The hybrid space of workplace learning

We find workplace learning (WPL) endlessly fascinating, because it occurs in a complex learning environment that bridges educational, professional and economic spaces. Unlike the learning that occurs in physical or virtual spaces of universities, learning in the workplace has a strong focus for students on embodied practice-based learning and their socialisation into their future work roles. WPL is often a mandatory component in professional university courses because, for one, not everything can be learnt from textbooks or online. Just to mention a few, WPL exposes students to the socio-cultural diversity of colleagues, economic and delivering-on-time imperatives, workspace constraints and dysfunctions, workplace cultures, geographical realities, etc. Unlike in simulated practice situations – sometimes offered as an alternative to or preparation for WPL – students on placement cannot escape from the material and physical workplace.

Social media vector designed by Freepik
Social media vector designed by Freepik

In today’s digital age of ubiquitous learning and increased use of mobile technology in professional practices (to a varying degree, for example, it is core in IT professions but other professions use it as non-core yet essential tool to assist with communicating, collaborating, assessing, etc.), we realise that embodied practice-based learning is not enough. Students also need to develop high digital literacy skills. This can start by helping students become confident digital learners. Combining WPL and mobile learning creates a hybrid learning space that has the potential to give students a great advantage in preparing them for future professional practice.

With WPL, the workplace becomes a space where students can make sense of and apply what they have learnt at university. It is also a space that brings together students and practitioners, educational and socio-economical interests, formal-structured and situated-agentic learning, etc. Embedding mobile learning in WPL, extends and consolidates the learning by helping students stay connected with their academics and workplace educators, by providing them with access to course material and professional information where and when needed, by enabling them to record and capture practice for feedback, assessment and/or further reflection, etc. In that context, WPL becomes a hybrid space where virtual and physical, formal and situated, practice-based and theoretical, university and industry learning spaces blend. It becomes the in-between space, as framed by Greenwood and Wilson (2006, 11):

“The notion of ‘hybridity’ then, examines the condition of being ‘in-between’ several different sources of knowledge. Within this construct, discourse can be both productive and constraining in terms of social and cultural practice and the development of identity. Hybridity applies to the integration of competing knowledges and discourses; to the reading and writing of texts, and to individual and social spaces, contexts, and relationships. It does not imply the successful unproblematic production of ‘new’ knowledge or the production of harmonious, uncontested relationships. In this sense we use the term as shorthand to describe ‘the opportunities and contestations that come into being when different [professional] cultures meet and interact’”.

Also, in WPL students transition from learner to pre-accredited professional, practitioners who supervise students in their workplace cross over from employee to mentor and sometimes even assessor, and academics alter between teacher and (physically removed) facilitator of professional learning. In that sense, WPL is a hybrid space where the traditional sense of belonging to a community, such as student, practitioner or academic, is fluid and in motion.

Though WPL conceptualised as this hybrid space offers advantages, it is also problematic. One of the issues is that all of these WPL stakeholder groups meet in this space with none claiming control of this complex learning environment. Another issue is that these transitionary learning experiences are difficult to plan, because of the lack of control over and degree of unpredictability in workplace environments and learning experiences/outcomes. Furthermore, though mobile devices are increasingly popular for personal use, their use in professional settings has not widely been normalised.

We agree with Zitter and Hoeve ( 2012, 22) who conclude that “Hybrid learning environments should intentionally be planned and designed in such a way that each side of the dimension can gradually and seamlessly convert into the other side.” I suggest that integrating mobile learning in WPL might be one way of helping with this conversion and ensuring greater learning experiences for students.

This hybrid space offers opportunities to integrate these already blurred boundaries of work and learning and much more as discussed above, but it also opens up many questions that are at the heart of our research project, ‘Enhancing Workplace Learning through Mobile Technology’:

  • How can the digital learning environment enrich the workplace learning environment?
  • How are students using mobile digital devices to learn in this hybrid space?
  • How can the use of mobile digital devices in this hybrid space improve supervision practices of practitioners who supervise students in their workplace?
  • How can academics use mobile technology in this hybrid space to connect with students and practitioners?
  • What happens in this hybrid learning space?

We are interested in hearing about how you help students integrate learning from the physical and digital learning environments in workplaces.


Greenwood, J. and Wilson, A.M. (2006). Te Mauri Pakeaka: A Journey in to the Third Space. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Zitter, I. and Hoeve, A. (2012). Hybrid Learning Environments: Merging Learning and Work Processes to Facilitate Knowledge Integration and Transitions. OECD Education Working Papers, No. 81, OECD Publishing.