in placement-based courses
  • Production of an in-depth qualitative evaluations of major Coventry University partnership initiatives in the context of activity theory, adding to the evidence base on the benefits of placement activities and problem-based learning approaches such as Flipped, and providing a model which could be used more widely across Coventry University in line with Corporate Plan commitments
  • Involvement of Coventry University, the Disruptive Media Learning Lab and the proposed Education Research Centre, in the development of an international community of practice centred on cutting-edge methodological theory (CHAT/DWR)
  • Analysis of the continuous professional development policy in place in the case studies, and their ‘fit’ with HE teaching structures, to strengthen the case for the wider involvement of new and different methods of delivery of HE in industry
  • Comparison of theories developed in academia (DWR and expansive learning theory) and those which have evolved independently in industry
  • Work which is relevant to academia, to Coventry University’s Corporate Plan, the work of the University Industrial Innovation Network (UIIN), and practically, in the fields of organisational development and industrial relations, to specialist engineering businesses, and the development of Coventry University’s and other university’s offer to both students and employers.

Engestrom’s theory gives primacy to the construction of new knowledge by participants (‘actors’) in problem-based contexts. In the case studies, students work with qualified and experienced staff, as well as in groups of their peers. CHAT, with its emphasis on ‘person-in-context transactions’ (Roth and Lee, 2009), suggests that the presence of students within the workplaces will change and transform the experience of learning in that context for all involved. Students may work in areas where production is heavily regulated, and in places where their involvement is carefully engineered to ensure that lean production values are not compromised by the participation of less experienced workers. However, in some areas, there will be opportunities for learners to contribute ideas to solve problems. As the students also undertake individual study as part of their studies, there is also an element of the individual/collective dialectic which forms an important part of CHAT (Lee and Roth, 2007), and provides additional interest for this study.


Avis, J. (2017) “”It’s all about work”: new times, post-Fordism and vocational pedagogy’ in Vocationalism in Further and Higher Education: Policy, Programmes and Pedagogy ed. by Loo, S. and Jameson, J. Abingdon, Routledge

Engeström, Y. (2001) ‘Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization’. Journal of Education and Work 14 (1), 133-156

Engeström, Y. (2015) Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Engeström, Y. and Glaveanu, V. (2012) ‘On Third Generation Activity Theory: Interview With Yrjö

Engeström’. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 2012, 8, 4, 515-518

Evans, K. (2017) ‘Higher vocational learning and knowledgeable practice: the newly qualified practitioner at work’ in Vocationalism in Further and Higher Education: Policy, Programmes and Pedagogy ed. by Loo, S. and Jameson, J. Abingdon: Routledge

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, Y-J. (2011) ‘More than just story-telling: cultural-historical activity theory as an under-utilized methodology for educational change research’. Journal of Curriculum Studies 43 (3), 403-424

Lee, Y-J. & Roth, W-M. (2007) ‘The individual|collective dialectic in the learning organization’. The Learning Organization 14 (2), 92 – 107

Roth, W-M. & Lee, Y-J. (2009) ‘Cultural–historical activity theory and pedagogy: an introduction’. Pedagogies: An International Journal 5 (1), 1-5

Sannino, A., Engeström, Y. and Lahikainen, J. (2016) ‘The dialectics of authoring expansive learning: tracing the long tail of a Change Laboratory’. Journal of Workplace Learning 28 (4), 245 – 262

Research Approach or Methodology

 A descriptive, single-case case study would be the preferred methodology to allow deep study of the complex context, interactions and outcomes in a particular situation (Yin, 2003).  This should result in an instrumental case study (Stake, 1995) which will provide insight into the ‘fit’ of expansive learning in a model where professionals and students work side-by-side.  However, the potential for more than one area to be looked at in the course of the study may create opportunities for comparison of different approaches, and this is perceived to add extra value to the study.

The case study or case studies will fall between two of the epistemologies defined by Simons (2009), incorporating both interpretivist and constructivist elements. I will be emphasizing the importance of interpretation and context in trying to convey the multiple lived experiences of the participants (students, workers and managers), as well as the contradictory dialectics which drive innovation in the workplaces themselves, and the consideration of agency, empowerment and affordances within.

Ethical approval will be sought from Coventry University Ethics.

Stage one

Documentary analysis of the written company policies and approaches to training and Coventry University course programme documentation related to the placement initiatives will be conducted to add more contextual background to each case study and to inform questions used in the data collection process

Stage two

Empirical data collection

> Focus groups, whereby groups of project participants will be invited to talk about their experiences in the case study workplace over the period of their course

> Semi-structured in-depth interviews with the particular students involved about their experiences and awareness of their contribution to innovation

> In-depth interviews with staff and company employees involved in the Coventry University/industry initiative, the Coventry University course director, staff and management working on the Coventry University initiative and more senior company executives with strategic responsibilities for staff development and training policies, examining their views on students’ contribution to innovation and creativity.

Interview and focus group data will be recorded with the participants’ consent and transcribed.

Thematic analysis will be used to explore the words and language used by participants in interviews and focus groups, in line with expansive learning theory’s interest in the use of discursive commentary (see eg. Engeström, 2001).

Researcher stance including reflexivity: my personal observation of the workplace environment should also be declared as part of the analysis in order to acknowledge my own presence as a social agent on the periphery of the learning taking place.

Provide detail of data source and any specialist resources or facilities you may require:

  • Digital recorder
  • Access to transcription services
  • Use of SKYPE for interview purposes or other interactive technology to link with researchers in Finland
  • Refworks

Explicit Outcomes

 The wide scope of the analysis would allow for conference presentations and publications across a number of areas eg, disruptive learning, educational/pedagogic research, activity theory, organisational development, and specialist industry publications in the case study area of business (engineering), as well as generating potential national and local press interest.  A series of high-quality peer-reviewed research papers will be developed during the course of the study.

As well as academic and industry interest, I believe there is also potential for this work to be applicable to all HEIs as they extend their work with industry partnerships, and for those looking to support enhanced learning in the workplace.  There should be benefits too for the students involved, as they will be encouraged to look at their own contribution to the workplace through a different lens, and to be more aware of how their presence adds value and changes the dynamic of the work situation.  The aim of the interviews is to discuss specific incidents where the contribution of students has helped to change, develop or create new work practice or products. The students will themselves have technical competencies and ideas they wish to explore in the workplace. This study does not aim to overlap with those agendas, but to consider the learning taking place in the unit and make a statement about how the placements impact on innovation. In this sense, the final PhD should also function as an evaluation of the project(s), looked at through the lens of a new and dynamic theory applied in a fast-moving and technologically-rich environment.

For Coventry University, currently looking to enhance teaching and learning with innovative methods of delivery such as the flipped approach, this is an opportunity to consider at first-hand what factors will be critical in servicing the increasing numbers of courses in which a proportion of the curriculum involves problem-based scenarios akin to those found in the working environment. Collective and co-created learning is also an area in which technology-enhanced approaches to the curriculum are of interest to the DMLL, and student attainment and enhanced student satisfaction of direct interest to the nascent Educational Research Centre.

For the workplace and Coventry University, the benefits include a formal project evaluation of the initiatives, analysis of the critical pedagogic success factors necessary to replicate the approaches in other areas, and a set of high-quality articles and conference inputs.

Director of Studies

Dr Katherine Wimpenny, with assistance from the Course Director of the case study area(s), and advice from Professor Yrjö Engeström from the University of Helsinki

Repairing the railroad painting

Konstantin Savitsky, Repairing the Railroad, 1874