ICT, transfer, and boundary crossing in VET – part 2

As I explained in a previous post, in our current research project my colleagues and I are interested in studying why and how vocational teachers understand and design for boundary crossing through the use of ICT-based artefacts. The research project is guided by the following two main research questions (RQs):

RQ1: In what ways and why do VET teachers use ICT-based artefacts as boundary objects to design for boundary crossing and continuity in and across different contexts?

RQ2: What didactic and pedagogic recommendations can support VET schools’ future work with establishing enhanced school-workplace interaction through the use of ICT?

A couple of important points should be made regarding these RQs. First of all, at the Metropolitan University College, we are obligated to conduct “applied research”, which means that besides generating new knowledge, the research must be directed towards “a specific practical aim or objective” (cf. OECD’s Frascati manual). This obligation influences both the identification and formulation of RQs, and as seen in RQ2, we have to conclude our research with concrete recommendations for practice, and ideally these recommendations should be “field validated” by practitioners through our research. In our case, we develop didactic and pedagogic materials (models, cases, exercises etc.) the in-service VET teachers can use when they participate in our educational programme*, and hopefully also when they’re back in their schools.

Another point has to do with our use of the term “didactic”. In a Scandinavian or German academic tradition, our a study would be situated within the field of Didactics. However, according to Hamilton (1999), in the Anglo-American mind, the term “didactic” may have very negative connotations implying a moralizing and heavily teacher driven approach to teaching and learning. Professor emeritus, Karsten Schnack from the Danish School of Education (Aarhus University) therefore recommends Danish scholars to avoid using the term when communicating in English (Schnack, 2000). While we don’t subscribe to a moralizing and teacher driven approach, we do recognize this aspect, and so in general when we present our research outside a Scandinavian context, we use the more neutral concept of “design for learning” (cf. Wenger, 1998).

To further guide our research, we have some additional sub-RQs as well:

  1. How and why is boundary crossing and continuity understood and practiced?
  2. How and why are boundary objects understood, designed and used as mediating artefacts?
  3. What types of ict-based artefacts can be identified as boundary objects, and what didactic and pedagogic pros and cons can be attributed to these?
  4. What types of ict-mediated boundary crossing can be identified, and what didactic and pedagogic pros and cons can be attributed to these?

As the reader will notice, we are using the concept “boundary crossing” and not “transfer” in our RQs, even though our project in Danish is entitled “ICT and transfer in VET”. According to Akkerman & Bakker (2012):

Boundary crossing is a concept that has been proposed as an enriched notion of transfer (Tuomi-Gröhn et al., 2003), but differs from transfer in various ways. First of all, whereas transfer is mostly about one-time and one-directional transitions, primarily affecting an individual who moves from one context of learning (e.g. school) to one of application (e.g. work), the notion of boundary crossing includes ongoing, two-sided actions and interactions between practices (Säljö, 2003). Second, whereas transfer emphasizes the need for similarities between practices, boundary crossing is about finding productive ways of relating intersecting dissimilar practices. (Akkerman & Bakker, 2012, s. 155 – my emphasis)

In a Danish VET practitioner context, however, the concept of boundary crossing is unknown and our research dean therefore recommended that we use the more traditional transfer concept. We have, nonetheless started to use boundary crossing and boundary objects in our teaching.

Further, as already stated in the above mentioned first post on our project, we are constantly challenged by the similarities and differences between the concepts.


*) In Denmark, VET teachers are obligated to attend in-service further education, and at the Metropolitan University College we offer such programmes.


Akkerman, S.F. & Bakker, A. (2012). Crossing boundaries between school and work during apprenticeship. Vocations and Learning. 5:153-173

Hamilton, D. (1999). The Pedagogic Paradox (or Why No Didactics in England?). Pedagogy, Culture & Society. Vol. 7, No. 1. pp. 135-152.

Schnack, K. (2000). Er didaktik og curriculum det samme? Danmarks Lærerhøjskole.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

ICT, transfer, and boundary crossing in VET – part 1

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.

A change in focus ⇒ Vocational Education and Training

changeAs mentioned in my last blog post – years ago – I’ve been working at the Metropolitan University College since the summer of 2013. Since then, I’ve blogged in Danish only, but I’ve missed this blog and so I have decided to make a change in focus. However, it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost interest in Second Life (SL) or virtual worlds in general – they are still my favourite virtual learning environments .. by far! :-) I will continue to blog about SL occasionally, but for the past three years, I’ve been working, researching, and teaching with other technologies and media, so it makes sense to broaden my focus here.

Also my research focus has changed, meaning that I’m currently leader of a research project (2015-2017) that studies in-service vocational teachers’ use of ICT as boundary objects as a means to facilitate better connection and continuity in and between school and apprenticeship periods in the Danish dual vocational system.

So in summing up, this is just a brief post to let my readers know that change is about to happen, and I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts, ideas, and research regarding vocational education and training (VET) combined with the use of different types of ICT in future posts.