In May 2015, colleagues from the Metropolitan University College and I started a research project on ICT, transfer, and boundary crossing in the Danish VET system. In a short series of blog posts I will elaborate on different aspects of the research project to set the scene. The following text is slightly revised from a paper we wrote for the Designs for Learning conference in Copenhagen, 2016 (Riis et al., 2016).
In the Danish dual VET system, students oscillate between school and workplace periods throughout their education. Making sense and use of learning in and from different contexts and experiencing continuity between school and work has long been considered a major pedagogic-didactic challenge in Danish VET research resulting in a continuous focus on the transfer phenomenon (Aarkrog, 2010). Based on a pre-study of vocational teachers’ use of ICT conducted in 2014 (Riis, Bergstedt, Rasmussen, unpublished), we noticed how the teachers attributed a transfer (and sometimes boundary crossing) potential to the use of ICT in teaching and learning processes across different contexts, leading to our current research project. The main research question investigates why and how vocational teachers understand and design for boundary crossing through the use of ICT-based artefacts.
Transfer and boundary crossing
Both in research (Lobato, 2006; Engle, 2012) and among practitioners transfer is a contested concept. In on research project, we adopt Engeström and colleagues’ concepts of vertical and horizontal learning, polycontextuality, and boundary crossing (Engeström, Engeström & Kärkkäinen, 1995; Tuomi-Gröhn, Engeström & Young, 2003), as a way of challenging the traditional notion of transfer understood mainly as a one-time and one-directional transition between a context of acquisition and that of application. As stated by Engeström et al. (ibid.), learning can be conceptualized as both a vertical and a horizontal process. In the former, focus is on learning in a single social system (e.g. in a school) often times based on a narrow, hierarchical view of knowledge and expertise. Conversely, in the latter perspective, learning is based on a broader, multidimensional view of knowledge and expertise and focus is on transitions or crossings in and between multiple social systems (e.g. in and between school and workplace). A horizontal view on learning and transfer understood as boundary crossing, seeks to find productive ways of relating intersecting dissimilar practices (Akkerman & Bakker, 2012), potentially accommodating the inherent contradictions of a dual education system.
According to Akkerman & Bakker “(…) a boundary can be seen as a sociocultural difference leading to discontinuity in action or interaction.” (2011, p. 133), and boundary crossing generally refers to an individual’s transitions and interactions across different contexts. Although discontinuity may be perceived negatively at a glance, in the third generation of CHAT, boundaries understood as contradictions in and between elements and systems, are seen as carrying potential for learning, change, and development. In any activity system, activity is object-oriented, and artefacts (signs or tools) are attributed mediating properties. Whether a mediating artefact functions as a boundary object depends on the purpose and use. In order to function as a boundary object, the artefact needs to inhabit and bridge intersecting practices (Star, 2010), which is not necessarily the case for all mediating signs and tools.
The differences and similarities between the concepts of transfer and boundary crossing are constantly challenging us, so this is something I’ll return to on several occasions.
Akkerman, S.F. & Bakker, A. (2012). Crossing boundaries between school and work during apprenticeship. Vocations and Learning. 5:153-173
Akkerman, S.F. & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research. June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 132-169
Engle, R.A. (2012). The resurgence of research into transfer: an introduction to the final articles of the transfer stand. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21:3, 347-352.
Engeström, Y., Engeström, R. & Kärkkäinen, M. (1995). Polycontextuality and boundary crossing in expert cognition: Learning and problem solving in complex work activities. Learning and Instruction, Vol. 5. pp. 219-336.
Lobato, J. (2006). Alternative perspectives on the transfer of learning. History, issues, and challenges for future research. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), 431-449.
Riis, M., Bergstedt, P., Jørgensen, C.B., Koch, H.H. & Rasmussen, C.L. (2016). Challenges in designing for horizontal learning – in the Danish VET system. Short paper accepted for Designs for Learning conference, May 18.-20., 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark at Aalborg University, http://www.designsforlearning2016.aau.dk/
Riis, M., Bergstedt, P. & Rasmussen, C.L. (unpublished). Undervisningsdifferentiering og it i de erhvervsrettede uddannelser – en eksploartiv forundersøgelse. Intern rapport udarbejdet 2014.
Star, S.L. (2010), This is not a boundary object; Reflections on the origin of the concept. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 25(5), 601-617.
Tuomi-Gröhn, T. Engeström, Y., & Young, M. (2003). From transfer to boundary crossing between school and work as a tool for developing vocational education: An introduction. In T. Tuomi-Gröhn & Y. Engeström (Eds.), Between school and work: New perspectives on transfer and boundary-crossing pp. 1–18. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Pergamon.
Aarkrog, V. (2010). Erhvervsuddannelsesforskningen i Danmark. In Størner, T. & Hansen, J.A. (red.) Erhvervspædagogik – mål, temaer og vilkår i eud’s verden. s. 73-82. Erhvervsskolernes Forlag.